In honor of Louis Braille’s birthday, Jan 4, 1809 the month of January is designated Braille Awareness Month. Braille, of course, is the man who created the braille alphabet, an alphabet comprised of raised dots that may be read by touch.
The use of Braille has been on the decline since the 1950s, in spite of research that demonstrates a high correlation between using braille and being employed, for someone who is blind.
One of the arguments used to explain this decline in the use of braille is that recent advances in technology, have rendered it obsolete. The prevalence of text-to-speech technology such as screen readers on PCs and VoiceOver on Apple computers and devices may reduce the need for braille. After-all, this argument goes, if computers and iPads can read out loud, is there really a need for braille anymore?
In addition, printed braille is more costly than printed text, and learning braille may require a specialized teacher, often a Teacher of the Visually Impaired (TVI), if the student is in public school. This costs money
If computer generated text-to-speech was really a suitable alternative for reading text, why wouldn’t we all be using it? Instead of reading print, why not have students read with text-to-speech or audio books, regardless of whether they are print or braille readers?
For some learners, this may be a suitable alternative, but for most of us, learning spelling, punctuation, and composition will be all but impossible without the ability to manipulate the symbols of written words, whether that is done in braille or print.
At a recent professional conference a member of the Technology Division who is a TVI, pointed out the obvious, that many of her students, and recent high school graduates with a vision loss, struggle with spelling, in part because they are relying so much on tect-to-speech. As an avid print reader, I’ve always found a book “on Tape” less satisfactory than one in print. As someone who also often uses text-to-speech to maintain reading efficiency with low vision, audio and text-to-speech has always been second best to reading print for comprehension. Text-to-speech may make print accessible to someone who can’t see it, but it often will not share the spelling, sentence structure, and formatting that makes words and literature come alive, the way it can when in print or braille.
Neuroscientist Lotfi Merabet, for example, points to research that concludes that when blind individuals read braille, or engage in other activities such as planning a route, they are using the visual part of their brain, just as their sighted peers do for similar tasks. It stands to reason then that reading and writing with braille, although done tactually, engages the same part of the brain as reading and writing with print, http://youtu.be/B-xI3YxAPW4.
Few would deny the tremendous value the proliferation of access technology (AT), such as text-to-speech, has had for blind and visually impaired technology users, but it is certainly not an appropriate replacement for braille.
Ironically, this same technology that may be responsible for the decline in braille use, will most likely be at the forefront of more widespread braille use in the near future! Portable braille displays that are small enough to fit easily in a pocket or backpack can connect to many mainstream devices like tablet computers and smartphones. Although still quite expensive, these displays afford unprecedented access to braille. Users may download books in electronic braille that can be easily read on these braille displays.
The affordability of braille displays prevents more widespread access to electronic braille. Several companies, including National Braille Press (NBP) are hard at work, developing less costly technology for producing braille displays, such as the Braille 2 Go (b2g) http://www.nbp.org/ic/nbp/technology/braillepda.html. Perhaps even more exciting are the technologies that promise to develop a full page braille display usinfg electrostatic technology on a glass screen to “trick” the user’s fingers into feeling a dot, line or even a graph tactually. A team at the Univrsity of Michigan is currently working on a full screen display using a pneumatic technology to develop a more affordable display, http://www.popsci.com/new-touch-screen-design-could-display-in-braille.
With the possibility of braille displays becoming more affordable, and integrating with existing mainstream technology braille may become more widespread among blind or visually impaired consumers.
For more perspective on this, be sure to read Rachel Aviv’s 2009 article in NY Times Magazine http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/03/magazine/03Braille-t.html?_r=2.
RNIB’s Tech Talk Podcast Episode #115 includes an interview with the NSF Project team at the University of Michigan working on a full screen braille display (starts at 36 minutes).