My Thoughts on Braille Literacy

Listen to this post.

I have just finished reading an article on how the perceived importance of Braille literacy is waning. You can find the article at the following address:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/03/magazine/03Braille-t.html

My initial gut reaction to the beginning of this article was irritation that anyone could be justified in saying that Braille is basically useless and arcane. If Braille is arcane and useless, then I don’t want to hear about anyone using such primitive things as pens and notepads. It just seems wrong to say that reading and writing is unimportant. The issue is whether blind people who do not read Braille, but do effectively communicate and take in information can really be called illiterate. Technology is definitely making that a hard call to make. After all, blind people certainly would be considered illiterate if the ability to read printed material without assistance was the definition of literacy. Why should reading Braille count as literacy, but listening to recorded material, or using a computer with text to speech software to acquire the same information not be considered literacy?

I do think that illiteracy is more of a stigma than a real issue. On the other hand, I don’t think that abandoning braille literacy is a wise move. There are uses for Braille. Auditory methods of reading and writing will not work for all purposes. Reading and writing in total silence is just one of them. I often wish to, or even have to, read while using my ears for some other purpose, and it is not always acceptable to speak aloud what must be recorded for later personal use, or for use by another person. I don’t believe it matters whether you write in braille or type, however.
My brain isn’t good enough at remembering things to go completely without writing things down, but it seems some blind people are far better at memorization than I am. I could not do math or learn another language without the use of Braille, but again, there are blind people who can.

Brain scans have shown that reading Braille activates the visual cortex. This lead some people to believe that reading Braille is the only way to regain the use of that brain area. That doesn’t make much sense, though. Research has shown time and again that the human brain can change itself as necessary. 20 percent of your brain is not going to go unused just because you don’t do the things that most people do.

The second opinion expressed in the article was that organized thought is not possible for a blind person without the ability to read and write Braille. And that anything spoken can not have lasting meaning. This annoyed me just as much or more than the first opinion expressed. Darrell Shandrow may need written symbols to organize his mind, but many people simply do not. I certainly hope that what I say aloud is not meaningless. Did Jesus’ sermon on the Mount mean nothing until it was written down?

Some writing samples from non-braille readers seemed to indicate that organized and logical writing is not possible for them, but I find it hard to believe that simply not reading should make a persons thoughts disorganized. I can’t disprove the facts presented in the article, because I do not know how exactly subjects for these writing tests were chosen and tested. I tend to think that maybe the system for capturing these children’s thoughts was somehow to blame, rather than their lack of Braille literacy. I also wondered if these children were normal in the way they spoke their thoughts aloud. And were they regularly exposed to the writing of other people in the form of books read aloud to them? I would think that auditory reading would be equivalent to Braille reading, but maybe I’m wrong about that.

I know that my writing becomes somewhat disorganized when I am forced to dictate what I wish to be written. When it is read back to me I often wonder if I was that inept in expressing my thoughts in an orderly manner, or if some of the fault lay in the listening or writing skill of the person who took down my dictation.
Is there a chance that what these children really lack is actually writing ability instead of reading ability? Writing seems to clarify my thoughts, but writing with a computer is as good as writing in Braille for me.

It seems totally unacceptable to me that people should judge others as illiterate and ignorant, just because they can not read from paper. Does a knowledge of spelling and formatting bring enlightenment? I sure wouldn’t know. I’m a braille reader who can’t pass a spelling test. :)
I don’t think that Fredric Schroeder is either stupid or unable to understand language just because he didn’t realize that “dissent” and “descent” are spelled differently. I’m sure he did not think that dissenters were people who lowered themselves over cliffs.

I do know that many visual and tactile readers miss pronounce words that audio readers can say without any problem. There is also a great deal of variation in reading comprehension, no matter what the means of reading might be.
My reading comprehension was tested and found to be just fine with either audio or Braille material, but I think I do comprehend just a little bit better with audio material. I get the big picture better that way. If I need minute detail, then I need braille. I simply will not absorb large numbers if I only hear them.

Punctuation and formatting are somewhat more useful, in my experience, but correct stress and pausing when information is read aloud can represent the punctuation pretty well. Now modern technology can even make formatting and document structure known to an audio-only reader.

In conclusion, I believe that Braille is an extremely useful tool for the blind, and should not be considered unnecessary. Yet, to conclude that anyone who is unable to read Braille must be unread, inarticulate, or ignorant is ridiculous. The ability to effectively use technology is probably a more valuable skill in today’s world than the ability to read Braille, but Braille can help a blind person immensely.

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