Braille Is Not Dead (So Stop Trying To Kill It)

Note: As of January 2020, this post has been updated to correct some assumptions I no longer hold, describe new experiences I’ve had, and clarify a few points that have come up in the years since its original publication. I hope it is better and more useful for it.

I’ve heard the case against braille books, and it’s a compelling one. Braille books are bulky, because the braille alphabet is oversized compared to print letters. They aren’t terribly common, as the market for them is so small. They are expensive to produce, so most of us don’t own our own books. We usually end up borrowing them from special libraries and resource centres.
Braille is undeniably inconvenient. Throughout secondary school, my backpack weighed somewhere in the neighbourhood of 25 pounds, because it was crammed with volumes and volumes of braille. If I also had to carry my laptop case, braille notetaker, and/or my Perkins Brailler, I’d be carrying something like 40 pounds of equipment and books back and forth every day. That was a third of my body weight, and I am quite sure some of the neck and back issues I suffer from began with all those books.
Then, there’s the multiple volume problem: most braille textbooks and longer leisure reading books are too long to come in one volume. My first braille dictionary, a short one meant for children, was 25 volumes in length. My high school chemistry book, which included enormous tactile diagrams, was 53 volumes long. Each volume only contained the equivalent of 20 or so print pages, so I would sometimes run back and forth during class to fetch the next volume of braille (my books had their own storage room, true story). When I had chemistry or math homework, I’d have to carry several volumes of braille, instead of just two books like every other student. It was a logistical nightmare, especially when I’d miscalculate and bring the wrong volumes home with me. If you ask my parents, they’ll tell you about all the times I came home distraught, because I’d realized, too late, that I didn’t have the correct volumes with me. Oh, the tears I shed over braille books.
So, yes, I understand the case against braille, and I acknowledge that it’s not for everyone. Some blind people never master it, and others simply don’t like using it. Auditory learners, in particular, seem to do better with audio books and text-to-speech than braille, and that’s valid, too.
That being said, I’m not shy about my belief that braille needs to stick around, and cannot be replaced by audio technology.
People keep insisting that braille is dead. Irrelevant. Frivolous, even, given our digital landscape. With screen readers and other text-to-speech products, what do we need braille for? Blind bookworms, students, and professionals can just sit back, relax, and let their computers read to them. Who needs to have the actual text in front of them? Isn’t being read aloud to enough?
For me, and for many, many blind people, it’s nowhere near enough. It’s not enough, because we still deserve to read in the ways that best suit us. It’s not enough, because it’s still nice to be able to pick up a book (or, in some cases, to cuddle up with electronic braille). Most importantly of all, it’s not enough, because blind people, especially those who are deaf-blind, still need access to more than one literacy tool. They still need to learn to read just like everyone else.
Imagine how a sighted parent would react if, upon sending their child to school, the teachers decided that reading is optional, frivolous, irrelevant. Imagine the outrage if instead, teachers just read aloud to that child, not letting them see or understand how the alphabet works because it’s too much bother to teach them.
Now, imagine that the teachers then insisted on teaching that child to write, without letting them read. Sure, a child can be taught to type and never have to know how to write by hand, but learning to write when they cannot read would be a wee bit complicated, no? And wouldn’t learning to spell be far, far trickier? Would the average sighted child ever be subjected to this bizarre methodology, just for the sake of convenience or frugality or the idea that they don’t “need” to learn? Not likely.
Nearly everything I know about language I learned from reading. If you want to be a good writer, you have to watch other writers at work, and this necessitates a lot of reading. Yes, I can still learn by having my computer read a book aloud to me, and I’m not one to disparage audio books as “fake” reading. But I find that I don’t retain information quite as well just by listening. Not every blind person is an auditory learner, least of all me, so reading on my own is still a crucial skill, and I literally couldn’t do my editing work without braille. Spotting subtle punctuation errors and common misspellings that automated software won’t catch would be cumbersome if I relied on my ears, and would slow me down considerably.
Speaking of spelling, I’ve noticed that while bad spelling is by no means exclusive to blind people, we have to work harder than most sighted people, simply because without braille, we don’t interact with text the same way. If you hardly ever “see” the words on a page, you have to put in a lot more legwork to ensure you’re not missing things. It’s easier to be a good speller when you have the opportunity to memorize the words, and you can’t do that as easily without reading independently. While I am a decent speller, any word I picked up in a braille book is much easier for me to remember than a word I picked up by listening. These days, I do the majority of my “reading” by listening to audio books or text-to-speech software, so I have more difficulty spelling newer terms. Here are just a few of the pitfalls a lack of braille access has caused for many blind people I know:
• The Beatles becomes The Beetles
• Def Leppard becomes Deaf Leopard (logical, but still wrong!)
• Too, to, and two become hopelessly mixed up, even more than usual
• Names are commonly incorrect (Sarah vs. Sara) and names based on deliberate misspellings and wordplay are especially difficult
Unless we are diligent about checking the spelling of anything new, mistakes like these will keep cropping up in the blind community, and minor as it seems, it can be genuinely embarrassing for a lot of us.
Mindful of this, I find excuses to read braille as often as possible, both because I enjoy it and to keep my spelling skills up to par. Sighted people will almost always have the luxury of knowing how a thing is spelled the moment they read it. The only way for me to replicate that is to read a lot of braille and do a lot of googling.
“But Wait!” you say, “isn’t spelling sort of secondary to all the other aspects of literacy? With the ever-present Spellcheck, isn’t the ability to spell less valuable?” Maybe, though as a professional writer and editor I do know that Spellcheck won’t save you every time. Even if we discard spelling, though, grammar and general syntax still rely on the ability to read, and not everyone can pick that up just by listening. Braille gives you the opportunity to read aloud to yourself, which will help improve grammar and flow in your own writing. (Screen readers aren’t so natural-sounding as to read with a human’s sense of flow, and as I learned while preparing speaking notes for other people, screen readers don’t help you catch unintentional tongue-twisters!) If you’re not an auditory learner, learning a new language, or improving your mother tongue, is much easier if you can read directly to yourself.
So, no, braille is not for everyone, and braille proficiency is not, as I once believed, a non-negotiable ingredient for blind people’s literacy and professional success. But love it or hate it, braille is the only way in which blind people can learn to read in the same way sighted people do, and for people wired the way I am, it’s the optimal method for absorbing and retaining new information. Braille is inconvenient, and expensive, and problematic, yes. But it’s not redundant. It’s not pointless. It’s definitely not dead.
Please, stop trying to kill it.


