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Part 3 Relevance of Braille in the 21st Century: A Look at the Scientific Evidence

Scientific Support for Braille and Print

A seated man reading braille

Caption: Man Reading Braille

In Part 1 of this series, we provided perspectives of braille users concerning the relevancy of braille. Part 2 offered insights from individuals who are sighted about the importance of print in today's world. What does scientific evidence reveal?

Research

Although there has been some research in the past to determine the part of the brain responsible for reading braille, assuming that it's different than reading print, more recent research by Reich, Szwed, Cohen, and Amedi (2012) has found that there is no difference. Once it was thought that the brain was divided into regions specialized for processing information through one sense or another. Although the brain often appears to be a sensory machine, the researchers found that the brain is actually task oriented. "A brain area can fulfill a unique function, in this case reading, regardless of what form the sensory input takes," Amedi said. Previous studies with sighted readers showed that a very specific part of the brain, known as the visual word form area (VWFA) is the portion of the brain utilized for reading print. In the new study, MRI was used to measure neuro activity in eight people, blind since birth, while reading braille. The comparison of brain activity in blind and sighted readers showed that the patterns in the VWFA were indistinguishable between the two groups. As a result, the VWFA should also be referred to as the tactile word form area (TWFA) (Reich et al., 2012).

Planetary Exploration Support for Print and Braille

NASA's latest Mars lander, InSight, touched down on the Red Planet on November 26, 2018. Its purpose is to study what cannot be seen. Like many planetary missions, the lander has a camera calibration target plate. Each plate is adorned with the flags of the countries participating in the mission. But, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) tries to add some creativity to each plate that is launched. This time they chose to spell out "JPL" in braille.

"I was thinking what else could we put on there that could be a kind of code that people in the know could look at and figure out?" said Bruce Banerdt, InSight's principal investigator at JPL. "Braille is another kind of a code, an international code that anybody, anywhere in the world could try to interpret. So we tried putting it on there and it looked cool."

A camera calibration target sits on the deck of the NASA's InSight lander, adorned with the flags of the countries participating in the mission, as well as an easter egg, a message in coded in braille. NASA/JPL Caltech Lockheed Martin Space)

Caption: NASA Braille Message

When InSight landed, it joined NASA's Mars Exploration Rover, Opportunity, that touched down on January 25, 2004. The Opportunity featured a mini-DVD decorated in part with a secret message written in braille, "Explore to learn," seen in photos sent back to earth. It's possible that the Insight and the Opportunity will exist on Mars indefinitely--braille and print, side-by-side messages from earth.

Conclusions

Both my informal research with individuals who are blind and sighted and the scientific evidence show print and braille provide the same literacy needs to blind and sighted users. Both blind and sighted people use audio formats for some learning and recreational activities. So, before we step into the voting booth to cast our ballots for the relevancy of print OR braille, maybe we can take a lesson from NASA: give equal relevance to print and braille and offer all readers audio formats as alternative options. Pens anyone for a write-in vote?

References

NASA's InSight lands on Mars with braille 'easter egg' hidden in sight. Retrieved from http://www.collectspace.com/news/news-112618a-mars-insight-braille-jpl.html

Reich,L., Szwed, M., Cohen, L., and Amedi, A. A ventral visual stream reading center independent of visual experience. Current Biology, Volume 22, Issue 4, 21 February 2012, pp 350-351. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982211000637


Part 2 Relevance of Braille: Sighted Individuals Discuss the Relevance of Print in the 21st Century

Older man reading with magnifier

Caption: Older Man Reading with Magnifier

In Part 1 of this discussion, several blind people of different ages and backgrounds described various ways they use braille, showing why it is essential to their daily lives. In Part 2, several sighted people describe various ways they use print in their daily lives, showing reasons they could not function without it.

Sighted People Discuss the Importance of Print in Their Lives

Carla Earley

Carla is a sign language interpreter and also home schools her two teenage children, who will give their perspectives later in this post. Carla doesn't hesitate to make her opinion clear with her very first comment. "Honestly, I'd be lost without written things." She admitted that she is not an auditory learner. Print materials allow her to reread and highlight important information, ruminate on what she's read and then reread again if necessary. Another point Carla makes is the ease of scanning and searching large amounts of printed text which is virtually impossible to do with audio formats.

