National Post, Friday, Aug. 6, 2010
Keith Gillard taps away on his computer’s Microsoft Egronomic keyboard at
his home in Edmonton, Aug. 4, 2010. “Braille is not necessary to have a full
and complete life as a blind Canadian,” he says.
The publication in 1829 of a small booklet explaining how a series of raised
dots arranged in a line could teach the world’s blind to read is one of
modern history’s great, if often overlooked, turning points.
Once hailed as the great intellectual equalizer, Louis Braille’s development of a new alphabet that could be read with the fingers is now at risk of
being consigned to history, overtaken by the rapid pace of changing
Only 10% of blind school-aged children are taught Braille today; compared to
about 50% in the 1960s, according to the U.S. National Federation of the
Blind. The statistic is roughly the same for Canada.
The prospect of Braille becoming obsolete has sparked a polarizing debate between advocates, educators and individuals over the causes of the code’s
decline and what to do about it.
Advocates blame funding shortages, not enough qualified teachers, and decisions by administrators to deny Braille instruction to children with low
vision because of an emphasis on encouraging these students to read print.
Educators say this assessment couldn’t be further from the truth and argue that today’s diagnostic tools have honed the art of identifying those who
truly require Braille instruction and those who don’t.
Others still – including many blind people – say advances in assistive technology, such as audiobooks, voice recognition software and computer
screen-readers, have rendered Braille unnecessary in daily life. They say
its cumbersome nature – a single Harry Potter book printed on Braille paper
will fill a moving box – makes it impractical and unaffordable.
“Braille is not necessary to have a full and complete life as a blind Canadian,” said Edmonton resident Keith Gillard, who was born with retinitis
pigmentosa, a degenerative eye condition that rendered him legally, but not completely, blind at birth. As a child, he was encouraged to use what vision
he had to learn print, but not Braille. “They taught me how to touch type
rather than learn Braille.”
By his mid-20s, the blurry fog obscuring his peripheral vision began to creep toward the centre of his eyes as his condition worsened. Mr. Gillard
gauged the severity of his increasing blindness by his ability to see the
lines on the ice at his local hockey rink each winter while playing on a blind hockey team.
Now 49 and completely blind, he says he has contemplated learning Braille, but probably never will given the plethora of technological aids he uses at
work as a federal civil servant and at home.
“Adaptive technology has opened up the world of education and employment for blind Canadians. Braille hasn’t done that,” he said.
“I recognize the benefits. Would I be better off as a blind Canadian if I was a proficient Braille reader? I think I would be. Is it necessary for me
to be successful? No.”
Up until nine years ago, Sarah Empey, 35, had full eyesight. When she was 26, the Type 1 diabetic suffered complications due to high blood pressure
and started to go blind. Despite several operations, she now has only 15%
vision in her right eye.
She intends to learn Braille one day, but hasn’t found the need for it yet, and has learned only numbers.
“It’s not something I would use at this point,” says Ms. Empey, a Calgary resident and short film director.
She uses a program on her computer called ZoomText, which magnifies text and uses an audio device called a VictorReader to listen to books.
“Some people are fine with technology doing everything for them. I do see Braille as slightly dying off, but for me, Braille still means more
independence [in the future].”
Twenty years ago, the predominant philosophy governing education of the blind was to maximize the efficiency of whatever vision students had in a
regular classroom with their sighted peers. This required partially blind children to use a myriad of tools such as monocular telescopes to see the
blackboard, magnifying glasses, bold markers and large-print books. These
tools evolved through the 1980s to include small cameras students could roll over text that would be blown up on a closed circuit television.
“Braille was never given to them as an option because if you had vision, you were supposed to use vision,” said Dr. Carol Farrenkopf, coordinator of the
Toronto District School Board’s Vision Program.
It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that teachers began using a tool called a “learning media assessment,” using observations and timed-readings to
determine if Braille should be introduced.
Another factor driving down the rate of Braille use is the fact that those who go blind later in life due to medical conditions, such as diabetes and
macular degeneration, already have literacy skills and are therefore less
likely to be inclined to learn a new writing system.
“A 60-year-old woman working who already knows how to read and write and then loses her vision, why does she need to learn Braille when she can keep going with technology?” said Ms. Farrenkopf.
She stresses that not all blind children need to be taught Braille.
“Legal blindness is not the same thing as being totally blind,” said Ms. Farrenkopf, noting that 20/200 vision – legal blindness – is still
functional vision. (Someone with 20/200 can see a letter at 20 feet while a person with normal vision can see the same letter from 200 feet.)
“Kids with 20/200 vision don’t need to be reading Braille.”
