When fingers do the reading

Monday evening, our Webelos den went to the library to work on earning their Communicator pin. After going over how to find books and how to take good care of them, the children’s librarian brought out what looked like a very large photo album. This was a Braille copy of the Bible, she explained, and she gave the boys a chance to feel the pages.

My parents had friends who were blind, so I was familiar with the look and feel of Braille materials from an early age. (Not that I ever learned to read them.) It came as somewhat of a surprise, Monday, to realize that it has been so long since I have seen someone actually using Braille that it was probably something completely new to these fourth grade boys.

The librarian added that no one was using the Braille books anymore, so they had been removed from the library’s holdings. She saved the Braille Bible herself, because it seemed a shame to lose something so wonderful. Today people use recorded books instead, she explained.

When I was growing up, there were recorded books, but they weren’t widely available. When my grandfather had cataract surgery, he had patches over his eyes while he recovered, and we took turns staying with him and helping him out while he was unable to see. To pass the time, he listened to some recorded books, which were loaned out by the organization that made them available to blind people.

They weren’t on CDs of course, or even cassettes – these were LP records. I knew how to use a record player, but I was always nervous about setting down the needle, afraid I would miss and scratch the record. It’s easy to see why most people wouldn’t be interested in audiobooks of that nature, and with demand being low, naturally supply was low also.

Cassettes and portable cassette players changed all that. Instead of having to get volunteers to read books aloud to be recorded, today’s audiobooks are professionally produced, read by people who become known for the quality of their voice characterizations. This makes a much larger range of materials available for blind people – and decreases the motivation to learn Braille.

I started wondering how much Braille is still used. I see Braille on signs for public restrooms – and I always wondered how people who can’t see find the signs to begin with. I found out yesterday, reading through an online discussion of such signs. Most of those who are considered legally blind have some vision – not enough to rely on for many purposes but enough to locate signs on walls.

Unfortunately – according to proponents of Braille – fewer visually impaired people are learning Braille today. Only an estimated 10% can read Braille, while the rest rely on recorded books, devices that convert text to speech, and (if their vision is good enough) magnifying devices that enable them to read printed materials.

A librarian in Tennessee explains the benefits of knowing Braille, even in an age when electronic devices can do so much for the visually impaired.

I always emphasize that you can do many things with braille that are impossible with audio materials, such as label the cans in your kitchen cabinets, or the bottles in your medicine cabinet, learn punctuation and spelling of words, etc.

One article I read explains another reason for the decreasing use of Braille – it has not been encouraged in the public school systems. Once children with special needs were integrated into mainstream schools and classrooms, teaching Braille to blind children became a low priority. Having a special needs child myself, I can’t imagine any of his teachers wanting less for him than the best he can do, but apparently some special ed teachers have had low expectations for the career prospects of blind students.

A blind woman who rented a room in my parents’ home, after my sister went off to college, was employed at the local VA hospital. Unlike another blind friend who worked in a sheltered workshop, where blind people were provided with routine work (packing boxes, I think) and paid very little, Genevieve was a skilled medical transcriptionist. The fact that she had once been sighted no doubt helped, as she had probably already been an excellent typist before the car accident that blinded her. But she was evidence that a totally blind person could function quite capably in a demanding job.

Most blind people who are employed do read and write Braille, according to Chris Danielson of the National Federation of the Blind. I don’t know how much that indicates that knowing Braille helps one get work and succeed on the job, and how much it is because people who are driven to succeed will work to give themselves whatever advantages they can. But it explains why states are passing laws requiring that every blind student be assessed to see if Braille will help them, and to have Braille taught to all those who will benefit.

I tried to imagine how Braille could be useful in the kind of work I do. Certainly one can type without seeing the keyboard (that’s the idea of touch typing – you’re not supposed to look at it), and I’m sure there are printers that produce Braille output, but how in the world could you make a computer monitor with raised bumps?

It turns out there is such a thing as a Braille terminal, but those that are currently available are very expensive. If you work with computers, you’ve probably noticed that the components that break most often are the ones with moving parts (printer, mouse, keyboard, disk drive). Just imagine how many moving parts are required to make all those sets of bumps go up and down. Keyboards and mice used to cost a lot more, but with such widespread use they’ve become throwaway items when they stop working.