Barb Bookholt

Barb is a retired teacher of children with learning disabilities and trainer of adults. Like Carla, Barb is not an auditory learner. "When I read a book, I underline, highlight, take notes in the margins, turn corners down, put sticky notes on, etc., etc. I am a prolific note taker; I take notes in lectures, classes, sermons, anytime I want to make sure I stay focused on the speaker and remember key points." Barb uses a Kindle to do some of her reading and studying, but she still highlights, rights notes in the margins of her Kindle, and marks words so she can scan through the book and find every location of a specific word. "To think about a world without print boggles my mind and saddens my heart, she concedes.

Debbie Bass

Debbie is a Senior Management Analyst within the state Division of Emergency Management. Part of Debbie's job requires her to write extensive reports on why or why not a building should be used as a hurricane evacuation shelter. For each site, she must build a case, providing evidence for fifteen criteria. She may review and compare up to 250 pages of architectural and engineering plans with what she actually saw at an onsite review. Each piece builds on the next and eventually fits together, laying out the evidence. Although her reports will eventually be summarized into a few pages, her initial reports are often 50 pages. Because this is only part of her job duties, Debbie can be interrupted at any point during the analysis, which can take 3-5 days to prepare. "When I come back, I need to be able to see where I stopped, quickly review and pick things up where I left off," she stated. There is absolutely no way Debbie could do her work using audio alternatives to print.

Beth Perry

Beth is a nurse who works with several pediatricians. Like Debbie her work would be very difficult if not impossible without the use of print. Imagine the confusion and noise in the examining rooms using medical equipment with audio output only. Imagine, how a talking device would pronounce diseases, medications, and patient names. What kind of changes to HIPPA laws would be necessary, if every patient's information was heard in the doctor's office?

Like Carla, Barb, and every sighted participant, Beth stated, "I also remember things much better when I read rather than just listen."

Christie Kimbrel

Christie is retired from the state Department of Law Enforcement but still very active in book clubs, Bible studies, and charitable organizations. Here are some of her comments after recent oral surgery on the convenience of print over auditory means:

"OK. I’m sitting on my couch on this sunny Saturday recovering from oral surgery. From this spot I can see about half a dozen pill bottles on my kitchen counter. All these bottles contain meds that are supposed to make me feel better and heal. They all have directions printed on them. I cannot imagine trying to figure out what I am supposed to take and, when, without being able to read the instructions."

Due to hearing loss and sometimes experiencing difficulty calibrating hearing aids in public situations, Christie says printed copies of what a speaker is saying would amplify her listening. At home, she uses closed captioning when watching movies.

Christie's need for print is similar to my own need for braille. When I attend a class, it's nice to have a braille copy of the PowerPoints. When I attend an opera in Italian or French, it's nice to have a braille copy of the synopsis.

Rebekah and David Earley

Rebekah and David are the teen daughter and son of Carla. They have many individual interests, but share an interest in music and braille. Although their reading and writing media are print, for the past two or three years, they have learned to read and write the braille alphabet and numbers. They have also observed how I use braille on a daily basis. On one occasion under my supervision, they made brownies under blindfold using a braille recipe. As you read Rebekah's and David's list below, keep in mind they have some perspectives on the relevancy of both print and braille:

Problems with Audio Formats Identified by Rebekah and David

  • Knowing where to touch things on the iPad screen. (They should have iPads with Braille screens.)
  • Telling the difference between shampoo & conditioner in the shower.
  • Identifying everything we bring home from the grocery store would be impossible without labels.
  • Remembering the ingredients we need and how much to use listening to an audio recipe.
  • Signing and filling out multiple pages of paperwork at doctor's offices and permission forms for different school activities.
  • Reading music--how would you do that?
  • Learning a different language (especially those that don't have letters like ours!) would be really hard without print.
  • Using audio textbooks with diagrams that explain things.

Beth and Barb also questioned the inconvenience of no street signs and the danger of no traffic signs such as stop, yield, and detour. They felt roads would be chaotic and downright dangerous and getting to work would be difficult at best. They also brought up the much used Google Maps? Note the word "Maps." Yes, Google Maps uses electronics with an audio option, But many drivers use the "map" to check the screen for the upcoming highway exit or road change.

