We haven't heard the last of Braille

By Christian Coudert,IT Project Manager at AVH headquarters (excerpt from French publications "VALENTIN HAÜY ACTUALITÉS" no. 108, December 2012, and "LE LOUIS BRAILLE" no. C304, January 2013).

Louis Braille died 160 years ago. The remains of this great benefactor of the blind were transferred to the Pantheon in Paris 60 years ago.

In 1825, when Louis Braille was just 16, he had already finalised most of his code. Who then could have possibly imagined that his reading and writing system would gradually be adopted throughout the world? And how is it that "Braille" continues to be used so widely in the 21st century, and that no other process has yet to supplant it, despite galloping advances in technology?

Even so, a number of serious threats have emerged in recent years that could challenge the use of Braille by visually impaired children and adults. And yet, Braille has undoubtedly not said its last word; it is still one of the essential bases for proper social and professional integration, and a vital factor for the self-sufficiency of blind or visually impaired persons.

Braille under threat?

There are an estimated 7,000 regular Braille users in France out of a total 65,000 blind and 1.2 million partially sighted people.

An article published in The Guardian on 14 February 2012 cites a report by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) which shows that, in 1963, 51% of the 1.3 million legally blind Americans used Braille as their primary reading medium. In 2007, this number fell to just 10%, while in 2011, it stood at under 9%.

In France, less than 25% of pupils use Braille in educational institutions for visually impaired persons. In the 1970s, 3,000 people were subscribed to our journal – in Braille – entitled "Le Louis Braille"; in the 1990s this figure had dropped to 2,000 and in 2012, only 900 subscribers remained.

Reasons for the decline

  1. Braille is frowned upon
    To be sure, in certain countries, recognised organisations are responsible for standardising and promoting Braille with backing from their respective governments. In the US, for example, the role played by the BANA (Braille Authority of North America) is highly appreciated in terms of adapting Braille codes to the realities of school works, books and magazines published in the past 20 years. In France, a similar organisation was founded in 1987, receiving legal status by a ministerial order of 20 February 1996, which appoints a permanent commission called the "Commission pour l'évolution du braille français". Its members are appointed for a renewable 3-year period by order of the Minister in charge of Social Affairs. And yet, at the end of each 3-year term, the commission's successive Presidents find it increasingly difficult to safeguard the renewal of this body, the only one in France authorised to oversee the necessary standardisation of French braille.

    The fact remains that, in France, people tend to forget that the creator of the raised dots system was a Frenchman. Unfortunately, the Braille system is often considered to be obsolete and regressive. And this kind of prejudice comes from high up. We may recall that, in January 2009, on the occasion of the International conference to commemorate the bicentenary of the birth of Louis Braille – placed under the patronage of the President of the French Republic, not a single representative of the French state was present. However, blind British politician and former minister David Blunkett took the trouble to attend the event, held at UNESCO's headquarters in Paris.

  2. Poor use of technology
    It is tempting for any pupil or student to listen to their documents using the speech synthesis system installed on their computers. Speech synthesizers are now quite good, and certainly require less effort than deciphering text written in Braille.

    However, failure to master reading brings with it a risk of illiteracy. This is the potential fate in store for today's young blind people who increasingly use audio media; passively listening to a text at a pace imposed by the reader or voice synthesizer is never going to truly focus the listener's attention.
    When an audio recording or a text read by a speech synthesizer is played, if a word or expression is misunderstood, or if the listener's thoughts wander for a moment, more often than not they will not take it upon themselves to go back and listen to whatever it is they missed.

  3. Mainstreaming
    While the practice of educating visually impaired children in regular classes is increasingly widespread, the teaching of Braille is becoming increasingly rare. According to Maryanne Diamond, President of the World Blind Union (WBU), "the problem is finding teachers who have themselves been taught Braille". She adds that "Braille is taught less intensively than in specialised schools".
    In France, according to the Ministry of Education, 4,000 out of 6,000 visually impaired pupils attend regular school classes. However, when adopted too early, systematic mainstreaming often leads to failure since the child is not yet sufficiently proficient in Braille and does not benefit from the "remedial techniques" taught in specialised schools.

    Not only are there less and less Braille teachers, but few of them know and practice tactile Braille, whereas Braille is obviously designed to be read with the person's fingers. Consequently, whatever the abilities of sighted teachers, in practice the learning process differs depending on whether or not the teacher is sighted or blind. In particular, it has been observed that many pupils have not been taught two-handed reading. This process, with which all Braille readers should be familiar, consists in finishing reading one line using the right hand, while the left hand anticipates reading the next line, leading to much more fluid reading.

  4. Partial sightedness
    No one is going to complain if medical progress means fewer completely blind people. In fact, the multidisciplinary teams that work in regular or specialised schools (teachers, orthoptists, instructors of locomotion and everyday activities) tend to encourage pupils to make the most of their residual vision to the detriment of Braille which, they advise, "is not useful for the time being and can be learnt later on if need be". However, in order to be proficient in Braille, a blind person must learn it as early as possible in life; it will be much more difficult to enhance that person's sense of touch once they reach adulthood. And if a person's residual vision eventually disappears, the pupil who has since grown up will be less motivated to go back and learn tactile Braille.

