braille, braille reader
Charlie Nye/The Indianapolis Star/AP

Another Victim of Technology: Braille Literacy

July 27, 2010 03:00 PM
by Colleen Brondou
Although technology has been a blessing for those with visual impairments, the abundance of audio and digital technology has made reading Braille a rare skill.

Is Braille Becoming Obsolete?

According to a report issued in 2009 by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), less than 10 percent of the 1.3 million people who are legally blind in the United States can read Braille. Due to technology, Braille is more available than ever, Bill Glauber reports for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. But more audio is also available, along with digital technology or computer software applications that translate the written word into speech.

The NFB believes there are three reasons for the decline: a shortage of Braille teachers, teachers that haven’t received enough training in Braille, and a belief among educators that Braille instruction isn’t necessary.

Background: The decline of Braille

Marc Riccobono, executive director of the National Federation of the Blind’s Jernigan Institute in Baltimore, was diagnosed with glaucoma at the age of 5. During the 1960s and 1970s, he explained to Glauber, many blind students were placed in the public education system. There weren’t enough Braille teachers to handle the influx, so audio devices became a popular way to teach students with visual impairments.

“You had a whole generation that grew up without Braille,” Riccobono told Glauber.

Around the middle of the 20th century, approximately half of visually impaired school children in the U.S. read Braille. Now, Glauber reports, that number is around 1 in 10.

Opinion: “Braille is literacy”

Though text-to-speech technology has its place, Braille advocates point out that being able to read Braille equates to academic success.

“People realize that Braille is literacy,” Hope Good, who works in program support at Engleburg Elementary, told Glauber. “You can’t spell or punctuate with a tape recorder.”

Citing statistics from the NFB, the Wausau Daily Herald points out that only 30 percent of blind adults are employed, and of those, more than 80 percent work in careers that require the use of Braille every day.

“Braille is attached to literacy and to success in employment,” Cheryl Orgas, executive director of Audio & Braille Literacy Enhancement Inc., told the Journal Sentinel.

Key Player: Louis Braille

Jan. 4, 2009, was the 200-year anniversary of the birth of Louis Braille, the man who invented the Braille system of reading. Blind as the result of an accident at the age of 3, Louis created his invention based on a French military code called “night writing.” The code was a series of raised dots that allowed soldiers to communicate top-secret information on the battlefield in silence. Louis modified the system when he was only 15 years old and published the first book in Braille in 1829.

Reference: National Federation of the Blind

National Federation of the Blind has launched a Braille literacy campaign to make sure that everyone with visual impairments has the opportunity to learn Braille. Visit the site to read the NFB’s report, “The Braille Literacy Crisis in America,” and learn how to promote Braille literacy.

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