Braille - an indispensable requirement for the teaching and education of the blind
Ladies and gentlemen,
Firstly, I would like to thank you for inviting me to this conference and giving me the opportunity to talk to you as a sighted person on such an important subject.
I have been working with the blind for almost 30 years -- with children, adolescents and adults. For five years I was a teacher at a primary school for the blind in Würzburg, before becoming head of the Blind Institute Foundation in Würzburg (Blindeninstitutstiftung). Since 1978 I have been director of the German Institute for the Blind in Mar-burg.(Deutsche Blindenstudienanstalt)
Marburg, under my predecessors Professor Dr. Carl Strehl, Dr. Horst Geißler and Director
Schenk, too, has always supported and encouraged the use of Braille .
The Marburg systematic approach to Braille ("Marburger Systemati-ken der Blindenschrift") was and still is the leading work on Braille in the German-speaking world.
Back in June 1983 I spoke at a conference in Triest on the subject "Does the Braille book
have a future?" I approached this question then and am about to do so once again today.
15 years have elapsed since then. A gigantic technical revolution has taken place. I should
therefore like to start by giving a brief survey of the current developments in this medium and go on to outline the consequences these have had for schools.
Developments in the equipment made solely for use by the blind (e.g. Braillex, Versabraille etc.) were superseded by developments moving closer and closer towards the use and adaptation of the technology commonly available on the market. Normal computers, of the types readily available in the shops, were fitted with a tactile line, thus enabling the user to convert normal print, line by line, into Braille. Software packages now make it possible to convert texts directly into contracted braille in various languages (including special signs, symbols etc.)
E-Mail, Internet, CD ROM, scanners and access via modem or the internet to specialized data are now totally familiar to blind and partially-sighted people, especially young people.
Access to information
The sighted are constantly exposed to a huge amount of information pouring in from all over the place. Television, video, radio, the press, books (at the Frankfurt Book Fair alone over 80,000 new book publications are presented every year), talking books and advertisements are constant companions in our daily lives today. Many of these in-formation sources cannot be switched off. In this way, most of the information moves into the subconscious and often can't be eliminated. Without being aware of it, we are being influenced and manipulated.
We should try, as sighted people, to make a conscious note of the visual infomation we are exposed to when, say, walking up one of the main streets of a city. A lot of this is written information, such as advertisements, traffic signs, shop windows, adverts on cars etc. As sighted people, we automatically register this plethora of information, putting some of it to the back of our minds or forgetting it. Blind people are not in a position to register most of this information.
Only the sounds and the smells are perceived by the blind in a similar manner. Tactile perception is usually conscious and therefore intentional.
For the blind there is still no or only limited access to a large amount of information. Since the 80's major changes have taken place and a great deal of progress has been made. I should like to talk about these now.
Accoustic sources of information
Whereas the radio and the spoken book in the library for the blind, read especially for the blind, used to be the only accoustic sources of information to speak of, now modern technology with synthetic speech output provides access to all the digitally stored infomation available. Developments in this field have been rapid. Today we have excellent
synthetic speech output in almost every language.
Braille and pictures
Digitally stored information can be translated into speech or transcribed into Braille. Data are loaded onto the hard disk of the computer or onto another data carrier and can then be read either on the tactile line or printed out by a Braille printer onto paper. Special software has been developed for contracted Braille. Even digitalised graphics, and to a certain extent, picture illustrations can be editted and adapted so that they can be read and recogized by the blind.
The scanner makes it possible to digitalize texts automatically. Software devised for this purpose then enables the user to convert the text easily into contracted Braille or into a synthetic voice as speech output.
DAISY - an international consortium for the digital talking book for the blind
What are the aims of the DAISY consortium?
There is nothing new about digitalizing language. Radio and television stations have been doing this for a long time. For blind people talking books are often difficult to use. Scientific and school books in particular have to be specially formatted. It is important to be able to find the beginning of pages and chapters, footnotes and keywords. The books must be clearly structured. It must be possible to turn over the lesves, to "browse". The software required for this is to be standardized to meet international requirements within the framework of the DAISY project. In short, the DAISY-consortium intends to further these aims.
Language recognition programmes
There are several international projects aimed at developing techniques of language recognition. Human language is already being digitalised to appear on the screen in writing (AR= audio recognition). Although research in this field is still in its infancy, it is already possible today to digitalize this writing (OCR= optical character recognition).
As technical progress continues to be made, it will be possible to produce texts which have been digitally stored via speech input either as talking books or, alternatively, as Braille texts on the tactile line or printed out on paper.
Braille - a major form of access to information
I have tried to outline the technical and computer-related developments and the current state of these developments in brief. I do not claim to have covered the full range of these developments in this outline. But are these developments not inclined to question the necessity of Braille? Any digitally stored text can be recalled acoustically. It can be accessed freely. So do we still need Braille at all? The answer I gave to this question in Triest in 1983 was a definite "yes" and I am repeating this "yes" today with the same conviction as I did then.
