It was once the most relied upon method of communication for the blind, but now Braille is the latest victim to technology.
Fewer than 10 per cent of the visually impaired use it, and many wonder if the dying language can be revived.
Angela Mulholland, CTV.ca News
Saturday, April 17 2010
Posted to site July 12, 2010
What might be most surprising about Jason Mitschele is not that he’s blind and works as a federal prosecutor. It’s that he’s blind, a federal prosecutor, and can’t read braille. And neither can most vision-impaired people in Canada.
In fact, less than 10 per cent of Canada’s 830,000 vision impaired people
can read braille. That’s the rate found in surveys from the U.S. and the
United Kingdom — a startling statistic, especially since most sighted
people assume all blind people learn to read through their fingertips.
As Mitschele’s story shows, many visually impaired Canadians aren’t bothering anymore. The 38-year-old wasn’t born completely blind but had no
vision in one eye due to early onset glaucoma. Because he could still see a little in the other eye, he was taught to read text in the usual way.
In fact, he wasn’t taught braille until he was in Grade 8, as his glaucoma continued to steal his vision, despite 20 surgeries.
While his teachers tried to encourage him to learn the language of raised dots, Mitschele was never much interested. Not only did he resent having
time taken away from other subjects so that he could learn braille, he could never much understand the need for it.
By that time, the mid-1980s, audiobooks were taking off. So were computers with screen readers.
When Mitschele was in law school, a software program for Windows, called JAWS (or Job Access With Speech) was gaining popularity, and making
navigating the Internet fairly easy.
These days, Mitschele still uses JAWS every day to pull up cases for work, along with text-to-voice software to read and write email. He also uses
character recognition scanners to scan documents he can’t receive electronically. He has an assistant to help him in court, and of course, his
loyal service dog, Boris, guides him through the challenges of everyday life.
With all that help, Mitschele hasn’t found much of a place for braille.
“I can see braille being useful. I just could never use it for the kind of work that I do. I’d never get my work done,” he tells CTV.ca.
Mitschele says there are lots of ways when cumbersome electronic technologies can’t help him, such as finding the right elevator buttons or
locating things in his home. But for the most part, he can get by just fine without braille.
“Unfortunately, I think it’s kind of a dying skill,” he believes.
John Rafferty, the head of the CNIB (formerly called the Canadian National Institute for the Blind), the country’s largest group supporting people with
vision loss, says that the overwhelming majority of people with vision loss are over the age of 65, and losing their sight to the diseases of aging.
He says even 20 years ago, adults who lost their sight would learn braille to read and write. But today, most prefer instead to make use of software
that can magnify text, or any of the many other electronic tools available.
“Braille isn’t as critical with today’s technologies,” Rafferty admits.
But he notes for someone born blind or a child who is visually impaired, braille remains indispensable.
“What braille allows is for someone to gain literacy, to gain an understanding of sentence structure and grammar. Computer technology doesn’t
replace how to learn to write, to spell, what punctuation is. Braille is that tool for literacy,” he says.
People with vision loss already face an unemployment rate of a staggering 70 per cent, Rafferty notes. That likelihood is worsened if a blind person
doesn’t read braille. He says studies have shown that a visually impaired person who knows braille is much more likely to move to higher education and
to become employed than someone who relies on voice synthesizers.
“Braille is critical for gaining knowledge of literacy and moving into successful employment. For anyone born blind or partially sighted as a
youth, it provides them with a significant amount of additional learning,” says Rafferty.
Still, there are plenty of exceptions, such as Mitschele, who made it through law school without braille. Yet even as it becomes easier to manage
a sighted world through technology, there are those who insist that braille is still useful for blind people to learn.
One of them is Shawn Marsolais, who runs Blind Beginnings, a B.C.-based organization that helps children with vision problems and their parents.
Marsolais, who like Mitschele is also in her 30s, was born with a degenerative eye condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa. She too didn’t learn
braille as a young child.
“It didn’t make sense for me as a child to learn braille because I could see. But I should have been learning braille, for sure. Anybody with a
degenerative eye condition should be,” she insists.
Marsolais notes that now that she has only two per cent of her vision left, it’s too difficult for her to learn braille fluently. While she knows enough
to get by, “to sit down and read a book in braille would probably take me a year,” she laughs.
Many parents of young children with partial vision loss want them to integrate as well as they can with other kids their age and that means going
to regular school and learning to read text. But Marsolais wonders if that
is always the best approach.
“There was a generation — my generation — when a lot of us didn’t learn braille but should have. But we didn’t because he had a little bit of
vision. And now we’re regretting that we don’t know it as well as we should, or we’re not as efficient at using it as we could be,” she says.
“I think in the ’80s and ’90s, when these technologies started really moving in, I went through school at a time when they were encouraging kids with low
vision to use their vision. But I believe it’s coming back a little bit now, for kids growing up today, braille is becoming more popular.”
Still, she says, it’s sometimes hard to convince kids with low vision that they should really learn to read both text and braille.
“It’s a challenge because you start to teach kids braille, but when they realize there are talking computers, they want to go that route, because
it’s so much easier to just sit back and listen than to struggle through learning braille,” she says.
“So it’s about trying to encourage them to use braille and to demonstrate to them why they need it.”