The role of Braille in the information society.
By Mr. Kurt Nielsen
chairman of the EBU's standing commission on access to culture and information, member of the executive board in the Danish Association of the Blind.
When we estimate the value of Braille as the blinds' written language then the starting point must be seen in the light of the fact that Braille is the most important, the most qualified and the most direct acces that blind people have to use the written language.
One of the most considerable inherent factors of culture is in fact the possibility to be able to use a written language and through history of civilization mankind has developed many major written languages in order to disseminate and maintain languages, ideas and experiences. For instance the cuneiform characters from Mesopotamia and the hieroglyph from Egypt which can both be interpreted and understood today and which have open the way for understanding former
conditions of civilizations. May I here add that another eminent written language in one of the big Latin American cultures, the written language of the Mayas' cannot yet be read and understood today.
An enchanting thought that linguistics of today haven't been able to break the code of language in the written language of the Mayas'. And still
we haven't access to learn the Mayas' line of thought and their conception of the Universe throught the way they expressed themselves in writing.
The development of written languages has been based on two main principles: the so-called principle of phonemes and the so-called principle of icons or both principles used in combination. For instance, our alphabet builts upon the principle of phonemes where one graphic sign symbolises a speech sound, whereas other written languages are built upon the principel of icons where the linguistic elements are represented by pictures or pictograms.
With the development of Louis Braille's language and the subsequent gradually diffusion of Braille in the 1800s, blind persons got the possibility of direct acces to use the written language and thereby by far the greatest cultural conquest was made in the history of the Blind's. The greatest isolated factor of access to and active participation in cultural life.
The significance of Braille is inestimable. The 6-dot code of Braille with the 63 different signs plus the intermediary space as the variation of the 64th sign were now at the disposal for the development of both a language of reading, of writing and of music as well as the determination of special signs in mathematics, in physics, in chemistry, in linguistics and so on.
From the beginning of this development it was ensured that Braille should be international and so characters, numbers and signs of sentences were defined in an international standard.
But as soon as the appearance of the contracted systems became known, then considerations to requirements of the national language became so prevalent that it is only possible to read foreign Braille if one knows either the system of contracted Braille or if the text has been written in uncontracted Braille.
I am, of course, familier with the fact that out of respect of permitting and facilitating the international exchange of information in Braille has brought about that several countries have abandoned to use contractions in Braille.
In Denmark we have maintained our system of contracted Braille. And I want to declare that I am a firm supporter of contracted Braille. As a chairman of the Danish Braille Authority, I participated in carrying through a revision of Danish Braille in 1993 so that the Danish system of contracted Braille is no longer an obstacle to be able to produce computer based Braille of good quality.
With the development of the system of 8-dot Braille, where the number of signs constitute a total of 255 plus the space as the 256th sign variation, new possibilities have been open up and we must understand to use these possibilities in the best possible way.
Like so many other countries we have adopted a national 8-dot code here in Denmark. A lot of attempts have been made in order to come to an agreement on an international 8-dot code which until now have been made in vain. And I can be rather sceptical about the thought whether we will ever manage to reach an international agreement on this matter.
In this connection, my suggestion will therefore be that we concentrate our mutual efforts on establishing a standard for the international exchange of information in Braille across the linguistic boundaries so that we can keep the national code in the same shape as the one we have today at the same time. An apparently simple solution of a complicated problem. It might, for instance, be done, so that the international exchange of information in Braille should be done in uncontraced Braille so that the sender change the contracted Braille into uncontracted Braille. The receiver then contracts the Braille for his use. This solution demands an agreement about defining the place of the Braille signs compaired to the ASCII-values.
Today technology opens up the prospect of such a solution for the user, and thus all necessary national considerations would then have been taken and the possibility for an international exchange of information would be ensured.
What kind of role should Braille play in the future information society? Several fundamental conditions must, in that respect, be considered:
1. that Braille is produced in a sufficient extent, in a sufficient number of titles and in a high quality. As it is today, Braille is produced and distributed on paper and many Braille readers will still prefer this solution. However, I do not doubt that the electronic production and the electronic distribution of Braille will be developed and will become much more predominant in the future, and so during a number of years we will be able to obtain texts at our disposal both on paper and in electronic format to be read on the computer. A vain hope in his connection could be that during the passing stage to an increased electronic production and distribution, the libraires for the blind released capacity in order to be able to produce more titles of books and magazines.
2. that qualified instruction in Braille is offered to children and adults. The education of the children in their mother tongue must take its starting point in Braille in the integrated school system and at the special schools for blind children. The competition from the use of audio materials will often be of a considerable size but if Braille is to play a fundamental role in the access to information in the future, then Braille must form the base of the children's education in their mother tongue. The very important group of elderly people who loses their sight completely and partially should be offered instruction in Braille by qualified teachers. A lot of old persons often say that perhaps it is not worthwhile to begin to learn Braille. Such an attitude must each time it is expressed be met by an invitation to give it a try. In a lot of cases it will then turn out that the profit from the use of Braille for the elderly person in question was completely unforeseeable and indispensable. In Denmark, we can offer instruction in Braille to adults in compliance with our legislation on compensatory special instruction for adults.
In order to ensure that we have qualified teachers constantly for this kind of education at our disposal here in Denmark, the Danish Association of the Blind has during several years educated blind teachers in this kind of education and the last step of this development is that the Principal Board of the Danish Association of the Blind has taken the decision to set up a school of communication which among other things shall train teachers in communication for blind, including the instruction of teachers to give lessons in Braille.
3. the international cooperation on working out standards for Braille must be strengthen and as a starting point after this seminar it could be usefull to know which initiatives we know about today and which initiatives we could be thinking of in the future.
4. finally, I wish to mention that Braille is largely used in combination with other methodes of communication, for instance, together with the use of talking books and audio materials, synthesizer and large print programs on the computer. But in this balance between the use of several possibilities, we must fully realize how to ensure that Braille continues in the future to be the fundamental methode of reading and writing for blind people all over the world.
In conclusion, I will seize the opportunity to state some recommendations which we can consider in common. So I will recommend that it shall be ensured:
recommendation 1: that the quality of information in Braille shall be improved
recommendation 2nd: that the supply of information in Braille shall be bigger
recommendation 3rd: that sufficient and qualified educational facilities in Braille are at our disposal
recommendation 4th: that unimpeded exchange of information in Braille shall be possible
across the language boarders
recommendation 5th: that the international cooperation between the libraries for the blind on setting standards of production, storage, copying and lending of Braille in electronic format shall be qualified and expanded
recommendation 6th: that copyright shall not interfere with the production and distribution of Braille
recommendation 7th: that blind users' requirements shall influence all decisions concerning Braille