On the State of the Art and the Emerging Cultural Innovation

By Mark Riccobono

Mr. Mark Riccobono is the Executive Director of the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute. As a keynote speaker at Research in the Rockies: Research Summit on Braille Reading and Writing (June 10 to June 12, 2010, in Denver, Colorado) he presented the "State of the Art and the Emerging Cultural Innovation." While reviewing the state of the art, Mr. Riccobono presented the current state as a dynamic challenge to all members of the community. He encouraged the view that while the state of the art may be our current best, it is, by definition, in flux and that we must do better in the future.

The state of the art is the highest level of development achieved at a particular time. The state of the art at any moment is not a destination but rather a point from which to imagine new possibilities, pursue new innovations, and, ultimately, establish a new state of the art. While we will be examining the state of the art during the next two days, we also need to exchange ideas about how to innovate the next state. In fact, the success of this conference will not be in how well we present the current, but rather in how well we create a new path of investigation for the future.

One of the most significant contributions that researchers provide is the pattern of thought that the state of the art is dynamic and temporary rather than a stagnant end point. We are not content with what we have done to date; we are striving to improve the future. However, this brings a degree of friction to the innovation process, and that friction can be quite intense. The state of the art has the value of being the highest point of current development. That value is too often used to justify maintaining the status quo and preventing dialogue with those who seek to go farther.This has been the case with Braille over the past two decades as significant dissatisfaction with the current benchmark has been presented in discussions, in academia, and in the literature. Dissatisfaction need not be viewed as criticism—although sometimes it is—it can also be viewed as an important part of the creative process which leads ultimately to innovation and a new position. Braille itself was an innovation that advanced the state of the art only after a considerable period of conflict—remember that Louis Braille did not get to see the day that his own country adopted his code. We all should be familiar with the long series of conflicts that have marked advancements in the Braille state of the art since it was first introduced in the United States in 1869. With Louis Braille as our example, whether researchers, advocates, inventors, or simply eternal optimists who believe more is possible, it is clear that we need a broad dialogue and plan of action in order to advance the Braille state of the art.

My own experience with Braille demonstrates the artificial limits holding us back today. I was educated in the public schools during the 1980s and 1990s. When I came to kindergarten, everyone knew I had glaucoma and that significant vision loss was likely. When I got to third grade large print books were necessary. I worked with what I had available. By fifth grade I was reading large print books with magnification—using a complex set of tools which I innovated myself because the teachers provided me with no meaningful means for reading. I struggled through middle school, and had I not been persistent, somewhat on the ball, and a little lucky, I would have given up. High school was the first time I ever saw other kids using Braille. At that time, I heard debate about whether or not teachers should have to demonstrate competency in Braille, and often teachers I highly respected discussed their objections to a Braille competency standard in front of me. In my senior year they told me they could teach me Braille if I "wanted to learn it." Why would I want to? No one ever told me Braille would change my life, would empower me, would broaden my horizons. In fact, many times I got a subtle message that I should be happy that I could get by without it. I struggled through college using clumsy techniques and over-relying on an ineffective visual system. It wasn’t until I became friends with a number of Braille readers that I learned—through their example and their straightforward discussions—that Braille could be a tool leading me to bigger and better horizons. For me, it has been a journey that was hard, and I am lucky to have hung in there long enough to find the other side. What about all of those who have given up?

A month ago, my wife Melissa, who also happens to be blind, and I were blessed with our second child, Oriana Kay Riccobono. When we were in the hospital I went to check on Oriana, who had been getting the routine checkup from the resident pediatrician. The woman told me that she thought we should follow up with a pediatric ophthalmologist because Oriana’s eyes did not respond as expected. In that moment, the potential for vision loss did not worry me. What scared me more than anything was that my daughter might face the same agonizing struggle for literacy that I did. The realization hit that the state of the art in literacy for the blind today is not much better than it was when I was in school and that we only have a few years to innovate something new.

As a member of the National Federation of the Blind, I know well the significant role that an organization can play in creating innovation. The Federation was established seventy years ago, and it has grown in scope and become more tightly constructed. An unwavering core value of the Federation has always been to look at the state of the art and determine a path to the next highest point. Six years ago, we established a research and training institute—the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute—in order to lead innovation and create new collaborations to help facilitate those advancements. For us, this Research in the Rockies Conference focused on the current and emerging state of the art in Braille is critically important in establishing the collaboration necessary to advance Braille in the twenty-first century.

