Technology Does Not Replace Braille

When I posed the question, “Are we witnessing the demise of braille?” in last week’s blog post, I anticipated it would strike a nerve. After working at NBP for nearly 10 years, I know how passionate readers feel about braille and credit it for their educational and professional success. My NBP colleagues and I share in their assessment of braille as an essential means for literacy.

I am wondering, however, what the responses would be from parents, teachers, school administrators, and others who have the power to make decisions about braille learning for blind children. Do they feel as passionately as “Jeff” who posted, he would “hate to see a total shift away from the use of braille because in reality, it’ll lead to whole generation of illiterate people.”? Will the out-of-the box accessibility, via audio, of some of today’s technology change the way blind children will learn? There are many factors at play when you consider the education of blind children – limited public-school resources, the shortage of TVI’s, and a broad brush approach to serving kids with disabilities—I just hope that braille does not get lost in the shuffle.

Equally passionate were the responses concerning braille in the digital age. While opinions were varied, one sentiment is clear – technology does not replace braille. Instead, technology has unlimited potential to enhance and increase braille usage but the high cost of assistive technology remains a critical barrier that must be addressed. As one deaf/blind woman stated, “It’s sickening that braille is offered for premium pricing.”
I am thrilled that so many took the time to respond to this blog post. I want to dig deeper into this issue, and I am currently working with my colleagues to develop a short survey on how braille is used today—with and without technology. Stay tuned for more information on that survey. Thank you for your enthusiasm and let’s keep this dialogue going. I don’t know if the future of braille depends on it, but I don’t want to take any chances.

Are we witnessing the demise of braille?

I am sometimes asked to write recommendation letters for students who have interned or volunteered at National Braille Press and are looking to go to college, qualify for a scholarship, or find a job.  Many of these requests are from young adults who are blind or visually impaired.   I have worked with many interns and volunteers over the years, with many different skill sets, accomplishments, and personalities.  At NBP, however, they do have one thing in common: they are usually all proficient braille readers.

I wonder how much longer this will be true?  Don’t get me wrong, these students don’t use braille exclusively.  I think you would be hard-pressed to find anyone these days who doesn’t use some other form of technology to accomplish tasks that used to be done almost entirely with braille. But braille is still viewed by these students as an essential means to literacy.

Technology is changing the way students learn, and blind students are no exception.  One may argue that the technological boon has had an even bigger impact on blind and visually impaired students, and in many ways, this is a good thing. But with technology changing so quickly – the National Academy of Sciences estimates that the rates of technological change in the 21st century is equivalent to all the change in the previous twenty thousand years – will the loss of braille skills be the fallout? Will the shiny lure of iPads and the ease and economy of using audio tools hasten its demise?

As an organization that believes in the power of braille, what role will NBP play in the digital age?

A Great New (Old) Idea

You may not know that NBP publishes two braille magazines: Syndicated Columnists Weekly and Our Special, or OS.

Every OS contains original articles by eight blind contributing editors – making it the only magazine by and for blind women. Published since 1930, the bi-monthly OS also contains articles drawn from popular women’s magazines – think O: The Oprah Magazine and Family Circle.

An OS subscriber wrote in with a suggestion. She, like many of the magazine’s readers, likes to hold on to the recipes in the popular “Kitchen Corner” section of the magazine. But the bulky 100-page braille magazines start to pile up! OS editor Dana Nichols says, “I have a lot of old magazines I’ve kept for the recipes in them. Collecting braille magazines can take up a lot of room… finding enough space for those old magazines is a problem; they begin to crowd you out.”

Image of a child baking cookiesThe solution suggested by our OS reader was that we pull out the “Kitchen Corner” recipes into their own discrete section. We did a little research and found it would be easy to create a pull-out section – a slim, 12-page booklet that’s practically a brochure! This way, readers can remove the recipes without needing to store the whole issue – and it also makes it easier to read recipes while cooking.

As always, some of the best ideas tend to come from our loyal and passionate readers, and so it was with this latest innovation – though innovation is not the right word! Editor Dana Nichols reminds us, “OS used to be done that way, and it was frustrating to try to razor-blade the recipes out when it changed to the way it is now.”

Sometimes the old ways are the best ways. Now, I’m waiting for readers to start asking that we do the same with the knitting section, or the crafts section, or…