BRAILLE: A REVOLUTION
by FREDRIC K. SCHROEDER, PH.D.
COMMISSIONER REHABILITATION SERVICES ADMINISTRATION
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION
I believe it is appropriate that the term revolution be used to describe the renewed worldwide interest in Braille. A discussion of a Braille revolution is, in a very real sense, a discussion of a revolution of the blind for true social equality.
If blindness is viewed as signifying incapacity, and unfortunately, I believe it is generally still so regarded, then it is not only appropriate, but essential, for blind people to seek equal status through social revolution.
But, what is a social revolution for the blind and how does it relate to Braille? While the term revolution signifies a change in the established social order, it is not the same as evolutionary change which occurs naturally overtime. The term
revolution implies an accelerated or sudden change--a dramatic shift from the status quo. A social revolution, therefore, is more than simply the plodding progress of the blind toward social acceptance. For the blind, a social revolution signifies a dramatic and immediate assertion of our fundamental equality
leading to a societal recognition of the capacity of blind people to compete on terms of equality with others. Perhaps, the most powerful symbol of the social revolution of the blind is the resurgence of Braille use throughout the world.
The utility and importance of braille are easily explained and understood. Braille gives blind people the opportunity for literacy and hence, the opportunity to live productive normal lives. Literacy gives the blind person the opportunity to
participate on terms of equality with his or her sighted peers.
To be literate is to be free. The importance of literacy generally is recognized
throughout modern society. We have come to understand that our social and economic future are largely dependant on having a literate society. Nevertheless, there is alarming evidence that the need to improve literacy among the general population is critical. A recent international study of literacy revealed that
at least one-fifth of the workforce in the world's industrialized nations lack the literacy competence to improve themselves and achieve more in their careers. In the United States, we recently completed the National Adult Literacy Survey funded by the U.S. Department of Education, which provides the most detailed
portrait on the condition of literacy in the U.S. that has ever been available. The survey found, 21 to 23 percent (approximately 40 to 44 million of the 191 million adults in the U.S.) demonstrated skills in the lowest level of proficiency. Of
course, many factors contribute to the large number of adults demonstrating such poor literacy skills. However, nineteen percent of respondents in the lowest level reported having visual difficulties that affect their ability to read print. For these
individuals, the need for literacy and the urgency of a Braille revolution is clear.
The survey also examined literacy in relation to social and economic characteristics. The data from the survey showed adults whose proficiencies were within the two lowest levels were far less likely than their more literate peers to be employed full-time, to earn high wages, and to vote. Moreover, they were far
more likely to receive food stamps, to be in poverty, and to rely on nonprint sources (such as radio and television) for information. Therefore, there is no question that poor literacy skills result in significant functional difficulties in everyday
life. Nevertheless, to define the importance of literacy simply according to its functional uses is to seriously undervalue the importance of literacy in the lives of people everywhere. Literacy brings with it functional capacity, yet, equally
important, literacy brings with it confidence and in truth, hope for a productive future. Richard W. Riley, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education recently observed, "Reading is the most basic of the basic skills. It opens the doors to everything else a student will and can learn." While far too many Americans lack basic literacy skills, the condition for blind people is worse still. The American Printing House for the Blind maintains a registry of blind school age children in the United States. The Printing House estimates that fewer than 10 percent of blind children in America today read Braille. (American Printing House for the Blind, 1994). In the United States, beginning in the 1960s, we experienced a steady downward trend in the number of blind children using Braille in school. For years, the decline in Braille use among school age children was explained away as attributable to advances in low vision technology, which, we were told made
Braille unnecessary for many partially sighted children. Nevertheless, our experience shows that Braille literacy was not replaced with print literacy through low vision technology, but instead, for many children, it was replaced with ineffective and inefficient means of reading and writing. Hence, there has been a steady increase in the number of blind people who suffer a lack of basic reading and writing skills and therefore, lack the opportunity for full social integration. But, why are the blind increasingly less literate? Is it simply a result of the failure of low vision technology to fulfill the promise of efficient use of print for partially sighted people? Or, is it something else? There is no doubt that many factors contribute to the decline in basic literacy among the blind, including the low vision movement, shortages in trained teachers, inadequate supply of Braille materials, and the high cost of adaptive technology. Yet, if we conceptualize the problem of inadequate literacy among the blind as purely related to a lack of resources, and in particular, a lack of economic resources, then we will forever be denied full integration. What we face as blind people is the need to reshape societal thinking about blindness. As long as society conceptualizes blindness as mostly, or perhaps wholly, incapacitating, then there is little urgency to provide blind people with Braille reading and writing skills comparable to the reading and writing skills of the general society. This helps explain much of our experience over the last three decades which reveals a devotion to print disproportionate to its utility as a reading medium for many partially sighted people. In other words, if we believe that blind people are capable of reading and writing competitively, then logically we would regard partially sighted people as candidates for Braille who cannot use print in a manner approximating that of the fully sighted. Yet, this is not our standard. In practice, partially sighted