March 14, 2012
Braille still has the bumps — but now it has the high-tech bells and whistles too.
“It’s a revolution in making material accessible to people who can’t read print and know how to read Braille,” says Darlene Bogart, national braille convener for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.
This is no small matter. Without Braille, a blind person can’t read and write so independence depends on it. About 85 per cent of blind people who are employed know Braille.
Braille-equipped electronic readers and iPhones (indeed, all Apple devices are Braille compatible) now enable people to go about their daily lives with greater independence.
A blind individual simply types directly on to any computer or smartphone and the words are converted into Brail, which can be read on a separate display by touch. That display, a portable device called a refreshable Braille display, communicates via wireless Bluetooth connection. And its getting small enough to fit in a pocket.
Another portable device, called a notetaker, allows a user to convert any electronic file into Braille — say, a restaurant menu, an agenda or an article. Online text is easily converted into Braille.
Costs for the devices vary from $900 to $5,000, prohibitively expensive for many young people.
Technology has long been part of the picture in helping integrate blind individuals — notably audio books and voice-recognition. But the experts say there is no replacement for that 200-year-old tactile writing system.
While it has long been standard to see Braille on elevator buttons, it is only now, with the aid of the new technology, that such everyday items as prescription labels, groceries, menus and phone numbers can be reproduced in Braille, says Debbie Gillespie, a Braille user and employee at the CNIB.
“Technology has been an equalizer,” she says.
With the increasingly sophisticated smartphone technology, Braille users can take a snapshot of a document and convert it on the spot to Braille.
“If you do know Braille, you can do anything,” she says. “You can sit in a meeting with all the financial reports at your fingertips, literally, like everybody else has. It opens employment doors, that’s a proven fact.”
Toronto resident Chelsea Mohler, a Masters student in rehabilitation science at the University of Western Ontario, uses a Braille display and screen reading software every day to read and write. “It allows me to have access to the same computer resources as everybody else, Mohler, 26, says. She also uses a talking GPS to get around.
Until the 1960s Braille was routinely taught to blind children. Then came mainstreaming, and universal access to Braille instruction dipped. At the same time, the advent of computers encouraged listening over reading and literacy levels, particularly spelling, dropped among blind people. Just as significant was the decrease in numeracy.
“Can you imagine doing math by hearing it only?” asks Bogart. “How can you learn a foreign language?
By the early 1990s, the education system recognized the importance of Braille and began to provide more and better Braille instruction.
Braille is more available in business and customer service in the States as a result of accessibility legislation passed 20 years ago. Europe is also ahead of Canada, as is Japan, Bogart says.
But while Canadian regulations have lagged, many companies have nevertheless moved ahead. “You are going to be seeing more and more Braille throughout the world,” Bogart says.
The same technology that opens up the world has led to a decline in the large cumbersome Braille books of the past — Braille type requires 2.5 times more space than regular print. The decline is most noticeable in the plummeting use of library books available to CNIB clients. However, that is not a reflection on the use of Braille, Bogart hastens to add.
“There are many people out there who have not borrowed a book from the library in years, yet they have their CD collection listed in Braille,” she says.
The Braille alphabet does pose a challenge to seniors who lose their sight later in life through conditions such as macular degeneration. A sizable majority of people who could benefit from reading through touch simply don’t. It is estimated that less than 10 per cent of those without sight know Braille.
That’s because most Canadians with sight impairment are more than 65 — and their numbers will increase as our population ages.
As a result, the new technology is lost on older people who are not learning Braille.
After a lifetime of being able to see and read print, there is less incentive to learn Braille, Gillespie says. Elderly people are more likely to lack the memory and sensory capability to learn Braille sufficiently. That’s where audio files and voice recognition helps. “It’s wonderful that there are all these options,” Bogart says.
Blindness is rare in children and youth, but young people who have impaired vision want to blend in. Before the new Braille technology was available, those big Braille books made them stand out in class, says Bogart.
“Some kids would have a really hard time and do anything to pretend they are just like everybody else,” she says. “With technology, they are.”