Braille or computers? I’ll have both please

“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.

Reading braille

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


Engaging with the sector – ESRC Festival of Social Science

On 10th November VICTAR and VIEW collaborated to host a workshop entitled ‘Supporting young people with vision impairment through post-16 transition’. This event was arranged as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science.

Various professionals who have contributed to the Longitudinal Transitions Study and provided teaching support for the MQ programme were invited to attend the event, which was held at Impact Hub Birmingham. The purpose of the event was to present our findings from the ongoing longitudinal study and to discuss the appropriate response of the sector to these findings.

The event was chaired by VICTAR co-director, Mike McLinden.

The afternoon commenced with a presentation from Graeme Douglas and Rachel Hewett (VICTAR) and Sue Keil (VIEW) who discussed some of the key findings from both the Longitudinal Transition Study and a RNIB Freedom of Information Request of Local Authority specialist services. The presentation focused on the role of specialist services in preparing young people with vision impairment for adulthood, whilst acknowledging the conflicting pressures which local authorities face due to a narrowing of the curriculum and budget constraints.

Sue Keil presenting findings from the RNIB Freedom of Information request

The second presentation came from Kay Wrench who reflected back on her thirty years’ experience working as a qualified teacher of children and young people with vision impairment (QTVI). She emphasised the importance of QTVIs using their time resource wisely, such as equipping schools to produce materials in alternative formats to allow the QTVI to focus on working with children and young people with vision impairment to develop important skills such as self-advocacy, mobility and assistive technology skills.

Kay Wrench

Lucy Dixon from RNIB followed by sharing information about a sector wide campaign which is set to highlight dwindling specialist support services for children and young people with vision impairment, and to expose the negative impact that this has on young people with vision impairment being able to fulfill their potential and to live and work independently when adults. Further information about this campaign can be found on the RNIB website.

Lucy Dixon

The second half of the afternoon allowed opportunity for discussion in small groups and for delegates to provide their thoughts and reflections on the issues raised. Those who attended contributed enthusiastically, drawing upon their wealth of experience working in both educational and voluntary sectors.

The afternoon was concluded by Rory Cobb from VIEW who drew together the main points of these discussions. The outcomes of these will be summarised and shared on the VIEW website for consideration by other QTVIs, and will also guide important discussions between VICTAR, VIEW and members of the steering group for the longitudinal transitions study over the coming months and years.


We would like to thank ESRC for providing funding to support this event, Impact Hub Birmingham for hosting the event and the delegates who engaged with the workshop with such enthusiasm.

Rachel Hewett

Thank you to Rory Cobb and Sue Keil

On Friday the 20th October 2017 Rory and Sue both retired from RNIB – combined, they had contributed over 50 years of work to RNIB and the field of vison impairment education.  They have done this with great skill, openness, friendliness, good humour and passion. Thank you both, and very best wishes for a happy and healthy retirement!

Sue and Rory
Sue and Rory at their retirement celebration

I met Rory in 1994 when I first started working in the field – he advised us on a technology development project and was typically thoughtful and helpful. In the 2000s we worked more closely together on his MPhil – in which he researched assessment access. This was part of his sustained and successful efforts to gain fair access to public examinations for students with vision impairment.  We struck up a friendship and through those discussions lay some of the seeds of our theoretical thinking about vision impairment education: balancing social adjustments (inclusive practice) on one hand and developing children’s agency and independence on the other. As a programme and regional tutor, Rory has offered wonderful support to the Mandatory Qualification for Teachers of Children and Young People with Vision Impairments. In fact Rory’s development work on the programme has helped align it to new and changing government policies while maintaining a theoretical integrity with young people’s interests at its core.

I met Sue in the late 1990s, initially as a researcher and author on the influential RNIB Shaping the Future survey work which gathered the views of a large cohort of young people across the UK. At the same time Sue was a key RNIB contact for much of VICTARs research work, initially the ‘Steps to Independence‘ project (which has links to the emergence of the habitation specialist as a key professional in our field). Sue is a brilliant advocate for research as a vehicle to bring about positive change and to challenge inequality – this is both as a ‘user of research’ through exemplary briefing documents, and also as a ‘producer of research’. For example, Sue’s ‘state of the nation’ reports based on survey work with local authorities continue to be hugely important. More recently she has worked on significant research projects at both ends of the educational age range – the Great Ormond Street Hospital/UCL OPTIMUM project concerned with early development in blind or partially sighted infants, and the VICTAR Longitudinal Transitions Project concerned with Post-16 transition experiences.

