Friday, January 4, 2013

6 Things I Wish Everyone Knew About Braille

On World Diabetes Day, November 14th, I posted about 14 Things I Wish Everyone Knew About Type 1 Diabetes. Today, January 4th, is World Braille Day, and in honour of that I've written a post about 6 things I wish everyone knew about braille. The number 6 is in honour of the 6 dots that make up a braille cell.

1. Braille is not a language. Braille, like print, is a code; the only difference between the two is that print uses lines and curves on a page while braille uses arragnements of raised dots. Just as different langauges are represented in prnt with different arrangements of lines and curves, different langauges in braille are represented by different combinations of dots. You do not need to learn a different grammar or syntax to read and write braille, because it's the same as whichever language it is representing. Someone who speaks Spanish will not be able to read Russian braille, and someone who speaks English will not be able to read Chinese braille, because just as with print, these langauges each utilize their own braille code.

(1.5. Since braille is not its own language, it should not be capitalized like English and French but should remain uncapitalized like print, unless in reference to its inventor, Louis Braille.)

2. Braille can be used to represent anything that print can represent. There are braille symbols to represent most spoken languages of the world, symbols to represent mathematics and scientific notations, symbols to represent computer code, and symbols to represent musical notation. There are even braille symbols to represent the International Phonetic Alphabet. Not all braille readers know all of these symbols, just as print readers can't necessarily read mathematical equations or music scores or computer code without special training. Although it's not quite fully automatic, there is computer software out there that will translate text, math, and music symbols from print to braille using a flatbed scanner and braille embosser.

3.Technology enhances braille. It's a prevalent myth that advances in technology somehow make braille obsolete. This is totally untrue and, if you think about it, totally ridiculous. It's like saying technology has made print obsolete. Sure, technology may change the way people read (in braille or print), but it certainly doesn't replace literacy. Technology has made braille more available than it's ever been in the past. No more punching out dots by hand or waiting two years for a novel to be produced in braille. These days, an individual can scan and OCR a print book and read it on a braille display within hours (assuming it's not a complex book such as a textbook, in which a transcriber is still invaluable).

4. Braille is not excessively hard to learn. Someone can learn the basics of braille in a matter of minutes, and can learn the entire code in a matter of weeks if they apply themselves. Of course, it may take more time to become a skilled, fluent reader ... but this isn't any different than becoming a skilled athlete, musician, or professional. It is not amazing that someone who has read braille for years may be able to read at several hundred words per minute. This is the same speed someone who has good vision would read print ... saying it's "amazing" sets lower expectations (a topic for a whole other post!).

5. Braille is not only for people with no vision. For people with low vision, using braille does not mean giving up print. It's not a choice, it's the best of both worlds! There are many people with low vision who use print when it's convenient (when they are near a CCTV, for example) and use braille when it's convenient (when they are chairing a meeting, for example). Many people view braille as some sort of last resort, when it should really be viewed as an extra tool in the toolkit and a skill that may not be needed all the time, but may come in very handy when it is needed.

6. Braille is vital for literacy. For most people who are sighted, this makes sense; this last point is directed at those of you with visual impairments and also educators and policy makers. People who can't read large print and can't read braille are unable to be fully literate. It is not possible to fully or easily access spelling, punctuation, grammar, poetry, foreign languages, mathematical or scientific equations, charts and diagrams, or musical scores fully without the use of braille. Speech access and recording and playback devices may get someone by, but I don't think it's truly possible to be literate relying on these technologies alone.

(6.5. You do not need to learn fully contracted braille for it to be useful and enhance/enable literacy. Learning the alphabet, punctuation, and numbers can be a huge enhancement to daily life, and all refreshable braille displays can display any material in either contracted or uncontracted braille, so there's no need to wait until all the contractions are learned to start reading interesting material! For new braille readers, it's very important to find ways to use braille in everyday life—this is the only way to increase skill; if you don't use it, you'll eventually lose it.)

I'm a huge advocate of braille and braille literacy, and this post only scratches the surface of what I could say about it. Still, I hope it helped you gain some understanding of braille and debunk some common myths and misconceptions.

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