This problem came to pass when the Panhandle of Florida experienced something analogous after hurricane Michael. The environment changed drastically in places, eliminating landmarks and road signs. The lack of visual and written information made it virtually impossible for residents to identify roads or even follow maps.

Concerns Related to Participating in Card and Board Games

Braille Scrabble board

Caption: Braille Scrabble Board

All contributors to this post are all card and board game enthusiasts and expressed the same concerns. Card and most board games involve some form of print on the cards, board, and game pieces. The majority of card games use one or more decks of standard playing cards—52 cards of four suits ace through king with four jokers. How would four people play Canasta, Poker, Bridge, etc. in an audio format whether sighted or blind? The same question can be asked about Scrabble, Monopoly, Chess, Trivial Pursuit, or any other game that relies heavily on written information and spatial orientation and organization.

Conclusions

Although the samples have been small, these are strong, thought provoking arguments for the relevancy of print that would contribute equally well to the relevancy of braille. In several instances, braille and print users gave similar arguments against using audio formats solely. Most contributors, sighted and blind, indicated in some way that they are not auditory learners. In fact, only about 30% of the population whether sighted or blind is truly auditory learners. Additional comments point to other limitations inherent in audio formats. These formats, while helpful for obtaining information from large quantities of text, make it virtually impossible to skim a document or readily locate a specific section of a text, although some devices do allow one to bookmark sections. Audio formats do not communicate and reinforce spelling, punctuation, sentence structure, or literary formats. Also, absent from the argument for audio formats and the elimination of print or braille is a means of writing, communicating with others and oneself. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the National Assessment of Adult Learning, and other educational organizations focused on literacy, even though listening and speaking as well as reading and writing are characteristics of learning and communicating, reading and writing are the central characteristics of literacy.

Our final post in this series will look at the scientific evidence of the efficacy of braille.


Part 1: VisionAware Peers Demonstrate the Relevancy of Braille in the 21st Century For People Who are Blind or Visually Impaired

Photo of person using a 4-line slate and stylus.

Caption: Writing Braille with a Slate and Stylus

Trina Bassak

Trina is a physical therapist. She described the results of a 3-way call between herself, Jeannie Johnson, and myself on the use of slate and stylus. "It came up because of my dismay in braille labeling and lack of options," Trina said. "I really was never taught formally the slate and stylus…" After discussing a few suggestions with Jeannie and Lynda, Trina decided to give it another go. "It turned out to be amazingly more convenient, efficient and useful for making all types of labels. I love it! I see its usefulness as a portable tool," Trina continued. "Hard to believe it sat in my desk untouched for this long--more than a decade! When it could have made my life so much easier!"

James Boehm

At age fifteen, James, entrepreneur and professional counselor, began a career in automotive restyling and restoration. By the time he finished high school, Car dealerships were contracting with his business Custom Effects to personalize their own automobiles and James's creative handiwork as a unique incentive for customers who purchased vehicles from their dealerships. This young entrepreneur would find new outlets for his creative drive in 2009 when he lost his vision. His energy would be redirected from one means of getting around through an automobile to another—a mobility cane used by people with visual impairments, which he parlayed into a thriving business.

Three days after waking up blind in the hospital James tells that he realized he had two choices. "I could either be a bump on a log and have others take care of me, or I could face this head-on and move forward.” One tool he immediately realized would be necessary in his future was braille. He asked his sister to google the braille alphabet, and by the time he left the hospital two weeks later, James had begun teaching himself braille! For the rest of this amazing story be sure to read "From Customized Automobiles to Customized Canes: James Boehm's Story".

DeAnna Quietwater Noriega

DeAnna, author and professional in the field of vision loss, speaks for many braille users. "Braille makes learning math much easier as well as subjects that require nonliterary accuracy such as scientific symbols, formulas, diagrams, etc." For reasons like these, and his own frustrations while earning a PhD in mathematics, Dr. Abraham Nemeth, sometimes called the Louis Braille of mathematics, blind from birth, developed the braille math code adopted in 1951. All peer advisors agree that Braille just makes learning easier at times than relying on audio alternatives.