We all work in a relatively small field, and as such we rely on collaboration and friendships. VICTAR and field generally have benefited greatly from Rory and Sue as individuals, but in recent years we have gained even more from them as a brilliant team.  Their complementary areas of expertise are amazing and have helped us glue together important strands of research and teacher training in the field of vision impairment education. This is also enhanced by a quality they share – both are superb spoken and written communicators. This has been clearly illustrated through their contributions to writing in our field.

steering group
Sue and Rory and other members of the Longitudinal Transition Study steering group

Good luck next stage of your lives – I’m sure that will involve some continued working together here at the University and through your planned work with VIEW. I hope it will also involve some well-earned time to relax!

With very best wishes and thanks from all at the University of Birmingham.

Graeme Douglas

New blogs!

Two of our projects have been featured in external blogs.

Elena Schmidt from Sightsavers has written for the Impact Initiative about our ongoing collaborative work in Malawi. You can find this on The Impact Initiative website. 

Rachel Hewett has written about some of our dissemination activities in relation to the Longitudinal Transitions Study for University of Birmingham’s Think:Research publication.

Higher education: challenging the stereotype

For the past couple of days I have noticed quite a few of my friends have shared on social media the story of a young man with a severe visual impairment who came to the UK as a refugee and moved into a council estate.

When thinking about these key demographics, you could definitely say that the odds have been stacked against him in life, but despite this he has just graduated from University of Cambridge with a First Class Law degree.

Students graduating.jpg
Students celebrating their graduation

What has struck me is that when reporting this story, the media have focused so heavily on his visual impairment, even in the context of the other barriers that he has faced in life. This has led me to consider how many of the young people that I have been working with would respond to this message. Undoubtedly they would recognise the young man’s achievement, as they would for any other student. However, at the same time I know they would be frustrated at the perceptions being highlighted by the media reaction; that is so ‘extraordinary’ for a person with visual impairment to perform so highly.

As part of my research for the Longitudinal Transitions Study I have followed the experiences of almost 40 young people with visual impairment during higher education (HE). It is true to say that many of the young people have experienced considerable challenges in accessing their courses and university life in general. However it is important to note that in many cases these challenges should already have been overcome through HE institutions offering an inclusive learning experience.

HE institutions are required by the Equality Act to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for disabled students to ensure that they are not at a disadvantage in comparison to their non-disabled peers. Importantly these adjustments should be ‘anticipatory’, thus requiring institutions to plan in advance to remove barriers, and not simply in response to challenges faced by a particular student. For example, in the case of a student with visual impairment often anticipatory adjustments can be as simple as ensuring that lecture notes are made available in advance of lectures in a format that is compatible with their assistive technology. Alternatively it may involve the institution making timetables available in advance which can enable a student with visual impairment to be taught routes to get to lectures independently and for reading lists to be provided in sufficient time to request accessible copies of textbooks.

Of course there are cases where the barriers faced can be more complex, such as the need to put in place adjustments to ensure that a student can take part in practical sessions or be able to use a particular piece of software. However, the experiences of the young people taking part in the Longitudinal Transitions Study testify that, providing the institution and student work together, such barriers can be overcome.

Lastly, and as we often remark in the Inclusive Curriculum Committee that I sit on, inclusive practice benefits the student population as a whole! Providing lecture notes in advance of lectures gives all students the option of reviewing slides before lectures and having copies of notes in front of them. Lecture capture means that all students can go back and revisit lectures while they prepare for their exam. Whilst well-structured virtual learning environments mean that all students can navigate online content more smoothly to identify the information that they need.

If you would like to know more about the experiences of our participants in higher education, please check out our summary report. Alternatively if you are a student with visual impairment preparing to go into higher education, you may be interested in these resources we developed with RNIB.

Rachel Hewett

Reflections of school

In the latest report from the Longitudinal Transition Study, research participants – who are now aged between 19 and 22 – were asked to reflect back to their experiences of school and transition.


In this blog we talk about some of the things that the young people told us. What, in hindsight are the things they value about their experiences of school and the specialist support they received, and that helped them make a successful transition? And what are the things that didn’t go so well and could have been improved upon?

How well did school prepare young people for transition?

There were mixed views on how well the participants felt that they had been prepared for transition from school. Some observed that while at the time of transition they had felt well prepared, the reality of life outside school had been quite different to their expectations. Specialist support had been harder to access than they had anticipated and/or they had lacked important independent learning advocacy, and mobility skills.

The skills that young people needed for a successful transition

It was having those all important independence skills, along with the ability to self advocate, that were the key factors in whether a young person felt they were prepared for the challenges that many of them experienced following transition. It is also evident that the participants who left school without good independent learning and mobility and self advocacy skills were far less resilient and less able to cope than those who did have these skills.