One of the most significant outcomes of this conference should be the strengthening of a community whose purpose is to investigate the relevant questions around Braille. In bringing this community together, we require a Braille cultural innovation. Cultural innovations are internal changes that depend upon the recombination of already existing elements in culture. At this conference, we are discussing new ways to combine our interests and talents to advance the Braille state of the art. We need to closely examine our own actions and to be bold in the innovations we put forward. If we seek to change our own thinking and culture as they relate to the intersection of Braille and research, we will more easily achieve a broader acceptance and understanding of Braille by the general public—a goal that I believe we should all have at the top of our list. In other words, in this conference we want to remember Gandhi’s mantra, "Become the change you seek in the world."

With that in mind, here are some of the things I think we need to do in our search for the next state of the art.

Build Community: There is an urgent need for a broad community seeking to advance the Braille state of the art—a community of individuals that believes so firmly in the impact of a tactile code for reading and writing that the need for such a system is no longer an issue of debate. An essential component of our cultural innovation is ending the debate about whether Braille has value in the twenty-first century. I want a community absolutely committed to the idea that Braille is important and worth further research and innovation. While Braille should be an element of other conferences that are not Braille-focused, it is important enough to merit a dedicated community discussion. Whether that is an annual research symposium or some other combination of venues, it needs to be an ongoing concern promoted by an active community. Furthermore, we need to put more resources into the effort to ensure that meaningful dialogue, investigation, and dissemination continue to advance the state of the art.

Deepen Participation: An essential component of the community is the active involvement of the blind themselves. This is why we were eager to partner in this conference. In the United States, the NFB has the largest network of individuals who are blind, including families with blind children. We are eager to be part of the research process. In the past there have sometimes been real and perceived barriers to having the blind participate in the research community. We need to continue to eliminate those barriers so that the community is more reflective of a range of views that will help advance the state of the art. This will in turn add some conflict to the process—Braille readers are not known for lacking opinions about Braille. However, we cannot advance the state of the art without the blind themselves, and in turn we cannot advance if we, the blind, are not willing to challenge our assumptions about Braille. It is my hope that through greater involvement in the research community, we will also find more blind individuals interested in applying their talents to rigorous academic research.

Broaden Participation: With some exceptions, the efforts to research Braille and advance the state of the art have been limited to those concerned with the education and rehabilitation of the blind. As a result, today’s state of the art reveals limited participation by researchers across a wide range of disciplines and little integration of knowledge from other fields. We need to broaden the circle of disciplines having influence on Braille, and in turn we need to contribute to those disciplines our unique blindness perspectives. Broadening our reach will also help us make progress in creating greater understanding among the general public.

In our effort to deepen and broaden participation in Braille-related research, we need to consider some new avenues for discourse. For example, a review of the professional journals that publish Braille-related research shows an overwhelming use of one specific journal—the Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness. Participation in this journal is limited to a relatively small academic population. Material about Braille is not sufficiently diffused even to closely-related areas such as general special education. We need Braille research to appear in the prominent publications of other fields. Additionally, we need to consider other avenues that help deepen participation of the key stakeholders who will not have access to traditional subscription-based professional research platforms. One solution might be the establishment of an open access peer-reviewed journal that holds Braille as a high priority. Deeper and broader participation will be enhanced by expanded options for communicating the Braille state of the art.

Ask the Right Questions: Historically, the lack of a passionate conviction that Braille is important has caused investigators to examine research questions that do not advance the field. These research questions also erode our efforts to create a broader cultural innovation where each member of the general public takes for granted that Braille is to the blind as print is to the sighted. To be clear, we no longer need to ask the question of whether or not Braille has value to the blind, although gathering greater data to measure that value is extremely useful. In short, I would like the community of researchers to stop looking at Braille through a deficit filter and start examining questions that help illuminate how we can more effectively deliver information in a tactile form to a wide range of individuals for whom print is not effective. Additionally, we need to ensure that we wrap our research questions in methodology that will lead us to evidence-based practice. While blindness is a low-incidence disability, if we work together to raise the standards, ask the right questions, and design our investigations carefully, we can take enormous leaps forward in the state of the art.

Embrace Technology: In the past, advancements in technology have frequently been used as justification for moving Braille to the back of the bus. Yet, many Braille advocates have successfully helped innovate methods for Braille to be enhanced by technology. We need to do more. We need to ensure that Braille is expected to be part of technological advancements. We need to embrace the opportunities presented by technology and ensure Braille is integrated into the development of general educational technology. There are interesting research questions that can be investigated, and some of them will change our expectations. For example, what will happen when Apple integrates full Braille support into the iPhone, iPod, and iPad platforms? What will happen when we set the standard that e-books must, off the virtual bookshelf, allow for reading in Braille devices? How will the evolution of electroactive polymer technology change the interface with refreshable Braille? We need to be prepared for these things by advancing the expectation that technologies should include Braille support from day one. This is especially true for educational and workplace technologies. Technology will not be the death of Braille nor will it replace it. In fact, if we unify our expectations of technology, it will provide even greater potential for the value of Braille in the lives of blind people.

