Braille Comes Unbound From the Book: How Technology Can Stop a Literary Crisis

Apple is at the vanguard of a push behind technology that’s helping old-fashioned Braille replace text-to-speech audio for the blind – and it couldn’t have come at a more critical time

Saabira Chaudhuri, Tuesday 14 February 2012

On a lazy Sunday afternoon, Chancey Fleet reads the menu of Bombay Garden to four friends gathered at the back of the Chelsea-based Indian restaurant in New York City.

Although she is reading aloud, there are no menus on the table. They aren’t necessary, because Fleet is blind.

Instead, she reads using a Braille display that sits unobtrusively on her lap and connects to her iPhone via Bluetooth, electronically converting the onscreen text into different combinations of pins. She reads by gently but firmly running her fingers over the pins with her left hand while navigating the phone with her right.

“The iPhone is the official phone of blindness,” she told the Guardian.

Until recently, technology, especially that which converts text to audio, has been hastening the demise of Braille, which educators say is a bad thing. Students who can read Braille tend on average to acquire higher literacy rates and fare better professionally later on. But Apple’s push into the field – coupled with increasingly affordable Braille displays – has the potential to bring Braille back in a big way.

Fleet’s iPhone has a built-in screen reader called VoiceOver that works with all native applications. It tells Fleet what her finger is touching, allowing her to download the restaurant menu and read it, access her email, and do anything else she needs to with the phone, either by converting text into Braille on the separate display or by reading out loud to her. (Here’s a video of the process at work.)

Fleet also uses her display to type, rather than navigate with her iPhone or computer keyboard. It has a spacebar and with eight thumb-sized keys – one that works as a backspace key, another as an enter key, and the remainder that function as the six dot positions that comprise a Braille character.

When Apple released the first accessible iPhone in 2009, “it took the blind community by storm,” said Fleet. “We didn’t know, nobody knew, that Apple was planning an accessible device. The device went from being an infuriating brick to a fluid, usable, opportunity-levelling device in one iteration.”

Apple has shown that “devices aren’t inaccessible because they have to be, but because companies made them with a lack of imagination,” said Fleet. “Apple proved that a blind person could use an interface that didn’t have physical buttons.”

Anne Taylor, director of access technology for the National Federation of the Blind, agrees.

“Apple has set the bar very high,” she said. “No other mobile OS provider, such as Google or Microsoft, has made Braille available on their mobile platform.”

Apple’s iPad, iPhone 4, iPhone 3GS, and third generation iPod Touch already support more than 30 Bluetooth wireless Braille displays. And the company’s recent push into digital textbooks could greatly reduce the time it takes for Braille textbooks to be available to students, not to mention reduce their cost and size: a single print textbook must be transformed into several volumes of Braille.

“Ebooks can be a game changer if they’re properly designed because it would allow us to get access to the same books at the same time at the same price as everyone else,” said Christopher Danielsen, spokesman for the NFB. “Publishers and manufacturers have to ensure they are designed to be accessible to work with braille displays. That’s what Apple has done. Apple is not perfect but they’re way, way ahead of everybody else in this area.”

The benefits of Braille
Apple’s accessibility efforts come at a pivotal time. For decades now, the number of Braille users has been on the decline. Data from the American Printing House for the Blind’s annual registry of legally blind students shows that in 1963, 51% of legally blind children in public and residential schools used Braille as their primary reading medium. In 2007 this number fell to just 10%, while in 2011 it stood at under 9%.

While there are many reasons for the decline of Braille, technology that converts text to speech has been identified as a major factor. In a nationwide sample of 1,663 teachers of visually impaired and blind students conducted in the early 1990s, 40% chose reliance on technology as a reason behind Braille’s decline.

“When we experienced the tech boom in the nineties, I was led to believe speech was the way forward, that Braille was becoming obsolete,” said William O’Donnell, a Manhattan-based student who has been blind since birth.

But learning or reading using Braille – rather than audio – has distinct advantages, say educators.

“There’s this tremendous importance to seeing the way print looks on a page, what punctuation does and looks like in a sentence,” said Catherine Mendez, who works as a kindergarten teacher at Public School 69 in the Bronx. “Braille in the context of early literacy is huge. If we can get these devices into the hands of kids early we can bolster their understanding in a way speech can’t do.”

There are professional benefits to learning Braille too. A survey conducted by Louisiana Tech University’s Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness found that people with sight disabilities who learn to read through Braille have a much higher chance of finding a job, even more than those who read large print.

And once you get that job Braille might help you keep it. “In business meetings it’s more unobtrusive to use Braille. If I want to multitask, headphones are rude, but Braille is acceptable,” said Fleet. She uses Braille when writing formal letters or papers, or preparing notes for a public speech or presentation.

A ‘literacy crisis’
Still, for now Braille displays can only show one line of Braille at a time and can cost between $3,000 and $15,000 – depending on the number of characters they display at a time – which is prohibitively expensive for some. “For me it was not practical to continue to use Braille,” said Mendez, who does not own a Braille display.

How the cost will come down is a problem that scientists are working to solve. Dr Peichun Yung, a postdoctoral research associate at the electrical and computer engineering department of North Carolina State University, who lost his own eyesight in an accident, has been working on a device that would raise dots that by using a hydraulic and latching mechanism made of an electroactive polymer, which is both cheaper and more resilient than the prevailing technology.

“There is a Braille literacy crisis right now,” said Yung. “Literacy is the foundation for having a job and living an independent life. For reading every day, you cannot just rely on speech.”

Nihal Erkan. Photograph: Saabira Chaudhuri For those who own both an iPhone or laptop and a Braille display, having to choose between audio and Braille isn’t necessary. Nowadays, the two go hand in hand – literally. Many of the technologies that convert text to speech also convert it into a form that can be read on a refreshable Braille display, making Braille far more accessible for those who own both devices.

“Braille has a versatility and a fluidity that it has never had before,” said Fleet. While she recalls owning a pocket dictionary in seventh grade that took up “eight huge volumes,” now “Braille has come unbound from the book”.

“Braille is portable, searchable, downloadable. You can convert print to Braille yourself,” she said. “You can go to a library or use Bookshare, which is free for students, and if you harness it, Bra

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