“Not prepared at all! They don’t prepare you at all for university, school is a sheltered environment where A-levels are basically tick boxing and teachers are like just dictating to you what you need to know. The moment you get to uni, literally… you aren’t exactly a duck out of water, but you sit there…”

“They didn’t help with confidence or independence. They thought education was enough.”

 “I was taught how to stand up for myself, I was taught how to assert myself, and I was taught to some extent what my rights were and that kind of thing, particularly at the school level…”

Student and staff
Student receiving specialist careers support

“[Mobility training]…was very helpful, it boosted my confidence, even now when I don’t know where I am going I do feel more confident because I know I can do it if I concentrate.”

Information needs

The research also found that many participants had left school not knowing about their rights and the different types of support and funding available to them, or how to navigate this support. For example, Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) and the Access to Work scheme, or specialist careers advice. Positive accounts came from participants who had received specific transition support, e.g. through careers services or transition officers:

“I guess the one thing that I wasn’t really prepared for is that… I wasn’t really properly told how to apply for DSA straight away, so that was an issue in the first year, trying to get all of that sorted out, and it was hard to get processed. I didn’t know where to go to get the evidence I needed…”

“Very, very very prepared. I had support from Connexions people. They offered me help in terms of career pathways. That definitely helped, that’s why I chose the course I did at college.”

The role of education providers

It is the responsibility of education providers to ensure that as well as having good academic qualifications, students leave school equipped with the skills needed to make a successful transition to independent adulthood. This is made clear in the DfE’s ‘preparing for adulthood outcomes’ toolkit and the principles apply to post-school education providers too. Even confident young people with good independence and self advocacy skills have not been prepared for the lack of inclusive practice in some further and higher education institutions identified in this study.

What are we doing with all this evidence?

Information needs

We have listened to what young people have told us about the information they need at the time of transition and with funding from DfE and the National Sensory Impairment Partnership (NatSIP) developed detailed guidance on going to university.

We are working with young people to create resources that can be used by VI services and schools to deliver transitions workshops for young people with VI, and to update RNIB’s current online transitions guidance and downloadable ‘Bridging the Gap’ guide for England.

Training for young people

We are sharing the research findings with professionals who support young people with VI so they understand the importance of teaching independence skills. For example, through the mandatory training for qualified teachers of children and young people with VI (QTVI), and through a ‘Learner Outcomes Framework’ which we developed with Brent sensory service and Positive Eye for NatSIP.

We have shared the research findings on young people’s experiences of university with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator in Higher Education (OIAHE) which is the independent body set up to review individual student complaints, and is developing a good practice framework in supporting disabled students in higher education

Sue Keil and Rachel Hewett.

Top Tips for Starting University

For the past seven years I have had the privilege of working with a group of young people with visual impairment, following the various transitions that they have made since leaving school. For over half this has included making the transition into university.

While starting university can be a really exciting time as you have the opportunity to move away from home, make new friends and study the course of your choice, for students with visual impairment it can also be a particularly daunting time. In this blog I draw on the shared experiences of the young people I have worked with to outline some top tips for preparing for university.

Student working at computer

Give yourself plenty of time.

The application process for Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) can take a long time – particularly if suppliers need to source very specialist equipment. Make contact with the support service at your university in advance so you can start working together to outline any specific adjustments which the university may need to make.

Think about what you need.

Before meeting with a needs assessor for DSA spend some time thinking and researching about how you want to approach your studies at university: what support and equipment will you need in place to achieve this? Before meeting with the university support service consider what adjustments you might want and how best they can support you in your studies.

Talk to other students.

University can be very different from sixth form or college. Teaching often takes place in large lecture rooms and there is a particular focus on independent study. To get a better understanding of what university is like, talk to friends or family members who have already been, or ask the student representatives you meet at open days.

Students at a university campus

Take responsibility.

One of the main findings from our research is that universities view their students as adults, expecting them to take responsibility as such. It is inevitable that there will be some teething problems as you make the initial transition into university as staff learn how best to support you, and you learn more about the adjustments you need. However the onus is on you to let staff know if you are experiencing problems or if things aren’t quite as you would like them.

Embrace all aspects of university life.

One of the great things about university is the opportunity to meet new people and to get involved in different clubs and societies. Take advantage of Fresher’s events to learn more about what is on offer. Talk to your university about how they can support you with this. For example, some universities have volunteers who can act as sighted guides for Fresher’s events or to help facilitate people in attending societies.

For further advice I recommend looking at our ‘Starting University’ guidance which can be found on the RNIB website.

If you have any additional advice you would like to share, please feel free to do so in the comments below!

Rachel Hewett