From Dots to Digital: a History of Communication

By Vaughn Bennison

For a person who is blind or has a significant vision impairment, gathering appropriate information to be able to fully contribute to the community and to feel empowered to participate equally with sighted peers, can be difficult and require significant training.

A fully sighted person has constant access to visual information. Images, signs, logos, news headlines etc., are all easily available without effort, and are often internalised without consciousness. A blind person, who must actively seek the information they require, is often at a significant disadvantage, and will sometimes interpret information differently, which can prove frustrating or embarrassing.

Several years ago during a re-branding exercise for an organisation I was involved with, we were discussing the visual aspect of our brand and its impact on the community – brand awareness. As an example, the person running the workshop was discussing the “Yellow M”. Not wishing to appear ignorant, but also extremely curious, I asked the perhaps obvious question, “what is the relevance of a yellow M”?

Much laughter ensued, and in fact the convenor neglected to answer the question. One of my colleagues leaned over and gave me the answer – the McDonalds logo, (the golden arches), of course, is a yellow M!

The above example may seem insignificant, but it is indicative of the problems people who are blind or vision impaired face on a daily basis. This obvious disadvantage is widely recognised but the ramifications perhaps, particularly in the general community, little thought of.

This is equally true for information which relates directly to blind and vision impaired people, and is a battle faced constantly by service providers, consumer organisations and other entities which support or include people with print disabilities. How do we ensure that all of our information is accessible to everyone? The method must be simple, complete, familiar and far-reaching.

A variety of innovative methods have been developed over time to communicate information accessibly and efficiently. Exploring the history of these communication methods, and highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of each, may teach us valuable lessons about how to approach this on-going communication challenge in the future.

For many years, braille has been a fundamental and significant part of the education of blind people. But educators of blind and vision impaired people once viewed braille with great suspicion. It was widely believed that blind people should read raised print and that other forms of writing, such as braille, were inappropriate.

One wonders whether the thought of blind people learning and understanding something that fully sighted people generally did not was at the root of this belief. One of the greatest advocacy victories by and for blind and vision impaired people resulted in braille being widely recognised as their official written language.

Anyone who has learned braille can freely read books and other publications. The braille reader has complete control of what they read and their reading pace. They also gain an understanding of the information they are reading – including spelling, punctuation, layout etc., which frequently eludes the non-braille reader.

More recently, with the development of electronic braille, one of the significant disadvantages of the format has been greatly reduced. Instead of having multiple bulky volumes for one book, a braille reader may have multiple books available on one device. The potential disadvantage of this, of course, is the sacrifice of layout and formatting information which can be difficult or impossible to comprehend when reading one line at a time.

To produce high-quality hard-copy braille, expensive specialist equipment is required, and expert proof readers and transcribers must be employed. These factors amplify the cost and the time it takes to produce braille, and limit the amount of braille which can be produced. This means, for example, that using hard-copy braille to enable a blind person to read the daily newspaper is generally considered impractical and extremely costly – although it is done successfully in some countries.

Furthermore, braille is often only taught to people who are blind or have a severe vision impairment, and frequently only those who have been so since birth. This means that its use as an information medium is limited to these people, and leaves the bulk of the blind and vision impaired community isolated. Education of braille must necessarily be taught by someone who is a fluent braille reader. The number of teachers who are fluent braille readers appears to be diminishing and therefore standards of braille education may well be lowering, which could have a negative impact on the relevance of braille in the future.

In the early 1930s, technology such as the Gramophone and Radio were well entrenched. It was recognised across the world that both of these held the potential to be extremely useful to blind or vision impaired people – and thus the “Talking Book” was invented. Due to the technology of the time, recording and playing “Talking Books” was initially difficult and inconvenient. In order to minimise the number of records needed it was decided to slow down the speed to fit more information on each side.