    A teacher at France's Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles (National Institute for Blind Children - INJA) told us how, in June 2012, he submitted 15 pupils to an exam on musical notation; 10 of them were blind and readers of Braille, the other 5 were visually impaired and readers of large type. The 10 blind pupils passed their exam, while the 5 visually impaired pupils all failed theirs, since they spent considerable time deciphering the enlarged musical score by having to look at it closely with their failing sight.

The combination of all these factors constitutes a risk of genuine illiteracy among young visually impaired people. The educational team at the INJA underscores this fact: "Our pupils no longer know how to write; they are unable to maintain an underlying theme in their thoughts, or write and connect sentences and paragraphs. They no longer know how to use punctuation, or structure a piece of text, and get lost in logical links of cause and effect. As far as they are concerned, everything is on the same level; everything passes by and immediately disappears once read. The worst part is the complete loss of logical development and the absence of spatial references."  To remedy this state of affairs, the INJA has decided to create a "Braille centre" for approximately 80% of its pupils, with the aim of relearning the basics of paper Braille.

An article entitled "Listening to Braille", published in the New York Times on 3 January 2010 goes thus: "What we're finding are students who are very smart, very verbally able – and illiterate." It goes on: "We stopped teaching our nation's blind children how to read and write. We put a tape player, then a computer, on their desks.  Now their writing is phonetic and butchered. They never got to learn the beauty and shape and structure of language." Blogger Darrell Shandrow considers the decline of Braille reading as a sign of regression, not progress. In his words: "This is like going back to the 1400s, before Gutenberg's printing press came on the scene. Only the scholars and monks knew how to read and write. And then there were the illiterate masses, the peasants."

Written work allows the reader to fix their knowledge, organise their thought and memorise the information. Unlike audio, it shows the text and all it entails: punctuation, layout of titles and paragraphs, highlighting of segments by centring, left- or right-alignment, use of uppercase letters, type in bold, underlined or italics.

Reasons for hope

Daily self-sufficiency

When a blind person buys prescribed medication from a chemist's, he or she inevitably ends up with a variety of different boxes. Fortunately, an EU directive made Braille labelling compulsory in 2010, so this person is going to be able to identify the various boxes without getting mixed up.

When a blind person takes a lift, he or she can find the button corresponding to the appropriate floor thanks to Braille markings that are now compulsory following the latest accessibility standards for persons with disabilities.

When a blind person unpacks his or her groceries at home, he or she can identify certain brands that now include Braille labelling. For products without these labels, the blind person can use a reading machine that scans the text and creates a label in Braille. This label can then be affixed to the box, container or bottle so that the person can subsequently identify it.

In Japan, blind people can vote in Braille and, in some cases, receive candidates' statements of belief transcribed in Braille.

These are just a few examples of how essential Braille can be for the daily self-sufficiency of any blind or visually impaired person. Note also that Braille also provides access to mathematics, chemistry and music. A speech synthesizer is simply unable to read mathematic or scientific formulae, complex tables and musical notation.

Easier access to reading

In France, the offer in terms of books in Braille is constantly increasing thanks to recent legislation concerning disability exceptions in favour of those who are "prevented from reading", and to the French national library's PLATON platform for downloading digital works. "The AVH media centre used to offer an average 100 new works a year in Braille; in 2011, it released over 300. That's an exponential increase", explains Luc Maumet, in charge of this area.

In the US, legislation imposes the supply of school manuals in Braille for all visually impaired pupils. As a result, Braille printing plants are managing to prosper, whereas in France they exist solely through subsidies.

The impact of Braille on employment

Braille also offers a number of professional advantages. A survey by the Louisiana Tech University revealed that visually impaired persons who learn to read Braille are more likely to find a job, even compared with those who can read large type. And once they secure this job, Braille can actually help them hold onto it. The figures speak for themselves: according to the survey, 44% of blind Americans able to read Braille were unemployed, compared with 77% of those who had never learnt Braille. 23% of the first group held qualified positions, versus 10% for the second group.

Technology: a historic opportunity for Braille to bounce back

As we have already seen, speech synthesis can have dramatic consequences when used as the sole means of reading. However, it is clearly a valuable counterpart to electronic devices capable of displaying refreshable Braille characters. Once plugged into a computer, Braille display devices – often phones or smartphones – reproduce the text shown on-screen by raising dots under the reader's fingers. This is a revolutionary tool with a number of advantages: Braille paper is very bulky (the Braille version of France's "Petit Larousse" dictionary takes up 20 large quarto volumes); raised dots on paper deteriorate with time; Braille books infer substantial production costs, and often take several months to complete. On the other hand, refreshable Braille displays (also referred to as Braille terminals) display Braille dots of excellent quality, and effectively eliminate the problem of bulky volumes since they use electronic files that do not take up any physical space. These files can now be used to produce works that can be read both on Braille paper and on a refreshable Braille display, printed in large type for visually impaired persons, or played in audio on a computer, DAISY reading device, MP3 player, phone or smartphone using a speech synthesizer. Although Braille devices are undeniably costly, we are placing a great deal of hope in a project backed by the DAISY Consortium, partnered by various disabled persons' associations – including the Valentin Haüy Association – that are investing in the production of refreshable Braille displays, to make them considerably less expensive than they are today.

Anyone claiming that Braille is on its way out has simply got it wrong. Braille is incomparably versatile, flexible and adaptable. Far from threatening Braille's imminent extinction, technology is breathing new life into it. Braille is now portable, consultable, downloadable and convertible.

Despite considerable scientific and technical progress, it remains the sole system that provides access to written works for the visually impaired.