After years of perceived and actual decline in its usage, the arrival of a new Braille tablet together with other advances in technology could be the saviour of the reading system which, Ian Macrae argues, is fundamental to the independence of blind people.
I don’t know how sighted people feel about print. I know that many of them love books and reading, but does the medium in which material is presented excite them, enthuse them, make them feel liberated?
For me as a blind person who reads in Braille, the medium itself causes all of those reactions and more in me. Indeed, it’s not going too far to say that I love Braille.
This outpouring of loyalty and emotion is prompted in part by the recent launch of a new Braille device. Braillenote Touch, from international assistive technology company Humanware, is exactly what it claims to be, namely an Android tablet with fully integrated Braille input and output. Humanware has embedded its own proprietary suite of Braille-related software apps alongside the Android operating system and equipped the basic tablet with a Braille display and an optional Braille keyboard for those who find the idea of using a virtual keyboard on the tablet’s touch screen a little too counter-intuitive.
Braille has always had a number of things not going for it. In the days of books they were bulky and inconvenient to transport or carry around. Your average Harry Potter for instance arrived from the Braille postal library in four sturdy canvas bags each containing two Braille volumes. It was also relatively expensive and not very time-efficient to mass produce.
The old mechanical equipment for writing Braille in the personal context was equally bulky: colleagues in a radio newsroom where I once worked referred to my machine as “The iron donkey” when they could be heard above the noise it made.
With the advent of electronic Braille it quickly became clear that the main problem presented by the electro-mechanical equipment needed to produce the dots was high cost. Even now after years of research and development, the cheapest portable Braille display is just short of £900. And the new Braillenote Touch mentioned earlier comes in at a not-so-cool £3,000 or £4,000 depending on which size of Braille display you choose.
These are all factors which have contributed to what’s been perceived as a decline in the use and, more significantly, the teaching of Braille to children in education or newly blinded people. Other contributory factors to this decline are the increased presence in the classroom of learning support staff, many of them sighted, who have not themselves learned Braille. Also, it is easier and much less expensive to get synthetic speech output from a computer and many argue that this is a more efficient way of working.
It’s interesting therefore to note that behind the release of the Braillenote Touch is a real desire to reinvigorate Braille and better embed it in blind culture.
The argument goes like this: if a child is offered the opportunity to learn Braille on a tablet similar to those being used by their sighted mates or peers, if on that tablet they can do all the things mates and peers are able to do – surf the net, engage with social media, play YouTube videos – and they can do all of this through the medium of Braille, then they will also have the impetus to learn it.
Add to this the fact that, because teachers and learning assistants are able to see what the learner is producing in text on a screen, the necessity for them to learn Braille is gone.
The seriousness of Braille’s state of health is indicated by the numbers of people thought to be using it on a regular basis. Even the most wildly optimistic estimates say that between 18,000 and 20,000 people read Braille as some part of their lives. That’s about the size of the average crowd at a Championship football match. More realistically the numbers are probably more like 10,000 which means we’re then down to a League 1 crowd.
So why does any of this matter? And why do those of us who use it regard it as such an important part of our lives?
In some ways those two questions are linked.
The first part of the answer is that it is absolutely an enabling tool. When I get into a lift which, as is now almost universal, has its buttons labelled in Braille, I can independently identify the button which will take me to the floor I want to go to. Similarly, if I go into one of the still pitifully small number of restaurants which can furnish my request for a Braille menu, I am able to peruse it myself and not rely on someone else to read it to me and can make my own informed choices from what’s on offer.
In other words Braille is a key tool which enables me and other blind people to live more independently. And that’s where those senses of pride and liberation come from. It is a genuinely uplifting experience to be able to go into a Co-op supermarket and be able to identify products from cornflakes to chicken korma, from pies and pizzas to Pinot Grigio myself.
And the great news is that advancing technology along the lines of the newly released Braillenote Touch should and will make getting this kind of more general access more likely and more possible.