Braille Communication in the Technological Age
World Braille Day
By: M Ahmad
As per WHO report 2022, there are around 2.2 billion people in the world living with some form of visual impairment. There are blind persons that includes those with moderate or severe distance vision impairment or blindness due to unaddressed refractive error (88.4 million), cataract (94 million), age-related macular degeneration (8 million), glaucoma (7.7 million), diabetic retinopathy (3.9 million), as well as near vision impairment caused by unaddressed presbyopia (826 million). India is home to 9.3 million visually impaired and 2,70,000 blind children, with more than 75 per cent of that figure preventable or treatable.
Braille is a tactile phonetic alphabet system invented in the early 1800s by a blind teacher, Louis Braille. The braille system was first adopted in 1860 by the Missouri School for the Blind , and has become one of the major literacy mediums for people who are blind or visually impaired. Braille changes lives. It gives thousands of people independence, learning, literacy, and the enjoyment of reading.
Braille opens doors and makes a difference for blind and partially sighted people. The uses of braille extends beyond just reading books. From dialling a phone number to checking a bank statement, the ability to read braille helps blind and partially sighed people be independent in so many ways every day and reduces the need for support.
In a line – Braille matters today for the same reasons any other language script does. It’s a vital and vibrant means of communication, education, and making community for people with visual impairments. With the rapid development and spread of new communication technologies, the way we use language has changed quite a bit.
The speed of communication has gone up, and it’s generally much easier to use these tools. Communication has, in many ways, ‘gone paperless’ as information in the form of text and images are displayed on our phones and computer screens. And with tools like autocorrect and predictive text, spelling and grammar can be managed by the devices we use.
Technology can potentially supplement Braille – after all, it multiplies the modes of interaction with the world, and hence enables visually impaired people to parallel sighted people in communicating with each other. Advances in technology have made Braille more widely available and accessible than it might’ve been in the past. Software tools, Braille displays, and embossers can, for example, translate any document into Braille quickly and accurately.
Thousands of Braille books are available from Internet-based services. BrailleType, a single-touch text-entry system for touch screen devices allows the blind user to enter text as if they were writing Braille using the traditional 6-dot matrix code. The Android OS has a built-in Braille keyboard. Braille can continue to move off the page, to electronic displays, portable devices that can hold many more pages of script than a book, and can support touch with haptics and audio. Technological advancements continue to provide new opportunities to access braille. These technologies include both stand-alone braille note takers (with word-processing capabilities) and braille displays connected to computers, smart phones, and tablets that allow users to control and access information on these devices.
Digital braille or electronic braille is a way in which the visually impaired can access information using electronic braille displays where the digital content on screen is converted into braille and is made available for use. The eBraille (electronic Braille) Panel functions just as a computer monitor would for sighted people.
Braille codes are displayed through raised dots on the panel, which visually impaired and blind people can read from. Digital braille technology which allows blind or visually impaired people to do common tasks such as writing, browsing the Internet, typing in Braille and printing in text, engaging in chat, downloading files, music, using electronic mail, burning music, and reading documents.
It also allows blind or visually impaired students to complete all assignments in school as the rest of sighted classmates and allows them take courses online. It enables professionals to do their jobs and teachers to lecture using hardware and software applications. The advances of Braille technology are meaningful because blind people can access more texts, books and libraries and it also facilitates the printing of Braille texts.
A braille display device connects to a standard computer with a special cable. It takes information appearing on the computer screen, translates it and displays it in braille, a line at a time. A line of refreshable braille consists of a series of electronically-driven pins that pop up to form braille characters.
Besides digital technologies, there are also several hardware-based ‘low tech’ options for the use of Braille. Older methods of writing and embossing in Braille have gotten cheaper and easier to duplicate. 3D printing reduces costs of production of Braille texts. Non-digital devices like the Perkins Brailler and refreshable Braille displays that bring Braille writing and reading to many more people have been important innovations. Several devices like Braille translation software, Embossers, Note takers, Refreshable Braille displays etc now offer multi-line Braille reading. With the lowering costs of these innovations in Braille, the script will grow to be even more accessible to many more users.
It’s evident that technology has quickly found its place alongside much of a visually impaired person’s life, from their education to everyday communication. It’s also obvious that to succeed in school, work and life, blind people need the opportunities that literacy provides. In many developing countries including India, where Braille assistive tech is not yet commonplace, affordable or even available.
Braille is still impacting blind people as much now as it was at the time of its invention. It helps in their everyday life, because it’s essential to be able to read and write, in order to live life to the fullest. Every person has the right to learn to read and write, regardless of whether they have sight. Today, there are many resources to obtain braille. So as long as people are aware that there is help available, braille can continue to play a significant role in the lives of blind people. Braille, both on paper and on refreshable displays, retains its importance because audiobooks and screen readers were created to expand the accessibility of those who are low vision or blind — not to replace the reliable means of tactile communication that braille has proven itself to be.
Although technology has offered numerous alternatives to Braille in the form of audio books and screen readers, Braille literacy remains of paramount importance as it offers a building block for language skills and a means to teach spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Learning Braille from a young age helps with literacy as Braille is a much better way to understand syntax and the rules of language compared with audio content.
While technology continues to provide new solutions, Braille will persist as an important means of reading and writing, as well as content consumption and creation. Technology is an enabler for greater inclusion and should be seen as complementary to Braille; it plays an important role in amplifying human ability. However, we must remember it is not a substitute for Braille, enabling and empowering policies, or purposeful vision, action, and inclusion.
To promote Braille literacy is a way to enhance every aspect of the lives of the visually impaired. From educational technologies to communication technologies like digital Braille, our technological age is not just for the sighted.
“Access to communication in the widest sense is access to knowledge, and that is vitally important for us if we are not to go on being despised or patronized by condescending sighted people”———Louis Braille
(The author is an educationist and frequently contributes to ‘Kashmir Vision’)