10 Things to Know About Braille in a Tech World

As society moved into the digital age, traditional literary and printing strategies gradually shifted along with it. Braille wound up caught in the undertow, largely ousted in favor of audio and other cheaper, more convenient technologies. However, it has yet to completely die out, largely because an ability to read Braille carries with it more advantages than disadvantages when it comes to providing opportunities for the visually-impaired. This Braille Literacy Month, look over some of the following facts and learn more about how the practice will likely adapt and survive despite the odds levied against it.

  1. Nine percent or fewer visually-impaired Americans read Braille:

    An estimated 25,200,000 adults and 59,355 children in America qualify as visually impaired, with a staggering 34% of the latter demographic qualifying as “non-readers.” By contrast, 22% are “pre-readers,” while 9% (some estimates posit 10%) read Braille. These numbers are reflected in the adult population as well. Enhancements to audio technology largely compromised the availability of Braille resources, thus lessening the demand. But the visually-impaired as well as their advocates believe schools need to ramp up their training in the practice, largely because …

  2. The employment rate is higher among visually-impaired individuals who read Braille:

    Significantly higher, actually. Studies show that 44% of adults who grew up reading Braille faced unemployment, compared with 77% who did not. Exposing the younger generations to the reading system obviously won’t guarantee future employment (nothing can, of course), but it increases their chances by quite a generous margin. When the visually-impaired and their supporters ask for funding toward Braille education programs, they do so with some more than valid arguments supporting why such initiatives need to happen.

  3. Cost propels many to turn toward audio:

    Unfortunately, the major roadblock toward promoting Braille literacy in an increasingly tech-enabled First World remains its comparatively high price tag. Text-to-speech and other advancements in audiology have largely supplanted the more traditional system – despite the latter’s obvious advantages – because of how much money it saves over time, not to mention the convenience factor. For example, the beloved Harry Potter series ultimately spanned 56 volumes when set into Braille, each one nearly a foot tall. Kind of hard to lug around. There’s also the fact that Braille textbooks can run up to a full thousand dollars.

  4. Apple is ensuring Braille does not die out:

    Despite the trend toward technology, some leading innovators such as Apple contribute toward Braille’s survival in some pretty creative ways. Rather than text-to-speech, it makes available text-to-Braille on Bluetooth-enabled iPhones. Users plug in a device translating on-screen words into Braille utilizing a series of small pins that pop in and out based on what needs reading. It’s a clever way to bring the traditional technique to an increasingly plugged-in society, and Apple remains an incredibly popular service provider for the visually-impaired community. The gadget has already helped Braille maintain equilibrium and might very well catch on in more and more classrooms thanks to its advantage of addressing the cost and space issue.

  5. Georgia Tech is making it possible for the visually-impaired to text:

    Text messaging’s inherently visual structure obviously makes it sound at odds with blindness, but researchers at Georgia Tech challenge this perspective with their prototype open to users of varying ability. Known as BrailleTouch, it allows for texting requiring only six keys and a gesture-based interface based off the Braille system. And, even more appealingly, it costs much less than a Braille keyboard. Because anyone can use the app, they include rudimentary lessons on how to read Braille to help keep the practice alive.

  6. Braille publishers and libraries are losing funding:

    The Canadian National Institute for the Blind – the country’s largest organization based on providing the proper resources for the visually-impaired – requires $10 million worth of donations to operate annually. In 2010, the survival of its mail-based Braille library services stood in jeopardy because of budget cuts and society’s trend toward tech-based solutions. CNIB still exists, of course, and still serves the community. But its struggles serve as a raw reminder of Braille’s status in an audio-dependent world, where nonprofits must either adapt to shifting technologies or find their donations stalling to a mere trickle.

  7. Speech-to-Braille technology exists:

    Another creative approach toward ensuring traditional methods survive among technological progress involves speech-to-Braille innovations. Similar to the aforementioned Apple example, it translates spoken data to a device raising tiny metal pins in response, allowing users to read – in Braille – everything being said in real time. For the visually-impaired who also contend with hearing difficulties, this offering stands as an incredible method for connecting with the world around them. Speech to Braille Reporting, one such gadget, even includes incidental sounds like laughing, murmuring, and applause.

  8. The visually-impaired can read e-books:

    Specialized e-book readers exist bringing classic and contemporary literature to visually-impaired readers who know Braille. Rather than the pin system, it uses touch-sensitive “electroactive polymers” to raise and lower the tablet’s surface, allowing them to keep up with the books at their own pace. Not to mention cutting back on the expenditures required to print up bound copies. Unfortunately, the availability of these devices are currently quite limited due to investment and cost issues.

  9. Some schools still teach Braille the traditional way:

    Despite the paltry number of Braille readers these days, that doesn’t necessarily mean the practice has died out entirely. The Royal Blind School in Edinburgh, for example, continues its lessons in reading and writing in Braille the same way it always has. Its youngest students build tactile sensitivity in their fingertips by sorting dried macaroni and peas, graduating on to Braille and, eventually, fluent reading and writing in the system. They’re encouraged to create and print their very own stories as well.

  10. The visually-impaired can “see” emotions in Braille:

    Even for individuals gifted with full sight, discerning emotions in print media can prove quite a challenge (hence the outcry for a sarcasm font). Umea University’s Shafiq ur Rehman penned his doctoral thesis on a code meant to assist Braille readers in comprehending tone. A tiny webcam reads facial expressions and voice patterns, relating them back to the visually-impaired individual through a series of coded vibrations. Each signal indicates a different emotion and places the speech in its proper context.