I recently saw an article in the local news which reported that statistics reflected that Braille usage in students had gone down recently to about 10%. This was contrasted to statistics gathered in the 1960s that indicated that number up around 60%.
The article went on to say that this was likely due to a shift in technology putting the emphasis on audio, such as talking book players and screen readers, which are able to generate text to speech in much more robust and powerful ways than ever before.
So why the disconnect? What is driving less people to engage with Braille?
Some will argue resources. Teaching students to be fluent in Braille is just as much an intensive and long process as learning to read and write. Sometimes finding Braille instructors can be difficult and without constant, one on one interaction during the course of a school day, the environment for learning something as intensive as Braille may not be as viable. Without having enough Braille instructors around, Braille skills can take much longer to develop in students.
As a result, the “quick fix” of technologies such as audio players or screen readers may become tempting to use as a replacement rather than have them serve their intended purpose, which would be more of a supporting function. Yes, the fact that screen readers and audio book players have become readily available and the technology has only gotten better in recent years is certainly a boon to the visually impaired community but it becomes problematic if they are used as a replacement for literacy.
Despite whether the numbers reflect a lack of resources or the perception that Braille has lost its relevance due to other alternate technologies, one thing is clear: Braille literacy is crucial.
Studies released recently have specifically targeted Braille literacy to have a correlation with employment numbers among people with vision loss. Simply speaking, people who are fluent in braille are more likely to find gainful employment, and the numbers reflect this. And while employment opportunities alone would be enough of a reason to push for Braille Literacy, it by no means the only or, arguably, the most important reason.
The fact is that Braille literacy has all the same importance that any other literacy has. Reading and writing enables people to engage more successful with content, in a way that merely listening to an audio track never can. When you read a passage, whether it by seeing it or through feeling it with your fingers, you deliver that information to your brain in a way that we know carries more significance that having it fed to you through audio or other means.
But, perhaps most importantly of all, Braille literacy builds confidence, especially among the young who are still learning about the world around them and gaining the skills that will benefit them for years to come.
While no one may necessarily argue that Braille literacy isn’t useful or important, the real problem that these survey numbers reflect is educational resources. With a severe lack of Braille instructors and dwindling avenues of instruction, Braille is not as ubiquitous as it was in the 60s mainly due to lack of necessary resources, rather than it being replaced by emerging technology. What we need is an increase in the amount of funding and teaching resources within the Education system specifically for teaching Braille. In other words, Braille literacy needs to be taken seriously and considered just as vital as any other subject.In order for these increases in funding and reallocation of resources to happen, we need to reinforce the fact that Braille literacy IS incredibly vital and dispel the notion that it’s been diminished in any way by technology. Take up the cause for Braille Literacy with such organizations such as Braille Literacy Canada and make your voices heard!