people continue to be encouraged to use print even when their ability to use it is quite limited. In my estimation, this stems from society's assumption that to be sighted is to be normal; and therefore, an individual using print (however poorly) is regarded as more normal than an individual reading Braille. Blind people are not sighted, and encouraging them to function as if they were, relegates them to lives spent approximating normalcy without the possibility of attaining normalcy. Put another way, our expectations as a society for blind people are so low that we have not and do not question whether a partially sighted person using print inefficiently might be able to function better by use of Braille. The overemphasis on vision utilization is only one example of the historic prejudice against Braille. When I was a young child, I remember being told that cassette tape recorders would make Braille unnecessary. Later, when I was in college studying to become a teacher of blind children, I can recall being told that the Optacon would make Braille obsolete. While both the cassette tape recorder and the Optacon, and for that matter, low vision technology, have made important contributions in information access for the blind, none will ever replace Braille. Anyone who has ever needed to skim a large amount of material, jot down a message or telephone number or read a recipe while preparing a meal, knows that Braille continues to be the most efficient and flexible reading and writing system for the blind. Neither the cassette recorder nor the Optacon can be used to label a prescription or mark the dial on a stove or washing machine. Parenthetically, I think it is interesting that while it has been widely assumed that technology would eventually make Braille obsolete, in practice it has resulted in just the opposite. Technology for the blind is no more likely to make Braille obsolete than technology is likely to make print obsolete. Nevertheless, the fact remains that there has been and continues to be a generalized prejudice against Braille because it is the reading system of the blind and blindness is regarded as signifying inferior status.
Today, we are discussing a Braille revolution and in truth, it is a revolution predicated on the fundamental equality of the blind and the sighted. Braille affords blind people the possibility of literacy with all of its accompanying opportunities. In the United States, for the past ten years, the Braille revolution has steadily gained momentum. The Braille revolution began with blind people themselves who believed that Braille literacy was essential for blind people to work competitively alongside the sighted. Initially, special educators and rehabilitation professionals denied the need for a renewed emphasis on Braille reading and writing. Dr. Kenneth Jernigan (1988), President Emeritus of the National Federation of the Blind spoke pointedly, both to the need for greater access to Braille instruction and to the unwillingness of educators to recognize this need when he said: Braille is deliberately being de-emphasized in the education of blind and visually impaired children; skills are not being taught; and concepts of the inferiority of the blind are being sanctified and institutionalized by the very schools which should be teaching the opposite. Whatever the final form of the policy and plan of action which we adopt, the problem demands attention and solution. (p. 463)
Eventually, the blind took their concerns directly to their lawmakers. In 1987, at the urging of the state affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind, the first Braille bill was introduced in the Minnesota legislature. The intent of the bill was to ensure access to instruction in Braille for blind children throughout the state. This first Braille bill resulted in a bitter split between blind people and teachers of blind children. Yet, overtime, as more and more young blind people graduated from school without the skills necessary to pursue higher education or quality employment, attitudes about the importance of Braille began to shift. Today, only ten years after the first Braille bill was introduced in a single state, newly enacted Federal law now includes a provision supported by blind people, special educators
and rehabilitation professionals establishing a presumption that Braille is the primary reading and writing system for the blind. On June 4, 1997, the reauthorized Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The IDEA now requires that all children who are blind or visually impaired receive instruction in Braille, unless the child's educational planning team decides otherwise. For the first time, the right of blind children to learn to read and
write using Braille as their means to literacy, is an explicit part of Federal law. While the law now recognizes that Braille is the primary medium by which the blind read, more important, the law supports the assertion of blind people, themselves,
joined by educators and rehabilitation professionals, that while the blind function differently than the sighted; given the opportunity to learn and compete, the blind can participate fully in the social and economic mainstream. This is a Braille revolution. The Braille revolution, therefore, is a revolution to establish a new way of thinking about blindness--a belief in the capacity of blind people to compete with the sighted on terms of equality. We, as blind people, are not simply defective or inadequate sighted people, but rather we are whole and complete blind people. With this as our standard, we cannot do less than demand that we have access to literacy to the same degree as do the sighted. We must insist that blind children have teachers, skilled in the use of Braille and in the methods for helping them attain reading and writing competence. We must insist that blind children not only learn to read, but learn to write. In the early grades, blind children must be instructed in the slate and stylus as the sighted child is instructed in the use of pen and paper. By the middle grades, blind children must have access to computerized Braille note taking devices to assist them in working competitively. To demand equity, is to demand access to the materials necessary to develop the full range of literacy skills. Blind children must have access to reference materials, as well as, scientific and technical materials in Braille. They must have access to Braille materials in the field of mathematics and these materials must be introduced in the earliest grades and be available throughout a child's education. Blind children must have access to the full range of instructional materials, as well as, leisure reading materials, such as novels and magazines. In short, if we truly regard Braille as the blind person's means to literacy and if we genuinely regard blind people as capable of competing on terms of equality with the sighted, then blind
