[Athen] The Rebirth of Braille (Boston Globe)

Berkowitz, Daniel J djbrky at bu.edu
Sun Feb 11 06:53:48 PST 2007

Note: Newton, Massachusetts is home to the Carroll Center for the Blind

The Rebirth of Braille

Boston Globe


Not so long ago it looked like new technologies would render Braille obsolete. Now it's making a comeback.

By Chris Spurgeon | February 11, 2007

Next month, blind grade-school students from across New England will travel to Newton to test their skill in reading Braille. The competition, called the

Braille Challenge, measures students' Braille reading speed and accuracy, with the top finishers in the regional events going on to national finals this

June in Los Angeles.

The Braille Challenge is in its sixth year, and there's been a steady rise in the number of competitors. It's a sign of a growing resurgence in Braille,

a writing system that not so long ago seemed headed toward extinction.

Before the writing system perfected by Louis Braille in the early 19th century was adopted, a diagnosis of blindness was also a sentence of lifelong illiteracy.

But Braille fluency gave blind people the tools to earn an education. Use of Braille grew for more than a century and by the 1960s, 60 percent of blind

children in America were learning it.

But then, starting in the late '60s, those numbers began to fall. According to figures from the American Printing House for the Blind, the country's oldest

manufacturer of educational material for blind students, today fewer than one-quarter of the blind children in this country who could potentially learn

Braille actually do so. (Not all blind children can learn Braille. Many children born blind are also born with cognitive disabilities that make mastering

Braille impossible.)

Braille's decline was the byproduct of a revolution in education for the blind that, for a time, made Braille seem irrelevant. In the 1960s and '70s, many

blind students began attending regular public schools, instead of specialized schools for the blind. This "mainstreaming" had huge benefits for blind students,

giving them higher self-esteem, higher overall academic achievement, and helping them integrate with society, while at the same time teaching sighted students

a bit about the disabled world.

But it also made teaching Braille more difficult. When blind education was centralized, it was easier for specialized instructors to teach many students

at once. Braille teachers now often had to travel among several schools to reach their students, and a greater proportion of the education of blind students

fell to regular classroom teachers, who often didn't have the time or training to teach Braille. According to Tanya Holton of the National Braille Press,

a Boston-based Braille publishing house, "Teachers and administrators said 'Braille is just so hard, books on tape are so much easier.'"

The increasing number of audiobooks, and then the appearance of personal computers with synthetic speech software, led to a view that modern technology

was making Braille obsolete. Blind students could put on a set of headphones and listen to instructional material on a wide variety of subjects, without

the need to read and write a specialized alphabet.


While many blind men and women lead successful lives without Braille, Holton feels it was a mistake to dismiss Braille completely. She says it has a versatility

that speech-based communication can never match. "Imagine trying to learn algebra orally. Imagine trying to rewind through an audio recording of a recipe

while you're trying to cook."

Braille also lets you write, not just read. The current generation of Braille recording and playback machines are compact and powerful devices, suitable

for business as well as school. They have specialized keyboards designed for rapid Braille typing and display devices that quickly raise and lower a series

of pins, generating the various patterns of the Braille alphabet. A skilled user can take notes and read text as fast as a sighted person with a laptop.

They're one reason Braille fluency has such a strong correlation with employment -- 90 percent of blind men and women who are fully employed can read Braille.

All of this has led to a reassessment of Braille's importance by educators, parents of blind children, and politicians. Ten years ago the federal Individuals

with Disabilities Education Act mandated that public schools consider Braille in their blind curriculum. More than 30 states -- including Massachusetts

-- now have laws on the books saying that schools must teach Braille to all blind children capable of learning it. Nancy Niebrugge, an assistant vice president

of the Braille Institute of America, says all of this makes her optimistic about Braille's future.

"Five or 10 years ago there may have been a sense of despair, but there was a lot of pushing to bring Braille back, and I think it's working. There's a

new understanding, that it's not the same to just listen to a book. That's a form of literacy, but it's not the same. If only 23 percent of a graduating

class could read and write everyone would be outraged. We're turning a corner, but the goal is to go up."

Chris Spurgeon lives in Los Angeles, where he works as a Web developer and designer, writes the blog


and studies obsolete technologies.

© Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.

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