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

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Scientific Support for Braille and Print

A seated man reading braille

Caption: Man Reading Braille

We started this discussion with an overview post on No Limits--Braille and Print Relevancy. Then 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


Topic:
Reading

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