Since that time many iterations of the “Talking Book” have been used, from large metal cartridges to both two-track and four-track cassettes. Over time, audio books gained much higher sound quality, and became much more affordable to produce and purchase. The miniaturisation of technologies vastly improved their convenience, ease of use and portability. Imagine today, having to confine your book reading to one room because your audio book player could not be carried with you. Imagine today, having only one book to read and only being able to read for 15 minutes before turning over a record!

Digital technology has further reduced the size and costs of audio book production, enhanced the end-user’s ability to choose their own reading material, and enabled them to carry many books around at one time, on a small pocket-sized device. Further, it is now possible to obtain books immediately without having to rely on the post, and waiting for a copy of the book to become available. Software for smartphones has even realised the dream of being able to log into a library service, choose your book, download it and read it at your chosen speed, and in some cases your chosen format, be that audio, on screen, using Text to Speech technology or using a refreshable braille display.

Blind people now can purchase newly released books, download them and read them at the same time as their sighted counterparts. Services such as Kindle and I-Books have greatly enhanced the availability of written information and inclusion in many aspects of daily life. They have also greatly enhanced the availability of study material for people with a print disability, and increased the potential for manipulation and navigation of books for recreation and study.

But it is not all good news. Audio material may not be appropriate for people with severe or profound hearing impairments. Modern technology can be difficult to learn, potentially excluding people with learning disabilities or low technical literacy. Whilst competitive pressure is gradually making equipment more affordable, it can be prohibitively expensive for many. Certain options are only available on certain equipment, which narrows the choice for some.

Further, many of these options do not account for information of a transient nature, such as that contained in newspapers, community publications and handout material such as some educational material, pamphlets and brochures.

In 1963, a new technology became available and very rapidly gained ascendancy over other forms of audio technology for its sound quality, ease of use, portability and low cost of production. The Cassette tape, originally invented by the Phillips Corporation, was widely recognised as an excellent medium for information sharing. It was easy to mass-produce, cheap to purchase and its size meant it could be easily and affordably sent through the mail.

Not only did this greatly assist the Talking Book, but it made possible the “Talking Newspaper”. For the first time, blind people were able to gain access to information provided in newspapers, which for hundreds of years had been sighted peoples’ best form of access to information relating to their communities and the wider world.

“Talking Newspapers” were usually produced on a weekly basis and were necessarily a digest of information from local newspapers. They were usually produced by volunteers and mailed out to blind people. When the listener was finished with the cassette, it would be mailed back for reuse. This meant that the information was well out of date by the time the end-user received it. As well, the information presented, because of space and time, was incomplete and listeners had no choice about what would be presented.

In the mid 1970s, a group of interested blind and sighted people got together to discuss the use of radio to provide information relevant to blind people. The Australian government opened a broadcast licence category for “Public Broadcasting”, (now known as Community Broadcasting). It was believed that this could be used to provide widespread information for people with a print disability, enabling greater levels of participation in their communities.

This movement grew rapidly, and the first RPH station commenced broadcasting in 1982. Over the next two years, stations commenced in all capital cities except Darwin. There are now 19 stations across Australia under the RPH network. Every day, over 1500 volunteers present information such as newspapers, magazines, books, community publications and information specific to different disability groups.

Whilst this information is available to anyone with a print disability within the catchment area of an RPH station, it does not sufficiently cover those in rural and remote communities. Most RPH stations stream online, but this is not a good solution for these communities, for whom local information is particularly important.

As with the Talking Newspaper program, whilst more useful and current information can be presented, the listener has no real choice about what information they hear and when they hear it. The information tends to be provided in the interests of the bulk of listeners, people who are gaining a print disability through age or illness. This marginalises groups, particularly young people, who have different needs from the bulk of the traditional RPH audience.

Could technology provide the answer for these people? Libraries such as the Vision Australia library publish magazines and daily newspapers for people to read online, or download to their own device. This enables blind people to quickly and easily navigate their local or national newspaper. Not all information contained in a newspaper can be provided in this way, but more choice is available than ever before. Many devices allow the connection of refreshable braille technology, enabling the user to read the newspaper in braille. Otherwise the user may read on screen, or using Text to Speech technology.

