As we celebrate Louis Braille’s birthday and World Braille Day on January 4 – and Braille Literacy Month throughout January – it’s an ideal time to consider how important it is for all students who are blind or visually impaired to learn braille.
Of course, there are plenty of ways to take in language without sight, from audiobooks to screen readers that speak written text out loud. But nothing compares to interacting with text, whether in print, large print, or braille.
“Why are we teaching print when students can access everything via audio? Because audio is not literacy. It doesn’t allow an individual to interact with text,” says Carlton Anne Cook Walker, BEAR-Blindness Education and Advocacy Resources, Teacher of Students with Blindness/Low Vision, and President of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children, who also has a child who is blind.
She says oral language – which includes American Sign Language (ASL) – does have its role in the world. But without text we lose sentence structure, paragraph structure, and text structure. Written text, including braille, also teaches spelling.
“Written text allows an individual to interact, to realize the difference between words like ‘there,’ ‘they’re,’ and ‘their,’ and to move around the text independently,” Walker explains. “Interaction with the text is key, especially for math. Just try doing it all in your head.”
Reading that’s more efficient and easier
Even when students with low vision use optical magnifiers, it can limit their ability to read effectively. For example, when longer words are magnified they might take up an entire line on the page, which hampers a student’s ability to learn language fluently.
“For a child with low vision, print is often not efficient – and I believe text needs to be efficient, effective, and sustainable,” Walker says. “When reading braille our fingers are moving and there’s more efficiency.”
Walker emphasizes that braille isn’t difficult to learn – “Braille isn’t hard,” she says. “It’s just different.”
Walker admits that braille can be challenging for students who have a lack of fine motor control or tactile sensitivity, but she is working on ways to make braille more user-friendly for these students.
Best of both worlds
Walker feels strongly that braille must be included in instruction for students who are blind or visually impaired – ideally taught by a teacher who is fully immersed in braille as a reader, too. “If we eliminated braille we’d have to eliminate print, too,” she says. That’s the only way all students in a classroom would be on equal footing.
But she recognizes that dual media has its advantages. Some students might find Optical Character Recognition (OCR) or screen readers helpful, for example.
“Having more tools is better,” Walker says. “You’re not going to use them all at once, but although a hammer is a great tool, sometimes you need screwdrivers and pliers and wrenches and more. Sighted students have all those tools, and if we’re only giving students who are visually impaired audio to learn with, we’re leaving them with nothing but a hammer.”
She adds that braille isn’t just about learning. It’s critical to living independently. She recalls one teenage student with low vision who wanted to make sure his clothes were coordinated, so she encouraged him to learn braille so he could put braille tags inside his clothes. The same can be done for labeling kitchen tools and appliances, canned goods, and a multitude of other household items. She recommends using magnets for commonly used items, to eliminate having to re-braille the words every time.
“Sure, someone could use a color app on their phone or other software that will read labels to them, or tell them how to spell something – and that’s fine,” she says. “That’s still independence because they’re choosing to use that technology. But the point is to have as many choices as possible.”
Walker is a fan of APH’s Juno, which is a handheld video magnifier with OCR built in. “If you have low vision, you can read the text. Or you can use speech to text,” she says. Juno is versatile enough to use for self-grooming tasks, reading, writing, distance viewing – such as a chalkboard – and even hobbies.
What’s more, APH is in the midst of reimagining low vision technology. APH’s long-term goal is to create a suite of magnification tools, running on a unique APH low vision platform, that’s flexible and easy enough for anyone to use. But APH always has, and always will, encourage the use of braille alongside technology.
“I think for anyone learning braille, it’s important to be immersed in it,” Walker says. “Schools don’t tend to be a braille-rich environment, but when I’m teaching I find the sighted students are fascinated by braille – and they should be exposed to it, even if they don’t learn it. That normalizes braille and creates inclusion that’s very meaningful down the line.”