The right to read Braille

Published on: 14 Mawrth 2012 Author: Alex Strick

The right to read BrailleLike many people, I am fascinated by Braille. It always strikes me as a beautiful, skilful and undervalued form of communication.

I find myself in a state of silent awe when I have the chance to watch a Braillist's fingertips dance across the page, decoding an intricate pattern of tiny bumps whose meaning remain a mystery to the rest of us.

I take every opportunity to look out for books featuring Braille and to champion the need for more Braille books and materials.

That said, I sometimes feel slightly uncomfortable about what seems to me to be something of a contradiction. While Braille labelling is becoming far more prevalent (and it is now mandatory on pharmaceutical packaging), learning Braille is on the decline and less than 5% of blind people actually use Braille. While I know that this should not mean we stop producing materials and labelling in Braille for those who do read it, it does raise interesting questions about the future of Braille, the impact of technology, and whether it actually matters if the art of Braille is slowly dying out. Personally, I believe it does matter, very much.

Let's talk first about technology. There is no doubt that the digital revolution has transformed life for the visually impaired community. From audio books to apps, the opportunities are vast and are growing rapidly, as we have previously discussed on this blog. The implications in terms of storage are huge – one can store hundreds of audio books in a small mobile device with a screen reader instead of vast volumes of Braille. People with limited sight can change the size of the font on their PC from 12pt to 48pt in a second and speech recognition software is revolutionizing life for many.

However, surely there are many reasons why one would still want to be able to read – be it reading one's bank statements in privacy or cuddling up and losing oneself in the pages of a 'real' book.

This means that Braille can have an important role to play. Being able to learn Braille is a vital opportunity for many blind people in terms of the enjoying the right to develop literacy. Braille provides the fundamentals of reading and writing for blind people, offering that vital understanding of letters, words, spelling, punctuation, and sentence structures.

Plus Braille and technology are not mutually exclusive. Far from it. Braille has positively embraced technology and blind people can now enjoy writing, emailing, Googling, texting, chatting, downloading music, working and studying using Braille technology.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges is not the 'competition' with technology, but rather the apparent decline in the number of suitably qualified Braille teachers. With many visually impaired children moving to mainstream settings, access to quality Braille instruction is even more limited. We need to invest in teaching Braille – and make that teaching available in a range of settings.

In my opinion, another obstacle is that of attitudes. We need to support a positive attitude towards the learning of Braille. Surely it is a blind child's natural right to learn to read - just like any other child - and Braille allows them to do that. Naïve as it may sound, I would love to see sighted children (and adults) being given the opportunity to learn some Braille or at least be exposed to it from time to time, to appreciate it as an artform, respect it as a means of communication. Rather like British Sign Language, this is a form of communication which could have so much universal value and appeal. Plus, just imagine the sense of reassurance when you give a presentation or have a job interview and are able to read the prompt words with your fingers.

With technological advancements and a more 'inclusive' approach to education, there is perhaps a risk that we assume we are truly catering for blind and partially sighted audiences. We might believe that by offering them audio books, large print and speech recognition software, we are offering them equality. But are we?

Surely the simple answer is that everyone should have freedom of choice. And in order to have that choice they need the opportunity to learn Braille. This gives them the right to read Braille or not, as they so wish. The right to read a book in Braille, or listen to it as an audio book. The right to read their own bank statements or private correspondence without having to ask someone else to do it for them. The right to pick up a book instead of a 'phone or a Kindle, when they feel like it. The right to choose for themselves.

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