Who needs Braille? Both the Harsh and Amusing Reality

In this high-technology era of audio options and scanning power, some might ask: shouldn’t we move away from such an archaic system as Braille? This is not an uncommon question, especially in the mainstreaming of blind students and advent of talking computers as an aid. Why would students need to have the specialized training and challenging material acquisition for a Braille education?

One answer is that a deeper appreciation for understanding spelling and grammar is often lost in an all-audio interaction. Homonyms, for example, certainly prove a concern in the phonetic development of language. All too many blind people left without the benefit of Braile to develop their skills at spelling, punctuation, and sentence structure will often appear far less intelligent as a result. This is an incredible limitation in an already challenging society. The statistics are staggering to illustrate this point. Roughly 81% of legally blind Americans are unemployed. Of that 19% who are employed, it has been estimated that nearly 80% of them have learned to use Braille.

While there are many other compelling statistics, I thought I’d relay an amusing but powerful anecdote about a time in which the use of Braille would have been helpful. In 2006, I participated in a project for the Library of Congress in Washington DC. The hotel did not have Braille on the elevator nor on the floors or doors. This meant I had to have a staff member teach me the elevator buttons and walk me to my room. Fortunately, Quinn can learn the room location readily enough and so we were set for our multi-day visit. On day two, I pressed the button I’d been shown and when the elevator stopped and the doors opened, I got off. Quinn led me to the door, where I put the electronic key card into the door slot. Of course, Murphy’s Law required I flip the card to all of the four options before getting the right direction to unlock the door. When I finally got the correct orientation, the door opened to my push and I strode into the room… completely terrifying the poor person who actually owned the room and had simply opened the door after hearing someone fumbling outside it. Now, a six-foot-four man in dark glasses with a dog surging into your room is certainly a moment to capture your attention. Fortunately, communication eventually allowed us to resolve that this was the fourth, not fifth floor, and Quinn had led me to the room directly below my own. What had happened? It turns out that there were two separate elevators, each with a different arrangement for their buttons, and the staff person hadn’t thought of that when teaching me!

If they had the required Braille in place, this problem would have been resolved even with my limited Braille skills. (This resolution would, of course, require that I have a Braille education.) For me, it was fortunately an amusing diversion which had no serious results. But for many without Braille, the situation would not have been resolved with the required Braille labels. Situations like this could represent a near-complete restriction of their mobility and independence.

Statistics can often mislead by their representation. With all the growing technology in this day and age, it can seem that we no longer need Braille. I hope that anyone who wants to make choices away from the option and use for Braille takes the time to evaluate the impact and reality thoroughly before making decisions. While this includes the general public, education systems, and government officials, I hope it also includes each and every blind person who evaluates whether they will put in the effort to learn this incredibly valuable tool. Most of all, I hope those who make the decision for children with a visual impairment will realize the powerful and positive impact their choice will have upon the child.

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