“Louis Braille invented his eponymous code nearly 200 years ago. The tactile reading and writing system has transformed the lives of many blind people. More recently, computers and the internet have introduced new opportunities for accessing precious information. If Louis Braille was alive today, he would embrace it all!”
On 4th January, World Braille Day marks Louis Braille’s birthday. Born in 1809, he invented the braille code, or ‘braille’. Braille is a tactile reading and writing system used by many people with severe vision impairments or blindness. A braille character is based upon a matrix of a six raised dots, historically embossed on paper. Different combinations of these dots represent an individual letter, letter combination or word. Louis Braille was blind himself and first proposed the idea while still at school. The braille code he developed has had a profound impact upon the education of people with vision impairment around the world.
In recent years the emergence of computer technology has raised questions about the future of braille. Some people wonder whether we need braille now that computers and mobile devices can provide speech output. Drawing upon some of the research into braille which has taken place in the Vision Impairment Centre for Teaching and Research (VICTAR), we argue that technology and braille are allies rather than competitors.
It is simplistic to consider braille and technology as having an uneasy relationship. In fact, the reverse is true – after all, braille’s success is closely linked to technological developments that have enabled braille production and writing. This includes braille writing frames, mechanical writing machines such as the Perkins brailler, braille embossers (which are essentially braille printers) and most recently, the refreshable braille display. These braille displays are linked to computers and present a line of braille characters which are refreshed as the user reads.
More braille is available today than ever before. Many products have braille embossed on their packaging (for example, visit Coop shops), and it is now a legal requirement to have braille labels on all medicine packaging (our own research underpins this international standard). This greater availability of braille reflects the improvements in national and international disability legislation, but improved technology has played a crucial role too. The internet means that huge volumes of electronic files are now easily available at any time. These can be accessed online, easily converted into braille and embossed or read using a refreshable braille display. In a recent blog, Amy Mason described how refreshable braille displays have “transformed the way that many of us use braille”.
However it is inaccurate to assume that braille has been the chosen literacy approach amongst blind people since its invention. The history of braille was documented by the late Dr Pamela Lorimer in her University of Birmingham PhD thesis. The adoption of braille was a slow process which involved debates and controversies over many decades, long after Louis Braille’s death. Professor Michael Tobin, Emeritus Professor within VICTAR, carried out research into braille reading for many years. In a recent article he notes how the debates about the braille code continue. He too questions the common assertion that computer technology will render braille obsolete. Instead he argues technology is making access to braille “easier, faster, and cheaper”. This has certainly been true of participants in our ongoing longitudinal transitions study who have benefited from using refreshable braille devices during their studies in higher education. While they do not use braille for all aspects of their studies, the participants highlighted how important their access to braille is in particular scenarios, such as following notes during a lecture or proof reading an essay.
As in many countries, in the UK teachers are required to have a specialist qualification to teach children with vision impairment, and this includes a requirement to know how to teach braille as a route to literacy – Birmingham University has a long established training programme (one of the biggest in the world). Even so, findings from some UK studies suggest considerable variation in approaches to the teaching of braille literacy, which led to our recent literature review. We found no evidence to support the view that technology has an adverse effect on the development of literacy through braille. However, we did find that there is limited information for teachers about how to teach braille literacy in mainstream schools. The review made several recommendations about braille teaching (e.g. in relation to the use of reading schemes, phonological instruction and the order of introducing braille letters) and since then more teaching resources have been developed. However, an area that remains problematic is the need to re-develop a standardised braille reading test (a previous test was developed in the 1990s at the University of Birmingham, but needs updating).
Our research highlights that the dangers to the future of braille are related to educational resources and approaches, not to the emergence of new technology. In the current climate where teaching services are being placed under a great deal of financial pressure, we must guard against braille teaching being neglected. Braille remains a hugely important route to literacy for blind people, and is a key method of accessing information independently, which complements other ‘technology literacies’.
If the brilliant Louis Braille was alive today he would be reading braille with skill and enthusiasm while at the same time surfing the web, marvelling at information he would literally have at his fingertips. His invention remains a potent symbol of disabled people’s independence and empowerment. But most importantly, braille works.
Graeme Douglas, Mike McLinden and Rachel Hewett