Braille devices will never have that large a market. But fortunately enough R&D is being done that a new, simpler device is being developed. A rotating wheel moves the display past the finger, instead of the finger moving over the display. This means that only a single dot grid is required instead of dozens, which will greatly reduce the costs to manufacture these once they are commercially available.

I hope I never lose my sight. I have heard many people say that if they had to choose between sight and hearing, they would choose hearing. I wouldn’t like to lose my hearing (though I do like silence), but I would hate to lose my vision. I’m glad to know, though, of all the possibilities available to me if that should happen. And now I know that I should take good care of my fingers, so that if I ever need to read Braille I’ll be able to.

2 Responses to When fingers do the reading

  1. renaissanceguy says:

    Excellent post. Very cohesive and captivating.

    My sister just got certified to teach visually impaired students. She had to learn to read Braille, which she did gladly because she is already legally blind in one eye and could very well lose vision in the other eye in the course of the next few years.

    I had a student whose mother was blind. She used Braille to record the notes that she took for her personal Bible study. Sure, she could have used a voice recorder for that purpose, but she liked having hard copies on paper that she could keep in a notebook and refer to later. She liked the ease of flipping the pages to find a particular page that she wanted.

    I had a blind friend in college. She was a music major, an amazing trumpet player. She learned the music that she had to play by having somebody play it for her and then memorizing it by ear. If she was uncertain, she would have the assistant call out a particular sequence of notes by letter name. She could read music in Braille but perferred this method. Some of ther textbooks were available in Braille, some were recorded, others were read to her by fellow students or family members. I often accompanied her to the library to do listening assignments together. She was very independent, however. Although I had to assist her at first with the audio equipment, she wanted to figure out how to do it herself.

    “Having a special needs child myself, I can’t imagine any of his teachers wanting less for him than the best he can do, but apparently some special ed teachers have had low expectations for the career prospects of blind students.”

    I have encountered a defeatist attude among special education teachers myself. For three summers I taught reading at a group home for mentally disabled people, some with Down syndrome and some with brain damage. I taught them to read using the tried and true method that I have used for first time readers and for struggling reaaders. By the end of the summer many of them went from nonreaders to reading at about a first grade level or perhaps a bit beyond it. They actually enjoyed reading books by Dr. Seuss and other children’s books on their own. It wasn’t demeaning to them at all. Along with their mental impairment, they generally had a childlike nature that delighted in the stories and pictures in those books.

    When they got back to school in the fall, their sepcial education teachers were astounded. They could not understand how they had learned to read during a summer. They had never even TRIED to teach them. They had thought it was sufficient for them to know how to comb their hair and tie their shoes. They said that the kids would never be able to read at a high enough level to use it for employment, so why bother? They would have been better off not learning to read, since they would only be able to read low-level material all their lives.


    “Genevieve was a skilled medical transcriptionist.”

    I had a great-uncle who worked in a radiology lab of a hospital. He developed the x-rays, which was easy for him to do despite having almost now vision. His job was part of a government program. Now it seems that most politicians PREFER to dole out money rather than give people meaningful occupations.

    Double disgusting!

    (It reminds me of a story. A friend of mine has a friend who works for a state welfare agency. His job is to review applications. He is a quadriplegic. Imagine some person coming in with a “bad back” trying to convince this man who is completely paralyzed that he or she cannot work!)


    As a teacher, I would probably use Braille to write out my lesson plans and the notes for teaching the lessons for that week. I would probably also use it to label certain things in the classroom that I would need to keep track of and identify. I would want Braille copies of their books, so that I could follow along as they read aloud. I would need a reader (live or electronic) to help me grade student assignments obviously. If I lost my eyesight, I would want to follow in my sister’s footsteps and teach other blind people.

    I would rather lose my vision than my hearing. I am primarily an auditory learner, able to recall whole conversations verbatim. Not being able to hear would handicap my ability to acquire new knowledge. I also love music. I play and sing and listen and would miss those activities horribly. I agree that generally blindness is more of an impairment than deafness, but I would still rather be blind than deaf.

  2. Margaret Packard says:

    If I had to choose, I would rather be deaf than blind (at least I think I would), because I am very visually oriented, plus I work as a proofreader. I could communicate with coworkers and boss exclusively by email if I had to, but I would be out of work without my eyesight!

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