Braille isn’t [quote] embattled–we’re on the cusp of a golden age for blind people

Braille isn’t [quote] embattled–we’re on the cusp of a golden age for blind people

Far from heralding the death of a great medium, technology may be ushering in a new era of access and greater independence

Ian Macrae

The Guardian (UK), May 22, 2014.

Imagine a situation where you walk into your favourite restaurant and ask for the menu, only to be told it isn’t available. Chances are it wouldn’t stay your favourite for very long.

As a braillist–someone who uses braille–the dream for me is when the opposite happens. A small number of chain restaurants offer menus in braille; sometimes, they’re even up to date.

It is difficult to over-express the sense of liberation at being able to browse and choose your preferred pizza independently. And in Co-op supermarkets, where some of the own-brand labels feature braille, there is pride in being able to identify a bottle of wine from a label that few if any other people in the store are able to read.

All too often, though, finding anything in shops is a matter of random selection, peering in earnest, or asking for help. And just when it seemed the situation couldn’t get any worse for braillists, along come headlines suggesting the end is nigh for braille, that this communication lifeline is about to be cut off.

This week, Dr Matthew Rubery, curator of an exhibition on alternative methods of reading for blind people, described braille as [quote] embattled.

He went on to say its biggest threat [quote] is computer technology, which makes it much easier not to have to learn it. A lot of people fear braille won’t survive because it will be read by so few people. The use has declined and there are concerns about funding to keep it going.

This seems to me a rather glass-half-empty view, although there is some evidence to support his argument. Anecdotally, it is claimed blind children are no longer being taught braille. This is said to be owing to sighted teachers who believe computer technology, and in particular synthesised speech, has rendered it redundant. Therefore, the teachers don’t need to learn braille either.

If this is true, and no other factors were to come into play, then the outlook might really look bad. But, like print, braille has gone through a process of evolution. It started out in classrooms as the equivalent of the slate – my five-year-old hands punched out each dot individually through a sheet of thick manilla paper. We learned to write it backwards and read it forwards.

Then Harold Wilson’s [quote] white heat age of technology ushered in the mechanical era. Classrooms echoed to the deafening collective rattle of 15 or more braille machines – the Stainsby, the Perkins, the Lavender – pounding away at dictation or composition.

And now, like print with its tablets, Kindles and touch screens, braille has gone digital. And it is my belief that this could well mean it becomes more widely available and infinitely more useful. This is important because it means all children in future will be able to enjoy the same degree of literacy, not to mention the same levels of liberation and pleasure, as I do now.

Think of this: I am writing and editing this piece on an Apple computer using braille from an electronic display that drives pins into the correct shapes to form a line of braille text. Once the piece is published I will be able to go to the Guardian website on my iPhone or iPad, use Bluetooth to connect up a portable braille device, and read it along with you. The main problem currently is the cost of the braille-reading equipment: the cheapest is 900 [pounds].

But, fellow reader, we are now in the age of the app and of haptic technology, which communicates through vibration and touch. It is already possible for me to download an app that will create on my touch screen a virtual braille keyboard on which I can compose texts, emails, tweets and Facebook updates in braille.

Meanwhile, the search is already on for the holy grail of braille–a means of creating dots without using expensive mechanical cells that make the shape of braille characters using pins. Then the world would truly be at our fingertips.

What is needed is an app that would turn digital text on your device into electronic impulses in the shape of braille characters, transmitted by the screen of your iPad or other tablet, to be read by touch. To go back to my restaurant quandary, all I would need to do would be to call up the menu online, put it through my haptic braille app, and read it on my screen.

Add into that mix a scanning app, and I could point my device at what was on the supermarket shelf and have the haptic braille app produce the package information.

And if you think this is hopelessly optimistic pie in the sky, it’s worth remembering that less than five years ago 96% of all books produced would never be turned into forms accessible to blind people. But with the advent of e-books and existing technology, I am now able to read pretty much any book I want to in electronic braille.

So rather than seeing the end of braille, we could be entering a golden age of access and communication. Here’s to more pizza, more wine, and more braille.