by Tim Ballingall
- Only 12 percent of 55,000 legally blind children in the United States can read Braille. This literacy rate is down significantly from 50 percent in the 1960s.
- In 1968, out of 19,902 blind students enrolled in elementary and secondary education, 40 percent read Braille, 45 percent read large type or regular print, and 4 percent read both. In January 1993, out of 50,204 blind students, fewer than 9 percent could read Braille, 27 percent could read print, and 40 percent could not read at all. In other words, while there are 40,000 more blind children in school today, only 30 percent can read.
- Approximately 90 percent of blind jobholders in the United States are Braille literate.
- Thirty-three states have enacted bills promoting Braille instruction within K-12 school systems.
These statistics are taken from the Braille Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating the roadblocks to a fulfilling life for those afflicted with blindness and severe sight loss.
The National Braille Press, a Boston-based nonprofit, has been printing books in Braille since 1927. Its staff fervently believes in equality between sighted and blind people. The National Braille Press heads such programs as Readbooks!, Bumpy Basics, Children’s Braille Book Club, Lifelong Literacy, and the Center for Braille Innovation.
Other organizations like the National Federation of the Blind, founded in 1940, continue working toward that same goal. To do this, as stated on its website, the NFB has been
providing public education about blindness, information and referral services, scholarships, literature and publications about blindness, aids and appliances and other adaptive equipment for the blind, advocacy services and protection of civil rights, employment assistance and support services, development and evaluation of technology, and support for blind persons and their families.
Under the banner of the NFB and other organizations is the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind (IBTC), founded in 1990 as a facility to assist blind people in keeping up with technological advances. The IBTC staff performs product demonstrations, cost comparisons and quality evaluations; the staff also aids companies in complying with the Americans With Disabilities Act and ensuring non-visual access to websites.
The IBTC is adamant that while technologies like touch-screens and solely graphical (non-textual) interfaces may be technological steps forward, they are still, for the blind, steps backward.
One giant step forward, however, was taken in 1821 by Louis Braille. His six-dot system was an improvement upon Charles Barbier’s code, which was complicated to the point of impracticality. In his book, “The World’s Writing Systems,” Peter Daniels calls Braille the first digital form of writing. By “digital,” Daniels means that the system uses discontinuous values to form language. (Think of mp3 files—ones and zeros rather than sound waves.)
Braille employs two three-dot columns, a cell, in which dots are either raised or not raised. Sixty-four combinations are possible. Braille employs contractions such as b for but and c for can, almost like a shorthand. Braille may be transcribed on an electronic Braille Notetaker, a practical, efficient device compared to the slate and stylus method of yore. For a great resource on Braille technology, visit this AFB page.
For more information on Braille and Braille literacy, visit the Films on Demand page, accessible through the Rohrbach Library’s Articles and Databases page. Visit EBSCO Host for articles on Braille literacy. And for a more complete history of Braille, here and here are goldmine resources.