Digitally-stored information - and this is what is marvellous about these developments - can be transcribed into Braille at any time. And the fact that automatic translation programmes enable transcription into Braille from normal print at any time has made braille, in my opinion, even more important as a source of acquiring information. It has become absolutely indispensable.
I am not alone in this conviction, even if there have been tendencies internationally to stigmatize Braille, and thereby to isolate the blind from their sighted counterparts.
In the August 1997 issue of the WBU's magazine "The World Blind" Serge D'Alfand vehemently speaks out in favour of not only doing everything possible to preserve Braille as an important means of communication and as a major form of access to literature, but also to encourage and extend its use. He says "Consider Braille to be an ideal and respectable system and the most suitable method currently known for the literacy process . . . Train sighted teachers with sufficient skills to teach Braille." I whole-heartedly share this view and would now like to explain my reasons for this.
Education systems in the 21st century
The continuing debate in Germany, which has gone on for at least 20 years, on the issue of integrative main-streaming or segregated schooling has, in my opinion, come to an end. Agreement has been reached that integrative schooling is fundamentally possible, but that special schools, with equality of standing, must continue to exist alongside these. The individual student and his/her qualifications, skills and abilities as well as his/her mental and physical constitution must be the basis of decisions on which school form is best. Both alternatives must take the specific educational needs of the blind and partially-sighted pupils into consideration. Facts from the psychology of perception, e.g. the rea-lization that the reactions produced by seeing are simultaneous but by touching successive, must be taken into account in both of these school systems. Teaching must allow for the "time" factor and recognition of the necessity of learning by example.
Braille and school
Can you imagine learning maths, physics oder chemistry at school purely by listening? Can you imagine working with texts that are only available on tape or cassette? Can you imagine learning a foreign language without ever writing down a word of it? Sighted pupils work with and by writing, which is still one of the most important forms of communication.. They learn to use this; they learn to write properly. They learn to note and structure important information in writing.
Written information is not forgotten quickly. As I am told by many blind people, it is what they actually feel with their fingers that they remember, that is lasting. To work properly, the written form is essential; for blind pupils this means working with braille.
We live in a society of information. In order to cope with this huge amount of information, we have to give it structure. Many texts, in particular complicated and comprehesive ones, can only, in my opinion, be given form and structure on paper i.e. by writing them down.One of the most important educational tasks of the school today is the teaching of such writing skills. The ever-increasing flood of information we are subjected to makes it absolutely necessary, in the interests of quality, to be able to differentiate between important pieces of information and less important ones, to reproduce contents in a structured form and to make these abilities a basic teaching principle and aim in every school subject. Structure in the written form (two-dimensional and indicating surface size) can be felt and grasped with the hands. It is more easily remembered. In today's teaching it is essential to teach how to link contents from various sources, recognize contexts i.e. how to handle information.
Omitting to teach the reading and writing skills of braille to blind pupils, irrespective of the type of school they are at, is tantamount to promoting illiteracy. It would render any attempts to further scholastic, vocational or social integration futile.
Louis Braille was an ingenious inventor. His writing system - although he could not possibly realize this at the time - is of global significance and of universal use in any language and any subject. Its extension to an 8-dot system makes it possible to portray complicated mathematical fomulae and difficult symbols. Braille is an integral and indispensable part of our teaching programme at the Carl-Strehl-Schule. Blind students who come to our school have to be able, to read and write braille. This, in turn, means that primary schools, whether segregated or main-stream, must teach the braille writing system. Teachers of the blind must have a command of braille. This is a basic necessity. eaching, again whether segregated or integrative, must meet the challenge of new techniques and new technology. For this, braille is an indispensable prerequisite. It is only ossible for students to use the computer if they have a command of braille. It is therefore my conviction that learning braille, and its use with a slate and stylus, must still be an essential part of the didactic concept of the primary school.
In Germany today, if someone wishes to be successful in his chosen career, if he wishes to complete his schooling (junior or senior secondary, comprehensive or grammar school), college, university or vocational training course successfully, this is only possible
· with knowledge of German contracted braille
· with knowledge of the braille system in the required foreign languages
· with knowledge of the special sign and symbol language of the sciences or music
· with knowledge of the computer, expecially text editting programmes
· with knowledge of how to structure contents in writing
· with an acceptable amount of braillebooks available
Vocational integration - whether in manual work, offices, adminstration or academic professions - is not or at least not fully possible without a command of braille. This does not mean that accoustic perception is of no relevance beside braille. It can not be a question of either one or the other, but a question of having both forms side by side. The user must decide which form of output is best for his/her specific needs.
To emphasize once again just how important I consider braille to be I would like to quote the text of the resolution proposed by me and passed at the Conference of Directors of Institutes for the Blind in German-speaking Countries (Konferenz der Direktoren der deutschspra-chigen Blindenbildungseinrichtungen). It was forwarded to the appropriate Ministries, authorities and fund-providing social services in Germany:
RESOLUTION (See appendix)
Which consequences does all of this have for teaching geared towards the needs of the blind today?
