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Braille’s Relevance

Reflections on Braille Awareness Month

January 4th is the anniversary of Louis Braille’s birthday, the man who developed the system of raised dots that correspond with letters of the alphabet and numbers, used by readers who are blind or visually impaired. The month of January id designated as Braille Awareness Month in his honor, and to raise our awareness about the importance of braille.

There has been some discussion in recent years about the relevance of braille in the digital age. The argument seems to question the value of teaching children (and adults for that matter) who are blind or visually impaired to read raised dots on paper, in an age when computers will talk and audio files are everywhere—podcasts, books, broadcasts, etc. Why read the Bible, Shakespeare, or Mark Twain from large volumes of embossed braille on paper, when you might just have the computer read the text, or play a narrated audio book? Why also, incur the cost of having a Teacher for the Visually Impaired (TVI) or Vision Rehab Therapist (CVRT) teaching the few students in a school that will use braille and the equipment used to emboss it?

Well, as Lynda Jones, CVRT (former Coordinator of the Florida State University Program for Vision Rehabilitation Therapists) wrote in a recent email to colleagues, “How relevant is a pen and paper in the digital age?” Somehow that sounds more ridiculous than the question, “How relevant is braille?”

Would you be comfortable with your child going through school without learning the basics of writing and reading information printed on paper?

Basic literacy is the ability to read and write, and like print on paper, the representation of the alphabet, words and syntax, in braille, on either paper or a refreshable braille display, provide the fundamentals of literacy.

The Braille Crisis

According to the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) approximately 50% of all students who were legally blind during the 1950’s were taught braille. That percentage has dropped below 10% according to a recent poll by the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) cited on BrailleWorks. This poll indicated of the 60,400 students, blind or visually impaired attending public schools between the ages of 4 through 21, 8.5% were braille readers and 53% were considered “non-readers,” or “pre-readers.”

The NFB is right, a 50% illiteracy rate among American students who are blind or visually impaired qualifies as a crisis.

Literacy and Employment

There is a link between literacy and employment. According to the Literacy Project, as cited on BrailleWorks, “75% of people who are illiterate are on government assistance.”

This helps to explain the following statistics cited in BrailleWorks: 

  • 70% of adults who are blind are unemployed.
  • 50% of High School students who are blind dropout before graduating.

The Bottom Line

As well-meaning, civic-minded members of the community, we may “want to do the right thing,” provide the resources to teach blind students braille. After all though, blindness and vision impairment, as disabilities go, is a low incidence disability…and if cost-cutting needs to be done, well…maybe it is more cost-effective to rely on text to speech on the computer and audio books rather than incurring the additional cost of teaching braille?

Hmm…if at some point, because of barriers to literacy, 1/2 the individuals in the U.S. who are blind, are also illiterate (approximately 650,000), and 75% require government assistance (see above) for the 43 years they might otherwise be working, the result would be 27,950,000 years of government assistance. At the 2019 Social Security Income (SSI) minimum rate of $9252 annually this is $259 billion in potential government assistance!

This is a cost of approximately $400,000 for each individual denied access to literacy through our educational system! What would be the cost for braille training and supplies? If it is less than $400,000 per student, it is cheaper in the long run to teach braille literacy. 

Still skeptical about the link between braille and employment? In their research, “Employment Outcomes for Blind and Visually Impaired Adults,” Edward C. Bell, Ph.D., Natalia M. Mino cited research demonstrating that the average unemployment rate for blind individuals using braille as their primary means of reading was 44%, at a time when the average unemployment rate for blind individuals was about 26%. Braille readers were more likely to have jobs. Also cited was the finding that, “employers believed that possessing updated braille skills represented an important factor that contributed to successful work experiences for their employees.”

Is braille relevant today?

One could argue that any link between braille, literacy, and employment outcomes is less than causal, so other, unidentified factors may be at work. The high cost of illiteracy is undeniable, and the decline of literacy rates in the decades since the 1950’s as a result of the decline in braille instruction, also seems undeniable.

While this article’s approach to “relevancy” is focused on some of the statistical data available, may I also suggest that any inquiry into braille’s relevancy include putting that question to braille readers, who, according to the data, enjoy literacy, a greater chance of employment, higher education, on average, and the many opportunities that reading provides.

As a final note, it is worth mentioning that in a recent interview on “Eyes on Success”  Karen Keninger, director of the National Library Service (NLS), reported that NLS will be contracting with a vendor for refreshable 20-cell braille e-readers that will be available to patrons in the near future. This will enable the vast library of electronic braille to be read by touch on braille displays by many more patrons in the coming years.

Based on Karen Keninger’s reveal, braille is becoming even more relevant in the digital age!

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