Kerry Kijewski

Could there be a stronger endorsement for braille than the one given by writer Kerry? She's so taken with braille that visiting Louis Braille’s birthplace Coupvray, France, is on her bucket list. It would probably be easy to put together a tour group of the VA Peer Advisors to join Kerry on her trip!

Elizabeth Sammons

Elizabeth, an author, is currently on a tour promoting her latest novel. She finds braille invaluable for notes when giving presentations, labels on her credit cards for reading the number easily, and braille on her Sunday hymnal.

Sandra Burgess

Sandra, a social worker, began learning Braille in public school in 1957. In time, Sandra became proficient in reading and writing it. Today, braille is incorporated into all facets of her life. When she serves as reader at church, reading Scripture, prayers and announcements, she uses technology. But Sandra's technology is not audio; it provides text in braille. Standing at the lectern, her hands and Braille display are invisible to the congregation, creating the debate of whether Sandra has an amazing memory or is reading braille. "This task, and many others, would not be possible for me without the use of Braille," Sandra remarked.

Jeannie Johnson

"I often tell people that I use braille as sighted people use print. "It is that important to me," commented Jeannie, long-time successful braille instructor. Jeannie uses index cards in all three standard sizes to write contact information, shopping and holiday gift lists; schedules and reservation details for hotels, airline, or bus trips; recommended local restaurants near home or in areas she'll be visiting; and the list goes on and on. Jeannie stores some books on a refreshable braille note taker, but her bookshelves contain the Holy Bible, song books, cooking and craft books, print/braille books to share with children… Aside from reading pleasure books in audio format, more often than not, if the option is available, Jeannie prefers braille!

Other Uses of Braille

Several VA Peer Advisors mentioned their love of playing games with family and friends. Specifically mentioned were Monopoly, Scrabble, Clue, and a variety of card games that can be purchased through specialty companies. With a slate and stylus or braille labeler any game can be adapted with braille. Once while on a weekend outing at the beach with some sighted friends, I labelled four decks of playing cards with my slate and stylus for a Canasta marathon!

Another popular topic during the VA Peer discussions was brailling recipes. Almost every VA Peer mentioned recipes either brailled by hand or in recipe books. Jeannie Johnson admitted that she has several long file drawers full of 5 by 8 inch index cards that contain recipes she's brailled over many years. I too love to cook and without braille letters on my digital oven panel, I don't know how I could use all of the options—bake, broil, raise and lower temperatures, and use auto-clean after the annual Thanksgiving turkey.

This is a very small sample of the value of braille to the lives of those who use it every day carrying out daily chores and professional duties. These individuals and all other braille users teach school, perform scientific research, serve in Congress, travel using credit cards; label correspondence, insurance policies, household receipts; wash clothing, prepare meals, clean bathrooms; play games, listen to CD's and DVD's; most of which need labels and a system for organizing and retrieving. None of these tasks can be done with audio devices. Braille users ride elevators, wait at a bus stop for public transportation, stay in hotels, eat in restaurants, and occasionally take a cruise. This list could go on and on. When braille is absent in any of these areas, the braille user is forced to depend on a sighted person for information, interfering with the independence that most people take for granted.

Be sure to read Part 2 in this series: Sighted individuals discuss the relevancy of braille.


No Limits! Braille and Print Relevancy in the 21st Century

empish reading braille sign on bathroom

Caption: Peer Advisor Empish Thomas Reading Braille Bathroom Sign

There has been considerable discussion in recent years about the relevance of braille in the digital age, in an age when computers will talk and audio files are everywhere—podcasts, books, broadcasts, etc. As the VisionAware (VA) Peer Advisors began preparing articles to celebrate Louis Braille's 210th birthday, this topic surfaced and stimulated a vigorous discussion among the VA Peers who have personal experience in using braille.

After all, everyone, sighted and blind people, uses audio formats, and who is more popular than Siri and Alexa? In light of these developments, Steve Kelley, peer advisor and author of articles on assistive technology posed, "Why read the Bible, Shakespeare, or Mark Twain from large volumes of embossed braille on paper, when you might just have the computer read the text, or play a narrated audio book?" My follow-up question to Steve's query is, "If everyone is using audio texts, pod casts, and talking information managers like Siri and Alexa, why not eliminate print along with braille?"