That opinion is not shared by all Braille advocates, who wonder at the logic of not teaching the system to children when many eye conditions are
“They’re in the school system where people are being encouraged to use thetechnology and their remaining vision at the expense of learning Braille
that will prepare them for vision loss as they get older,” said CNIB spokeswoman Ellie Shuster.
Advocates also say the integration of blind children within the regular
school system means less one-on-one time between teachers and students andtherefore less consistent Braille instruction. The result, they say, is that
many students end up being functionally illiterate.
“School districts across the country, in general, don’t adequately support Braille instruction,” said Betty Nobel, president of the Canadian Braille
Authority. “In the primary grades, kids should have daily Braille instruction, but they’re not getting that.”
Forty years ago, Canada was home to several residential schools for the blind, where all students were expected to learn Braille. There is only one
such school remaining today: W. Ross Macdonald School for the Blind and Deafblind in Brantford, Ont.
The Atlantic Provinces Special Education Authority, which provides educational services to students from birth to 21 years of age with sensory
impairments, has also established several successful short-term, intensive Braille courses that can be taken during the regular school year.
But it’s not enough, says Ms. Nobel, who is also department head of the Program for the Visually Impaired at Vancouver Community College and a CNIB
library board member. She says teachers in the regular school system may not have blind children in their classes every year, meaning they lack the
opportunity to stay proficient in Braille.
“If this means lowering the workloads for teachers that have blind students, that’s what we need,” she said.
The implications for an illiterate blind population are profound.
A study by Dr. Ruby Ryles, a blindness researcher at Louisiana Tech University, found that visually impaired people who learned Braille at a
young age were more likely to be employed, financially independent and better educated than those who relied primarily on print — this in a world
where blind adults already face an unemployment rate of over 70%.
Diana Brent, a teacher of visually impaired students, and her husband, Doug Brent, a University of Calgary communications professor, are the authors of
one of the only studies comparing the writings of blind people who learned Braille at a young age and those who didn’t. Non-Braille users were asked to
type stories on a keyboard using audio software.
Their findings were alarming. The Brents described the prose of the non-Braille group as “jumbled and confused.”
“It’s as if all of their ideas are crammed into a container, shaken, and thrown randomly onto a sheet of paper like dice onto a table,” the authors
concluded. “The process of making connections, linking one idea to another is tenuous at best.”
While preliminary, the results suggest that blind children relying solely on an oral education have virtually no means of literacy in the sense that
society has come to understand it.
“It’s still well worth teaching children Braille, even if they choose later to drift away from it,” said Mr. Brent. “To not have access to a way of
organizing thought that depends on a system of written record, to not be
formed by that arguably makes people think differently and puts them at a
Who was Louis Braille?
Louis Braille was born fully sighted on Jan. 4, 1809 in a small town near Paris, France.
He lost his sight as a small boy after accidentally stabbing himself in the eye with a stitching awl his his father’s shoemaking workshop. An infection
in one eye spread to the other, rendering him completely blind.
A creative and intelligent boy, Braille earned a scholarship to the Royal Institution for Blind Youth in Paris when he was 10.
While there, he learned to read using a system of raised letters by pressing shaped copper wire onto paper. But this cumbersome system made it impossible for blind people to write by themselves.
In 1821, French army captain Charles Barbier de la Serre visited the school to share his invention, which he called “Night Writing.” The invention was a
series of 12 raised dots combined to form words that soldiers could use to communicate in the night without talking.
The code proved too difficult to understand, so Braille modified the system to a series of six raised dots, with characters representing each letter of
the alphabet. In 1829 he published his system in the booklet, “The Method of
Writing Words, Music and Plain Song by Means of Dots, for Use by the Blind
and Arranged by Them.”
This new system of reading and writing – Braille – did not catch on immediately. Braille, who eventually became a teacher at the Institute, died
of tuberculosis on Jan. 6, 1852, before even his own school adopted his code.
The French government officially recognized the Braille system two years later, and it eventually became the world standard for written communication
for the blind.
In 1952, Braille’s body was disinterred and reburied in the Pantheon in Paris to lie with the remains of other distinguished French citizens.
Kenyon Wallace, National Post
Blindness By The Numbers
- 10 Percentage of legally blind North Americans who can read Braille
- 836,000 Number of Canadians living with significant vision loss that cannot
be corrected with ordinary lenses
- 70 Percentage of blind North Americans who are unemployed
- 1,000,000 number of Canadians with some form of macular degeneration, the
leading cause of vision loss in North Americans over the age of 50
- 90 Percentage of blind children in the United States not learning Braille today
- 50 Percentage of blind American high school students who drop out
- 75,000 Number of people who lose all or part of their vision every year
Source: NFB and CNIB