Future Reflections        Convention Report 2012

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The Democratization of Braille

by Kevin Carey

Kevin CareyIntroduction by Dr. Marc Maurer: I would like to present to you the person who chairs the Royal National Institute of Blind People, coming to us from London in the United Kingdom. We've had conversations in the past year that suggest tremendous opportunities for international cooperation among entities dealing with blindness. Here is Kevin Carey.

Thank you for receiving me here today. I am deeply conscious of the honor, and I hope that you will not mind the frankness of your guest.

I feel that Braille is on the verge of a global catastrophe as great as that which the music industry faced in the late 1990s, as great as that which now faces books, magazines, and newspapers. If we don't do something radical to save it, we, the baby boomers, will be the last generation to take Braille seriously. I think there are five reasons for this crisis. The reasons are not all bad things; they're just the way it is.

Reasons for the Crisis

The first reason for the crisis is the emergence of a huge amount of audio material, originally on tapes and CDs. Now there is an increase in spoken-word broadcasting of high quality, particularly on the Internet. The second reason is the decrease in the number of congenitally blind children with no other disabilities. Congenitally blind children were once the bedrock of Braille reading.

The third reason is the one on which I'm going to spend the most time--that is, the mystification and professionalization of Braille teaching and the concentration on coding issues. The fourth is the exorbitant cost of Braille production and consumption, and the fifth is the pressure on public-sector and philanthropic budgets.

If you look at these factors, I think the audio issue is relatively simple. We all like and appreciate audio material, but it is a great mistake to think that audio is a proper educational substitute for learning Braille. [Applause] We in our culture have a very special commitment to learning our tactile medium in the same way that seeing people learn print. With Braille we can make sense of the book, particularly the novel, as the author talks to us, without an intermediary. And what's more, Braille is pretty handy if we want to learn to spell.

In most developed countries, the number of blind children with no additional disabilities is falling, while the number of blind children with additional disabilities is on the rise. For the past hundred and twenty years, congenitally blind children have been the life force behind Braille, and there's much less of that force now.

The third reason for the Braille crisis is the biggest one. I use the term mystification because of a large and complex problem area. I see it in terms of four elements: contracted Braille, single signs with multiple meanings, complex rules, and reversibility problems. These factors have meant that the major focus of Braille advocates and Braille authorities, teachers, and publishers has been on rather arcane coding issues. Instead they might have concentrated energies on the simplification of coding and layout, as well as promotion and marketing. In recent months I have received inquiries from people in some of the poorest countries in the world, asking if they should set up a Braille authority, while most of their blind kids don't have access to Braille at all. This orientation shows that the gateway to learning Braille has been operated by professionals instead of Braille being an easily accessible, mass-market product.

Finally, nobody who contemplates the budgetary tribulations of California or ponders South Korea's decision to phase out all paper books from its education system by 2015, can doubt that the cost of Braille is going to put a lot of pressure on expenditure.

Braille for the People

My broad conceptual proposal for saving Braille is to democratize it. Take Braille out of the hands of the professionals, and put it into the hands of the people. [Applause] To this end, I have six proposals. Default Braille to teaching uncontracted Braille, provide code choices, promote multimodal self-teaching, create a marketing realm for products, promote Braille embossing, and slash the cost of refreshable Braille.

I think that people like me who promote simplification have been misunderstood. Two key words in the proposals have got to be taken very seriously. They are default and choice. I'll say as strongly and clearly as I can that I'm not proposing to abolish contracted Braille or to prevent anybody who wants to learn and use it from being taught it and having access to texts in it. I am saying that educators should not automatically swallow huge quantities of curriculum time insisting that blind children learn contracted Braille, but should consider it in the context of all the child's competing needs. From my world travels, I suspect that the promotion of contracted Braille depends upon the teacher's love for it rather than the need of the student. Current information technology allows us to give people the choice between contracted and uncontracted Braille. I simply propose uncontracted Braille because it's easier for some people who are struggling with it now, and because I have a great belief in the people out there who want to learn Braille but find it too daunting and difficult.