A History Lesson

Let's start with a history lesson: "Louis Braille was not the first to realize that fingers were to the blind what eyes were to the sighted, but he was the first to work out a practical method of employing the fingers to do the work of the eyes" (Koestler, 2004). Braille's tactile system was not the first reading system designed for blind people, but it was the first system that could be read and written without the use of vision. You might think these wonderful inventions that could improve the literacy of the students at the School for the Blind in Paris would be readily embraced by the faculty. Official recognition of his genius, however, came only after his death in 1852.

Around the time braille was adopted at the Paris School for the Blind, one of the founders of the Missouri School for the Blind was traveling in Europe and learned about the braille code. When he brought it back to the Missouri school, the students and blind faculty "seized it with delight" (Koestler, 2004(, but the sighted faculty resisted for four years, refusing to learn the code and read it with their eyes. Eventually, the Missouri School for the Blind officially adopted braille as its reading and writing system in 1858, as the first American school to do so (Koestler, 2004). Obviously, resistance to braille has not been just an issue of the nineteenth century, or we would not be discussing its relevance almost two hundred years after Louis Braille developed the code.

Exploring Both Sides of the Question

Both blind and sighted people recognize the absurdity of eliminating print, but it's necessary to explore both sides of the question in order to recognize the equally absurdity of eliminating braille. The immense majority of the population who depend on print for 99.9% of their information and communication never imagine what it would be like if they didn't have it.

What Would a World Without Print or Braille Be Like?

Expanding on another comment by Steve Kelley, I think that any inquiry into the relevancy of braille and print should include putting that question to braille and print users, who both enjoy all forms of literacy: reading, writing, and conversing; a greater chance of employment; higher education on average; and the many opportunities that reading and writing provide whether it's print or braille.

This question will be explored in three parts. In Part 1, several VA peers who are blind or visually impaired and who are of different ages and backgrounds describe various ways they use braille in their daily lives, showing why it is essential to their lives. In Part 2, several sighted people describe various ways they use print in their daily lives, showing reasons they could not function without it. Part 3 describes what scientific evidence reveals.

Stay tuned for the next post in this series and be sure to read Braille Awareness Month, the Starbucks Example of Relevance.

Also, with Valentines Day upon us, check out our suggested braille gift items.


Braille Awareness Month--The Starbucks Example of Relevance

Louis Braille's birthday was January 4th, and the month of January each year is Braille Awareness Month. There have been the usual discussions and articles about the relevancy of braille in the digital age. After all, what need is there for braille, when computers and other gadgets talk to us? Would those of us who regularly read print on paper, ask the same question? In the digital age, is print on paper relevant?

A teacher leans over her student to check his work on the braille embosser

Caption: Student Learning to Write Braille

Starbucks is not having this discussion about the relevancy of braille. They recognized several years ago that some of their customers are braille readers and added braille to their gift card line up. I make a point of looking for the braille gift card whenever I'm in a Starbucks. If one is not on display, I ask if one is available. The Starbucks at the Maine Mall in South Portland had one on display the day I walked in with one of my clients. It was a great ice breaker. Please don't tell Starbucks that braille is less relevant, because nothing seems as relevant and useful as identifying the name of a gift card, in braille, for braille readers!

A statistic I heard recently on a Tek Talk podcast, reminded me that this whole discussion of braille relevancy may be interesting academically, but totally absurd. In an interview with Tek Talk, Allison Hilliker, Customer Specialist with Bookshare mentioned that there are over half a million book titles for subscribers to download in electronic braille format. Think about it this way, instead of downloading and opening the electronic book on their Kindle, a braille reader can download the book and open it on their device with an electronic refreshable braille display.

Half a million books is very relevant.

This year, I'm just going to smile when the subject of braille's relevancy comes up and take the Starbuck's approach--there are plenty of braille readers out there, and some of them are our customers. More of them will be our customers if we reach out to them in the reading medium they prefer, braille and if we offer braille training to people who are losing vision and can benefit from learning it. Simple!

I love you in braille

Caption: I Love You in Braille

More About Braille and Braille Relevancy

Stay tuned for our next article on the relevance of braille in a post-Louis Braille era and be sure to read the other parts in this series:

Finding Braille in Everyday Places

Braille Gift Items


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