Change Public Perception: Underlying these thoughts, and I would argue any Braille-related research, needs to be the objective of changing public perception about Braille. That cultural innovation begins with our adopting a strong and consistent message that touch is a powerful and respectable tool for learning. We need to help shift the public paradigm of the "vision"-centered model to one that values many channels for learning. Or, to say it another way, we need to counteract what Thomas Hehir calls the unquestioned ableist assumptions—the public notion that the "normal" means are always preferable to the alternatives, in our case print over Braille. We need to change the culture because through our experience we know that the ablest assumptions are the true disability and a cause of educational inequities.

Central to this public shift is raising understanding within the community of individuals working to educate the blind. We need to provide the leadership to build a broader view of Braille. It is not simply an educational decision to pick a type of reading medium for students—it is a life-changing decision that should not be taken lightly. We need to find ways to demonstrate that ableist assumptions currently have significant influence on the decision to teach Braille, print, or both. We need to change the "wait and see" attitude of Braille instruction by highlighting data demonstrating the negative messaging influencing students’ attitudes toward Braille when it is not introduced to them early. I do not yet know if my daughter is blind, but I can assure you that regardless of the future, she (like our son Austin, who has no vision loss) will know that Braille and print are both powerful and respectable means of literacy.

In 2009, the NFB published a report entitled The Braille Literacy Crisis in America: Facing the Truth, Reversing the Trend, Empowering the Blind. Shortly after that report was disseminated, we began receiving dozens of e-mails about what blind people were being told about Braille, and it is not limited to blind children. We received far too many tragic stories about newly blind adults who were advised by individuals in the rehabilitation system that Braille is outdated, not as valuable as learning technology, and, besides, it is too hard to learn. If the stories did not come so frequently, the dramatic need for a cultural innovation would not feel so urgent. Is it any wonder that the public is confused when within our own field there are arguments like whether or not teachers should be required to demonstrate competency in Braille and whether that competency has an impact on student performance? We need to be insistent that the cultural messages about Braille that are sent, directly and indirectly, through professional practice have a significant influence on our students as well as the general public—we must innovate a new culture around Braille.

Finally, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is that each of us takes responsibility for educating the public. In 2009, we put considerably more energy into bringing attention to Braille and its importance to the blind. One consistent message from the media was "but these statistics are old news, isn’t there something more up-to-date?" A close second was a clear bias that Braille cannot survive much longer in this new technological age. And third was the confusion caused by those who claim they do just fine without Braille and thus the urgency to advance the state of the art is not as dramatic as the advocates insist. We need an even more aggressive ongoing stream of data and public images that show the positive impacts of Braille. The new state of the art we seek includes greater public understanding of Braille and its value to the world. If we cannot effectively capture the media’s attention, let’s use the social networks and other forums to tell the stories. Let’s also utilize our academic connections to bring Braille to new audiences at universities where the future members of the media can learn early the truth about Braille and its role in the twenty-first century. Everyone must factor elements of educating the public into their work around Braille. Otherwise, the state of the art will always be overshadowed by the state of public opinion.

The brilliant innovator Albert Einstein once said, "No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it." Einstein himself looked at the state of the art and wondered what was beyond. He dared to imagine even when it was in opposition to generally accepted scientific principles of his day. That spirit is the same one that Louis Braille had burning inside when he committed his life to building a system for effective reading and writing. Together, we must dare to imagine what the new state of the art will be. We must collect and disseminate widely the data to consistently demonstrate the impact of Braille. We must innovate a new culture which does not debate the value of a tactile code for reading and writing but rather asks how we can better harness the power of touch for knowledge acquisition. At this moment, the state of the art is our joint commitment to innovate new partnerships around Braille. I look forward to looking back on this moment in five years, as my daughter is preparing to enter kindergarten, and reflecting on our progress because of our willingness, our boldness, to innovate like Braille did in his day.


National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute. (2009). The Braille literacy crisis in America: Facing the truth, reversing the trend, empowering the blind. Baltimore, MD: Author.

The Journal of Blindness Innovation and Research is copyright (c) 2014 to the National Federation of the Blind.