Regarding code choice, I want to congratulate you in the NFB on your courageous decision yesterday to go with Unified English Braille for the literary code. I came into contact with this controversy with the first proposal in 1989. A quarter of a century is long enough! For literary Braille we want all the advantages that will come with a global market. [For more about the Unified Braille Code controversy, see Robertson elsewhere in this issue.]

Frankly, on both sides of the Atlantic, we've made fools of ourselves over these issues. We've made the mistake that the visually impaired have made down the ages--the same mistake we made over residential education versus mainstreaming, sheltered versus open employment, the merits of Braille versus large print for partially sighted students. The mistake is for one side to think that it has to have a total victory over the other side, until we fight ourselves to a standstill. You did a fantastic job yesterday in breaking that deadlock.

How can it be that in the United Kingdom and the United States, with our belief in markets and choice, we haven't allowed the market to show us a cost and a preference regarding Braille? The hand-to-hand fighting is over, and it's time to move on. This makes me wonder what Braille authorities are for. I think there are things they can do that organizations of and for blind people can't do, such as answering coding questions quickly.

I believe that the real problem of Braille is something in its history. Often Braille has been seen as an elite subject. Braille has been produced at high cost in publishing houses for a small number of people. Because of the contractions, Braille has been difficult to learn. We need to make learning Braille a much simpler and more friendly proposition.

Learning Braille

Let me start with how you learn Braille. I'll begin by telling two stories. In a small school for blind children in the shadow of the Himalayas, I saw blind children working like monks from the Middle Ages. They were copying old Braille texts with stylus and slate, replicating previous mistakes and adding new ones. At the other end of the spectrum, not very long ago I went to one of the most advanced centers for rehabilitation training in the world. Newly partially sighted people were working in one room with screens and Braille displays and synthetic speech. They were doing very nicely. The newly totally blind Braille readers were in a room on their own. They had a couple of bits of paper as if it were a punishment. That can't be!

We need to get away from the idea that Braille is difficult to learn and that it is supplied by a cartel of special instructors. We must stop viewing it as expensive, narrow in its product range, and insensitive to consumer preference. We must refuse to see it as a mark of failure, as it was seen in the case I just described.

Instead of Braille being produced in printing houses, it is quite possible now for some of us to emboss it at home. Home embossing might mean that we need subsidies on Braille paper and Braille printers, rather than the subsidy being eaten up by the Braille printing houses. If I can use a scanner and produce a whole novel in my house in a day, what are the Braille printing houses doing? [Applause]

Probably the biggest obstacle for Braille is the criminal price of refreshable Braille displays. [Applause] This subject needs to be tackled on a global basis. We need an absolute technology breakthrough. I'm pleased to say that your president, Dr. Maurer, and I are of one mind. The NFB and the Library of Congress in the United States and the Royal National Institute of Blind People in England are leading a global initiative to bust the market open so that the cost of Braille displays comes down by at least 75 percent. [Applause] We won't stop until we've done it!

Facing the Future

For too long, Braille has been the prisoner of a congenitally blind, highly educated elite. If it stays that way, it will die with us. If we are as passionate about its future as we are about its present and past, we have a duty to do for Braille what the digital recording did for music and what the word processor did for publishing. The mistake of the music and publishing industries was to see the future in terms of the past. The industries will recover only when they see the new situation as an opportunity and not as a threat. We should turn our tradition on its head and make Braille a consumer-focused entity, easy to learn, flexibly available, and responsive to market forces.

We've spent far too long burying our heads in our code books, oblivious to a changing world that will not wait for us. In a manner that is repeated over and over again in history, we've adopted the classic defensive posture of the besieged, arguing over ever more arcane points as the enemy's grip tightens.

It is time to break out! It is time to abandon old quarrels and let the citizen and the consumer decide. It's time to abandon old prejudices, and to read and respect research. It's time to recognize the new technologies for Braille production. It's time to plan for an era when public expenditures will decrease, and when philanthropy might falter. Above all, it's time to think of ourselves not as the custodians of a precious past, but as the advocates for an exciting future. We blind people on both sides of the Atlantic need to take Braille out of the hands of the professionals and into our own hands. We want to have the big say on the Braille authorities. We want to be able to simplify Braille and to make it cheap. If Braille isn't ours, it's nobody's.

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