A Braille Tale: Technology for the Blind

Hand reads braille

I wrote this article during my communication/media internship with Vision Australia. 

Judy receives an email with a new photo of her granddaughter attached. But in order to view it, she has to put it under a “CCTV”. Now, this is not your typical ‘spy-on-the-burglars’ CCTV – it’s a type of magnifier that people who have low vision can use to help them make out as much of an image as possible (by changing the lighting, colour, contrast or focus settings). It’s a great tool for legally-blind Judy, who has no sight in her left eye, and small patches of blurred vision in her right.

It’s at this stage that Judy takes a moment to tell me about all the other helpful electronic devices in her life: there’s the app that reads barcodes so she knows which tins of food sit in her pantry, the “talking books” that read aloud information, and the GPS-style ‘Blind Square’ app so that Judy can find her way around town. It’s this recently-discovered app that has Judy particularly animated today.

“Before I had this app, I would wander around the mall not knowing what the shops are. I’d have to ask strangers walking past, which is just ridiculous and not very nice,” Judy explains. “But now, I just pop in my Bluetooth earpiece and scan my phone around and the app tells me all the shops nearby, or the exact address I’m at, or the closest transport. Now I’m there going, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that shop was there!’ It’s quite exciting!”

And what’s the first thing Judy found with her new app? A pizza place downstairs. That’s really “quite exciting” indeed! Judy claims that these devices have opened up a whole new world for her. Tina, her adaptive technology officer at Vision Australia, believes that disability-friendly technology is a huge blessing. “Technology is not going to go away. We’re getting more and more smart devices,” she says, “And apps today are enabling people who are blind or have low vision to stay connected and live their lives independently,” she says.

But while the advances in low-vision technology seem all butterflies-and-rainbows, some experts have actually become somewhat disturbed. And no, it’s not because they worry that apps like Blind Square are leading the visually-impaired to spend more money as they discover new shops, or gain weight as they discover new nearby food outlets! It’s actually because they believe that the technological advances in this world could potentially impact the future of braille – in a worrying way.

In an article on the Independent, Matthew Rubery, editor of AudioBooks, said: “Braille is embattled. The biggest threat is computer technology, which makes it much easier not to have to learn it…A lot of people fear braille won’t survive because it will be read by so few people. The use has declined and there are concerns about funding to keep it going.”

In an article on The Atlantic, Rios, an administrative assistant at a music school dedicated to overcoming vision impairment, said: “Young adults don’t read braille because they have screen readers that read for them. Even now I come in contact with kids who can’t spell.” Chalkias, who gives private lessons on how to use the iPhone, added: “If [technology] keeps getting easier, we’re just going to be a society of idiots that can’t do anything except tell our computers what to do for us.”

So braille is endangered, heading towards extinction. What’s the big deal? Well, during ‘Literacy and Numeracy Week 2016’ last month, members of Vision Australia took the opportunity to discuss just why braille is so important – even today. Some of the reasons include the fact that braille provides its reader with intimacy, privacy, dignity and equality. As they quoted: “When a person loses their ability to read, they do not lose their need to read.”

Even Vision Australia acknowledges that speech and touch screen tablets have limitations when it comes to learning the English language. For example, they cannot easily teach the difference between “there”, “their” and “they’re”.

Bruce Maguire, Vision Australia’s lead Policy and Public Affairs Advisor, said braille liberates, empowers, and unlocks the doors of knowledge. “Those six unassuming dots,” he shared, “are the key to my education, my employment, my independence and my inclusion in society.” He then went on to explain how without braille, you cannot re-read, reflect or be up-close with a text such as poetry. “When you listen to a book read to you, whether by a human or a synthetic voice, you’re only engaging with the text at a distance.”

Bruce revealed a few of the ways that braille is used in his life. He has written letters to Santa in braille. He has read Shakespeare, The Bible, The Koran, and all the Harry Potter books, in braille. He has learnt how to play the piano, the guitar, the Keltic harp, and a Japanese instrument that I have never even heard of, using braille music codes. There is braille on his apartment escalator and microwave buttons, so that he can use these things just as easily as someone who has sound sight.

Mitzi Raaphorst, a braille trainer at Vision Australia, took the chance to share some of the reasons why her clients chose to learn braille. Some clients wanted a direct relationship with a text, “not a narrator’s interpretation” of it. Some wanted to learn how to read recipes or knitting and sewing instructions. One client simply wanted to be able to “read real books again.” One client used braille in the swimming pool to ensure that she did the right strokes and laps when training. One client wanted to be able to read a book to her granddaughter.

One tech-savvy client, who used screen readers for information and audio books for recreation, eventually decided that he may as well learn braille. He later excitedly told Mitzi how much more he can do now that he knows it: Instead of relying solely on his wife, he can use braille on his shopping lists and go the grocery store by himself, write down his own dentist appointments and phone numbers, and read the numbers on the lifts – even when his wife isn’t there.

Just two days ago, in an article for The Sydney Morning Herald, education expert Pasi Sahlberg stated that a key factor in Australian student’s declining results on the international education benchmark for literacy and numeracy is indeed the “rise of the smartphone”. Australians have super-easy access to the latest smart gadgets. And while blind-friendly technology can make a hugely positive impact on people’s lives, as demonstrated by Judy and a realm of others who have impaired vision, the long-term effects are just as dangerous.

In a world of robot-voice technologies, it’s clearly still vital for braille to be kept alive.

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