· The school must recognize the necessity of modern technology in its curriculum and, to ensure equality of opportunity among blind and non-handicapped pupils, make the necessary demands from the financing authorities.
· The financing authorities, whether local, regional or private sponsors, must provide the necessary technology
· The school must redevelop its curriculae accordingly
· The teachers must take part in in-service training courses to enable them to adapt to the new teaching requirements
· The pupils must learn from an early age to work with the new techniques. The braille systems mentioned above must be taught by the school and learned by the pupils. The teachers themselves must command at least contracted braille and/or the braille system required by their subject (e.g. mathematics)
At times of increasing financial cut-backs, the chances of fulfilling these demands seem slim. In the light of equal rights and equal opportunity, however, and to avoid discrimination, these demands must be met to ensure an up-to-date and adequate education of the blind.
What does the German Institute for the Blind do in its Carl-Strehl-Schule?
· Teaching our blind and severely visually-handicapped students without having a working command of braille is unthinkable
· Computer-based teaching, i.e. teaching text editting, tables etc., is an integral part of lessons
· With the help of our regional authority, the Land Hessen, and with the help of sponsors and foundations the technical equipment is being continually improved and up-dated. Equipment is still needed to meet our requirements. One of the main difficulties is the problem of keeping up with the rapidly-changing technological developments, but this is a necessary priority in the interests of vocational and social integration.
· One of our teachers is working on the development of computer technology adapted towards the requirements of the blind. He has a leading role in a working group set up by the Land Hessen. In-service training courses are offered to our teachers and are being attended by a large number of our staff.
· A working group within our institute (Deutsche Blindenstudienan-stalt) has been set up to work on the new technologies and their uses in teaching.
· Many of our students already have their own computers, which they can use in there flats.
A programme has been set up to provide all the flats, our students are living in, with computers adapted for the blind
· There is a database existing containing all the braillebooks in German language
· The Marburg Institute is planning a special schoollibrary especially with braillebooks but also with talking books
There are, however, still a number of difficult problems to be solved:
· Special symbols such as the mathematics or physics symbols are still to be standardized both in Germany and internationally. To my knowledge, there are 4 mathematics systems at present in Germany in use in the various schools and universities. Since the Marburg systematic of mathematical language (die Marburger Systematik der Mathematikschrift) was developed before the introduction of the computer, it, naturally, makes no provision for computer use. The aim is to achieve computer-compatibility in a standardized form, which would make it possible for scientists to communicate internationally using this standardized language. This is an important task for the WBU and its sub-branches (e.g. EBU).
· Graphic illustrations have to be accessible to and adapted to the needs of the blind. The use of windows- and mouse techniques are making this increasingly difficult for the blind user.
· Increasingly complicated user software packages are based on visual perception and are difficult to adapt to suit the purposes of the blind.
· Access to the Internet must be kept open to the blind. Searching for information is possible for the blind, but much more time is required. Problems arise because of the increasing number of picture and graphic illustrations.
· The recession, the effects of which are being felt in almost every country, and the resulting cutbacks are slowing down the process of introducing new technologies, much to the disadvantage of our blind people.
· In the teaching and education of the blind, braille is an indispensable requirement for communication. Present-day computer technology offers a large amount of possibilities to facilitate access to all kinds of information, both accoustically and via braille.
· The world-wide data webs are accessible today for the blind and can therefore be used in teaching and education.
· The example of the Internet clearly shows the increasing number of problems concerning information access arising from the new technologies. These problems are forcing us to re-think and find new technical solutions and to continue developing the curricula for the
· The aim of all our efforts must be social integration and paticipation and the equal right of blind people to get access to any kind of information. This is impossible without Braille.
Resolution on Braille
The heads of the institutions for the blind in Germany passed the following resolution at the Seeon Conference from 14.5.96 - 18.5.96
The heads of the institutions for the blind agree that :
The necessary basis for teaching blind people is Braille.
In the institutions for the blind blind pupils will be taught using the 6-dot braille system on the basis of recommendations by the Conference of Education Ministers. (KMK.) Technical developments allow for other possibilities. It is important to consider these possibilities for use in teaching the blind against the background of the changing educational situation. But it is equally important that we unanimously strive towards a standardized solution valid for all. This is also necessary concerning the provision of Braille materials in the publishing houses, in the educational and training centres, in vocational training centres and in schools of higher and further education.
The heads of the institutions for the blind therefore resolve that:
They will charge the committees in their insitutions responsible for these questions to concern themselves with the new educational challenges, the relevant existing legal clauses, technical possibilities and necessities, and existing suggestions on how to change braille. Their aim should be to make suggestions as to how to proceed with tackling these problems.
This work should be started by the summer holidays. The results are to be handed in before the VBS working group Braille meeting on 1.12.96. Results are then to be presented and discussed within the framework of the programme of the next meeting, so that an agreement can be reached.