By Ella Edwards
Ella won one of two fine works prizes in the youth category of the 2020 Onkyo braille contest Asia Pacific region. She is 17 years old. Ella was responding to the prompt “if Braille is still significant in the blind community today, what should be done to promote its use”?
Braille is the printing system used by blind people to read and write. Since its invention by Louis Braille in 1824, it has played a significant role in the lives of blind individuals. Braille has a role in education, orientation and mobility, communication and identification. In the age of computerised technology, the question has been asked if braille still plays such a significant role in the lives of blind people, as it did 196 years ago, and if so, what should be done to promote its use?
The facts are simple. Print will always have a significant role in the lives of sighted people, and it will be relied upon forever. Braille is no different. In order to live an independent and fulfilling life, and to continue to learn, we must first have those elementary skills of reading and writing. In order for blind people to have those skills, braille is essential. Therefore, it’s crucial that we introduce blind people to braille as soon as it’s humanly and logically possible.
Though most of the blind population are adults, there are still many blind children, who require braille as a crucial part of their education. From birth, a sighted child’s world is filled with words that a blind child doesn’t have. Those words are in countless places that the sighted population takes for granted. The blind child doesn’t have that added benefit of seeing print wherever they go, they must actively look for braille, which isn’t always there.
For this reason, it’s important that blind children be introduced to braille as early as possible. It should be placed around the home, used to label and identify objects, and made a part of life. With the resources we have now, braille books are accessible to blind children either from a library that offers braille, or by sending books from home to a braille transcriber, thus ensuring the concept of reading can be taught as it is to sighted children. Though blind people can now access information through screen readers, nothing can replace braille under the fingertips, just as nothing can replace print. Therefore, professionals helping children and their parents in those early years, need to know at least the basics of braille, and make sure their clients are in contact with organisations that can provide braille resources.
82% of the blind population lose their sight at age fifty or older. This can take away their confidence in their ability to live independently. Apart from sight itself, reading is probably one of the most devastating things to lose, as it impacts almost all the aspects of everyday life. In order to travel, we must be able to read signs, street names and maps.
In order to manage household appliances such as the stove and washing machine, we must be able to read labels on the buttons. In order to identify clothing sizes and food items, we must also be able to read their labels. Therefore, if we cannot read, we cannot manage most of our everyday life tasks. Hence braille still plays a significant role in the lives of blind people. However, many older people lose confidence in their abilities as they age, meaning that they don’t feel confident or competent to learn braille.
For this reason, it’s vital that healthcare workers dealing with blindness are able to refer their clients on to experienced braille teachers as soon as possible. In this way, the client can begin to get their life back on track far more quickly and effectively than if they were unable to read or write for the rest of their lives. But it is vital that those same professionals who make that referral, also provide resources to assist in the learning of braille. Otherwise, the client may not follow through and learn braille.
In an increasingly online world, and with screen readers for reading, writing and some identification, an increasing number of blind children are no longer learning or using braille. They rely solely on voice technology for reading and writing purposes. However, just as print is a necessity in places such as public toilets, braille is the equivalent for blind people, and cannot be provided through screen readers.
No matter what screen readers we use and what capabilities they have, there is nothing to replace physically reading. That’s why there are now braille note takers and braille displays that can connect to electronic devices using screen readers.
For schoolteachers, integration aides, and visiting teachers, it’s critical to incorporate use of this technology into all aspects of the education system.
It’s vital for blind children to use hard copy braille and the Perkins Brailler for things such as mathematics and languages. This is because screen readers and refreshable braille displays on braille computer technology, don’t display math symbols and lines of working correctly, either in braille or in print on a screen. It’s also necessary to be able to use braille in hard copy for things like tests, as often a computer is not allowed for the reading aspect, particularly for reading comprehension tests. So teachers and others involved in blind children’s education, need to be informed about braille and the ways in which it can be used, and ensure its inclusion in the individual’s learning.
It’s evident that braille is still impacting blind people as much now as it was at the time of its invention. It helps in their everyday life, because it’s essential to be able to read and write, in order to live life to the fullest. Every person has the right to learn to read and write, regardless of whether they have sight. Today, there are many resources to obtain braille. So as long as people are aware that there is help available, braille can continue to play a significant role in the lives of blind people. However, this can only happen if organisations that provide and teach braille, continue to educate the wider community and encourage its use.