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Braille and me

Braille: perhaps the most well-known thing associated with blind people. It is a curious fact that the overwhelming majority of blind people do not use it. Another fact worth mentioning is that it has remained unaltered pretty much since Louis Braille took an existing tactile reading system and refined it into the one that bears his name.

So why don’t more people use it? Perhaps they don’t want to which is of course their prerogative. People are often heard to dismiss braille as redundant and moribund, particularly in the light of the availability of alternative means of accessing text. Over time there have been many of these: the human reader, the audio cassette, the CD, MP3 files, print scanners, screen reading software and, most recently, smartphone apps. All of these function in an auditory way. Unquestionably, the majority of people prefer the auditory to the tactile. Arguably the auditory is easier than the tactile as the latter involves learning a system and practise to improve speed and fluency.

Braille today

One wonders how widespread opportunities are to be taught braille today. I would like to think that our education system still provides blind and partially sighted children with the chance to learn this skill. Even so, Louis Braille’s system is still with us and that says a lot for it.

I was asked recently for an example of how braille proved crucial to me. I once enrolled for a Spanish GCSE course at an adult college. The exam comprised four components, the oral paper which tests spoken Spanish, the composition which tests written Spanish, the aural which tests listening comprehension and finally the reading paper to test reading comprehension. My intention was to access the exam papers with the help of a screen reader on a laptop. The exam board agreed to this but with one fundamental caveat: the reading and comprehension paper would not be marked, meaning that I would not be awarded the full qualification but could instead receive what they called an endorsed qualification. Their reason for not marking the fourth paper was that by listening to an auditory version of the text, I would not be reading: in other words, they did not class listening to text as reading. The same would apply for listening to a human amanuensis reading the text to me. Meanwhile, they did regard braille as a form of reading. Naturally, I wanted the full qualification and not some quasi, caveated and therefore inferior version whereupon I changed my mind and opted for braille exam papers instead, despite my reservations about my reading speed.

On the day of the exam I ran out of time but thankfully not badly enough as I was more than satisfied with my grade A. I was also grateful for having learnt braille at school, but supposing I hadn’t? Suppose one of that majority of non-braille users had wanted to study for a language qualification? They would have had to accept one of a much lower status.

Braille and Right to Read

So, is it accurate to assert that, without braille, blind people are in fact non-readers? Is it something which should concern us? On one hand, who cares so long as you can access the content? The Right to Read campaign is about getting publishers to provide alternative formats for their books including auditory ones, so clearly, they class listening as a form of reading. To conclude, braille has many uses in everyday life, but many of them can be fulfilled by other means, however, without good old Louis Braille, I would not have any of my modern language qualifications.

Liam O’Carroll, 8 October 2020

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