This is not an answer for everyone, as a reasonable understanding of technology is required and access to the library, via an internet connection, is essential. But it enables some blind people to obtain the newspaper at the same time as their sighted counterparts, and offers a great opportunity to be fully informed.

Developments in Text to Speech, or Speech synthesis technology through the 1950s and 60s culminated in the design and production of computer access for blind and vision impaired people, principally from the late 1970s. In more recent times blind and vision impaired people are afforded, if not equal access, certainly high quality access to many forms of information via the internet, using screen-readers with speech, large print or braille. Whilst many websites and other internet forums are largely inaccessible, enough information can be gleaned for many people to use smartphones and computers much as their sighted peers would.

But again, we meet the tyranny of cost. Technology does not necessarily come cheap, and whilst it is fair to say that prices are becoming more affordable, it is still out of the range of many people, particularly those who are unemployed, or those living in developing countries. Similarly, for some, extensive training is necessary, which can prove costly and difficult to access.

Technology may also solve one of the biggest problems faced by blind and vision impaired people. What about the small stuff? In the late 1970s, the Optacon, for the first time, allowed blind people widespread access to print. A user, for the first time, could read their own mail, a newspaper, a book, computer printouts etc. entirely independently. These devices were expensive, broke down often and were very difficult to repair. As well, the user required a significant deal of training in the use of the optacon. But it allowed unparalleled access to many forms of written material.

More recently, options exist to enable blind and vision impaired people greater, cheaper and easier access to all forms of written information. Optical Character Recognition software opens up a world of options to a person who is blind or vision impaired. Similarly, the increased ubiquity of barcode reading technology offers access to information relating to household products and other items. Some of these options even allow access to the holy grail, handwriting, enabling blind people to read notes written by sighted people.

Services such as AIRA allow people to be connected directly to sighted people who can “see” for them. This allows people who are blind to get assistance with daily tasks and access to information which would be difficult or impossible without this option. These services have their downfalls; expense, reliance on technology and internet access, but may provide many answers long looked for by blind and vision impaired people.

There are two important lessons we can learn from this history. Firstly, the increasingly rapid rise of new technologies can encourage us to dismiss old ones. But it’s clear that there is no one communication method which suits every person or situation.

For a large number of people, those for whom technology is difficult and/or expensive, and those who live outside areas of good internet coverage, radio and audio books may be the best option. For others who are well versed in access technology, there are a vast and increasing number of options. For many, who require information outside what can be provided by technology, braille is still the answer.

Organisations which communicate to people who are blind or vision impaired should strive to enable as many people as possible to participate in whichever aspect of life they choose. To achieve this, it’s vital that we acknowledge the vast variety of needs and circumstances within the blind and vision impaired community. To make information genuinely accessible, it may be necessary to use a variety of these communication methods, even those which some may call antiquated.

Secondly, the communication practices we use today were mostly developed through innovative problem-solving. It’s important that both at a community level, and among service providers, we continue to encourage and support such innovation into the future. It is clear that none of these methods would have saved me from the embarrassment of not understanding the “Yellow M”. Is this the new frontier for accessibility?

Regardless of which technology or method we employ, there is still no easy way for a blind person to “discover” the wealth of information which is constantly available to the sighted person, from logos, to colours, to personal appearance. But given the progress we’ve made in the last century, it’s quite conceivable that through the evolution of technology, and more problem-solving, much of the information we still struggle to access may one day be at our fingertips.

Editor’s Note

As well as the host of BCA’s New Horizons radio program and podcast, Vaughn Bennison is the CEO of 7RPH in Hobart, and former Chair of RPH Australia. I commissioned this article from him as an experiment in longer-form essays, exploring topics in more depth than our typical word count will allow. I’m very interested in whether you’d like to see more of this kind of piece in future editions. If so, please let me know via email to bca@bca.org.au.

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