29 thoughts on “Braille Is Not Dead (So Stop Trying To Kill It)

  1. I so second this, a thousand times over. I was in grade 9 before I got a laptop, and even then they weren’t overly common. Braille notetakers were THE technology when I was in elementary school, but you still had to learn to spell as well as maintain a decent grasp of grammar.
    I love the current availability of refreshable braille displays, which – although expensive – make it possible to read – and sometimes even write – braille on the fly when typing is impractical and one is learning new terms (which one will need to learn to spell). Literacy is so imporatnt, because if a blind person cannot spell, uses little or no punctuation, or has only an auditory grasp of the English language, how does that enable them to write a resume, a business proposal, or even a novel? Spell-check only takes us so far…

    • You bring up a good point about the professional world: blind people have a hard enough time being hired and taken seriously without having substandard literacy skills. While I don’t agree with cramming braille down someone’s throat until they hate it, I do believe in encouraging blind children, especially, to learn how to use it. It is such an enhancement to general independence.

      • While I agree that Braille shouldn’t be forced down the throats of adults who lose their sight, I don’t think children should have that choice. After all, sighted children can’t opt out. Regardless of how much they may not like it and many choose not to learn, all children need to be taught literacy skills as best as can be done.

  2. I wish I could blame the increasing rarity of Braille books for the general patheticness of blind spelling, but I know people my age or older who absolutely cannot spell or write competently. There are words that are spelled so far wrong that even the screen reader mispronounces them, and people use punctuation marks that simulate the way they speak, so you get question marks in weird places. Those are just a few examples. I suspect some just flat don’t care. I agree Braille’s slow and bulky and expensive, but I do love curling up with a good book. It’s taken years, but I’ve got all the Harry Potter books, the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings — wait, no, I still need Return of the King there. I do love curling up with an old favorite. It’s worth the trouble if you can find the space.

    • Oh, I do realize that the bulk of bad spelling, in both the blind and sighted communities, is mostly down to apathy and ignorance. Still, braille does help. I’m a conscientious writer, and most of the silly errors I make are due to a lack of “seeing” the words on paper.
      I definitely agree that having a few cherished braille books to hand is more than worth the expense and storage. And most people can store a braille book or two, even in a tiny apartment.

  3. Another point in braille’s favor is that it gives us the option of being
    able to read aloud to others.
    There’s really something magical about it,
    and the braille haters don’t know what they’re missing.