children must have an opportunity to acquire the same level of reading and writing proficiency as do their sighted peers. But, what about those individuals who become blind as adults? As with children, if these individuals are to have an opportunity to truly restore their lives, to be genuinely and fully rehabilitated, then they must have the skills to work effectively alongside the sighted. To accomplish this, rehabilitation teachers must start with a belief that newly blinded individuals can truly restore their lives and function competitively in society. Rehabilitation teachers must instill this belief in their clients and nurture this belief with the training necessary to show the client that he or she can regain through Braille, the literacy he or she previously had available through sight. If the Braille revolution is to be successful, then it must start by reshaping the attitudes of society about the blind, as well as, our own attitudes as blind people about ourselves. Only when we share a common vision, a common goal, a common set of expectations, will we know how to measure the effectiveness of our special education and rehabilitation systems. If we start with an assumption that blind people are no less competent than others, but use different methods for reading and writing; then we can demand of our education and rehabilitation systems that they provide the services necessary to help blind people attain their rightful place as fully integrated members of society. You may question, from where will the resources come. Of course, there are not endless resources and no amount of wishing can change that fact. Nevertheless, without a shared belief in the fundamental normalcy of the blind, no significant resources will ever be brought to bear on correcting the problem of inadequate literacy among the blind. As long as society continues to believe that the blind are inescapably doomed to lives of nominal participation, then there is no reason beyond that of the philanthropic to invest much money in their education or rehabilitation. There are not endless resources in the world, yet, our resources follow our priorities. When we drive across a bridge, we assume that it is safe. When we open a can of food, we assume that it can be eaten without fear of disease or illness. Ensuring these things is expensive and demands resources. Yet, our resources follow our priorities and our priorities begin with shared expectations. Computer technology has made Braille more readily and inexpensively available than at any time in history. Yet, given today's technology it may be unrealistic to assume that Braille materials can be made available to the blind in a manner approximating the access to information available to the sighted.
Therefore, we are simultaneously limited and blessed by our technology. Still, our technology offers possibilities undreamed of even a short time ago. The CD ROM, the Internet and even the floppy disk allow for access to vast amounts of information for the blind. The opportunities this presents for blind people are perhaps, without measure. Yet, these technologies will only be useful to the blind to the degree that access technology keeps pace. This brings me back to the point of targeting resources to our collective priorities. Computer technology generally has exploded in recent years. Yet, it is important to understand that much of our technological development has been turned to the problem, not of providing more information, but helping the individual make better use of information already available. Windows 95 is perhaps, a good example. The Windows 95 technology
seeks to capitalize on the fact that sighted people have vision and hence, presents material in a manner intended to optimize efficiency given the availability of sight. The use of graphics cannot be argued to be the most inexpensive way of manipulating information. In fact, I would venture to say that vast amounts of money went into developing Windows 95 and other graphical systems in order to assist the sighted in utilizing computer technology as efficiently as possible. Nevertheless, when we look at access technology for the blind--be it a school child or a newly blinded adult--cost is invariably a central consideration. In recent years, we have seen a number of powerful new Braille note taking devices emerge on the market. These allow the user to write using a Braille keyboard to input information. One of the finest examples of this new technology is the Braille n Speak which offers Braille input and speech output. Yet, for a Braille user, the Braille Lite, with its ability to use Braille for inputting and retrieving information, is clearly superior. The Braille Lite embodies all of the features of the Braille n Speak, including speech, but adds a high quality, durable Braille display. Yet, in the United States, you will find that those blind people who have access to technology, either in school or from the rehabilitation system, most often, and in fact, overwhelmingly use the Braille n Speak, rather than the Braille Lite because of cost. Similarly, in America the vast majority of blind people using computers in their jobs have no access to Braille displays, but instead, use speech. The determining factor is generally, not the relative efficiency of speech or Braille, but cost. How do we change this condition? How do we move forward a Braille revolution? We must do it by first believing that we are as capable as others. We must do it by banding together and demanding access to literacy comparable with our sighted peers.
We must do it by coming together through organizations such as the Italian Blind Union, the European Blind Union, and the World Blind Union and convincing society that our claim to equality is not merely wishful thinking or hyperbole, but fact. Once we have achieved a shift in the way we and society view blindness and
adjust our expectations accordingly, then I believe the resources will follow. By reshaping society's assumptions about blindness, we can begin replacing the belief that minimal functioning is all that can be expected from the blind. Once this has been achieved, Braille becomes no longer simply the method by which the less fortunate read, but instead takes its rightful place as the means to literacy for the blind.
American Printing House for the Blind. (1994). Distribution of federal quota based on January 3, 1994 registration of eligible students. Louisville, KY: Author.
Jernigan, K. (1988). A thought-provoking resolution and an issue which is not yet settled. The Braille Monitor, September-October, 462-465.