The use of Braille, an indispensable friend and assistant

by John Heilbrunn, Danish Association of the blind, Vice-President.

Let me start by confessing, I am a Braille user, a Braille lover and fan and a Braille promoter.

I believe that Braille is liberating and is a key to educational and professional success and independence for persons who are blind or have severely low vision.

Braille is great on paper, on signage, on high tech Braille displays and there is an obvious future for Braille. Some may say that Braille on paper is environmentally unfriendly, and I say that with recycling of paper these days, even print on demand Braille material can be shredded up and reused. Basically a mixed used of Braille both on paper and on a display is a way forward, and that it, in today’s high-tech world, will fit into a scheme with other communication facilities like input to and output from the computer using screen reader technology with speech or Braille, and the smartphone, where speech is, for most users with a visual impairment, the prime vehicle.

So those who claim that the use of Braille is old fashioned, out of date or obsolete, are wrong and form a threat to the uprising of persons who are blind in society.

The study that was run during 2016-2017 under the supervision of resource persons from mainly Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Austria and Italy, took a look of the situation in 9 European countries to gauge various issues stretching from the estimated amount of Braille  readers/users amongst the younger population, over training schemes and facilities, the use of various Braille formats, including contractions, the availability of Braille writers and displays, and to what effect offers exist to make Braille tempting and fun for children from a young age. In this context the importance of the involvement of parents during the first years of the children in question was considered and highlighted.

If we think back say 40-50 years, Braille was for all blind persons basically the only way they could acquire information, take notes, write letters etc. on their own. Of course they could use a typewriter, they could listen to the radio etc., but they had no control over the output, whereas when using Braille, they could interact with the text and act as masters of the text under scrutiny. Nowadays, the opportunities, options and facilities are very different and surely could be geared to promote Braille much more than is the case. High speed embossers can crank out Braille in good quality and large quantities, hence, print on demand is a key characteristic in many settings, both at libraries for the visually impaired, at resource centres and - at least realistically, in private settings of school-going children and youths. ICT enables customized production where Braille can be embossed both uncontracted and contracted. This is surely different from the handmade paper versions of material previously duplicated on the thermoform method (heating plastic sheets and making copies using a suction method).

When I was a young student, I carried my Braille books in a huge bag and actually had my dad make a two-wheeler so as to counteract serious injuries from long-time carrying of many kilos of materials. Nowadays with the high tech possibilities, computers with Braille displays and notetakers that basically are Braille-based computers, you can carry unimaginable amounts of information, books, notes etc. in a small bag, write, read and edit notes, search and share with sighted co-students using your fingers and finger tips - combining technology and the use of Braille.

The liberating sensation when, at a meeting, you get basic material in Braille is second to none. The offering of menus in restaurants in Braille to blind guests always creates awe amongst the sighted guests and great satisfaction on the part of the guest that cannot read the menu but would like to make his/her own choice of food and beverages.

Playing cards for anyone, children or adults, is a great opportunity to enjoy leisure time on equal terms.

Braille markings on trains to indicate the seat and the functions inside the toilet add a bit of independence and opportunity of free moving around for persons who are blind.

All this sounds good and is very positive. However, the fact seems to be that Braille could be considered and used much more than is the case nowadays. From the research in the Braille report mentioned at the beginning of this article, we seem to find that firstly knowledge of the availability of services, a national coordinated effort and a comprehensive picture in each country of the Braille situation, so as to speak, was surprisingly small - with some variances, of course, depending on the size of the target countries. Regional differences and lack of organizational coordination seems to lead to a landscape that is far from as fertile and well mapped as we had hoped. Secondly, there are in all target countries quite obviously dedicated persons who truly feel that it is a necessity to promote Braille and show its indisputable usefulness and necessity.

During a conference at the end of the study, some very creative brain storming sessions were undertaken to highlight why and where Braille could be brought more into use and how this would improve the lives and conditions for persons who are blind or have a very slight residual vision.

One thing that seems to be a common denominator in all countries was that there is a notable drop in the competencies of Braille teachers both in terms of quantity and quality. Support teachers, who once were very conversant with the Braille system and therefore could answer questions and offer trustworthy support, are not available as they once were, and besides, such teachers are, in today's inclusive schools, highly preoccupied with assignments directed towards attention demanding children with other disorders. The blind children are simply forgotten and become fairly invisible.

But it was clear to everybody that Braille could be displayed and used in many situations and environments such as:

Labelling of medicine and in the private home (kitchen, bathroom etc),

Marking of vending machines, marking in the environment such as signage in lifts,

Maps and 3D sketches of the layout of the environment,

Means of assistance when putting your things in order - such as records and CDs,

Enhancing personal development including in employment, such as Braille materials in various languages, mathematics and other sciences,

Production of materials use for singing, playing music both in a leisure and in a professional manner, and of especially importance, a means of encouragement for  children who are blind or have very slight residual sight to learn, love and play with Braille, where the interest and co-existence of the  family was considered of paramount importance (it is noted that nowadays many parents cling to sight-based solutions, often through vast magnification so as to fight against the realization and acknowledgement that their beloved kid actually and irreversibly is blind or close, with the consequences that this implies in terms of new and different approaches used by inhabitants of the sighted world).