    • Completely agreed. There is so much joy in reading aloud to a child, reciting poetry, or reading your own work to yourself so you can find mistakes. I do a lot of meticulous editing, and without braille, I couldn’t do my job. I need to be able to access every subtle nuance, so I can catch even the tiniest errors.

  4. I agree wholeheartedly with this. As a Braille teacher, I also agree that adults who lose sight should be forced to learn Braille if they really don’t plan to use it. In a related comment, hardcopy materials and Braille displays should be produced in large dot Braille sometimes to meet the needs of the increasing number of people of all ages experiencing touch sensitivity issues. This will increase the number of Braille users. I wouldn’t have a job if I wasn’t a good Braille user. Like the original poster, I cannot rely on audio exclusively and operate with a brailler or slate much faster than I use a computer or touch screen device.

    • It’s great to learn about your perspective as an instructor; it’s not a demographic we hear from often enough. I agree that those with touch-sensitivity issues need to be accommodated. My concern is that, due to the already-extortionate price of braille displays, customized models may be even less affordable.

  5. I also wonder without Braille how do we as humanity expect deaf-blind people to learn, read and interact with the world? With a deaf-blind twin I would be highly concerned if Braille was dead! -L

    • I understand how important braille is to deaf-blind people, and I regret that I did not address that in my post. I was thinking too much of myself, I think, and my own experiences. I’m very glad you brought this up. Thank you.

      • Nooo not at all!! I agreed with your post, it’s refreshing to see people who appreciate the importance of Braille and hear the stories of why. I only mention deaf-blindness as my sister has that and as amazing as technology is these days for blind people, I can’t imagine it being so easy for her without the use of Braille… she’s a book worm like you!

  6. Without Braille… well I cannot imagine and really don’t want to. I work in education with visually impaired students and have recently experienced a student not receiving their exam paper in Braille fortunately there was enough time to adapt it myself. This student had only lost their sight 4 years previously and they were devastated at the thought of having to do the paper without the Braille and only having it read out to them. Although the situation is criminal; my point at hand being this student hates reading, and is still coming to terms with their sight loss yet still wanted to have their own copy of Braille to read to give them the full access to their A-level paper.
    Love Braille!

    • Oh, I’ve used scribes before, and it was terrible every time. I’m not an auditory learner, and I find it excruciating to dictate my thoughts, especially when an essay is required. I keep having to go back and change everything around.

  7. I agree with all the sentiments. However, I want add a couple of things. Firstly, there are a lot of adults who were born with low vision who can’t read adequately because sighted teachters decided that print was good enough for htem, even when it wasn’t.

    • That makes me angry, though I am level-headed enough to recognize that some of these teachers probably thought they were doing the right thing. None of us is perfect. Still, the idea of an adult being deprived of the ability to read is unfathomable.

  8. Perfect! I could never imagine a blind person successful especially in situations like: conducting a poetry evening, reading a script in a studio, spell checking a self-composed document as well as others’ documents.
    I quote Helen Keler’s that Louis Braille to the blind is as Gutenberg to the sighted people.
    Thank you for the post.

    • You are very welcome. I’m glad you enjoyed it. No, I can’t imagine having to go through my entire life without braille. Copyeditors, especially, couldn’t get by without it. My instructor informed me–after a stylistic editing assignment–that I kept missing the capitals on sentences I’d restructured. I remember being rushed, and relying on the screen reader more than the braille. I need to trust braille more.

  9. Pingback: Braille Is Not Dead (So Stop Trying To Kill It) | albertruel

  10. I agree braille isn’t necessarily dead, but I wonder if it’s mostly heading in the direction of irrelevance for the majority of blind folks who’ve grown up with it–again, thanks largely to technology. I’ll use myself as an example, because it’s the best one I’ve got to hand.

    Like quite a few commenters it sounds like, I did the school thing virtually entirely in braille. Computers for people who could see were a rare thing, nevermind for a guy who can’t. Then along came technology, and by the time I was done with high school the only thing that wasn’t electronic were textbooks and tests–and that only because that just wasn’t done. I used braille so much in school, and for homework, that it was the absolute last thing I wanted to look at on the rare occasions wherein I actually had time to do something else.

    Fast forward a few years, now. I’ve done the employment thing–I’m no copyeditor, mind you, but I’ve been around. I’ve done–am doing–the college thing. And honestly, with the exception of math, I couldn’t find a place for braille outside of perhaps the occasional leasure reading, if I were into that/had time for that/etc. In short, if I woke up tomorrow and braille didn’t exist, I wouldn’t likely lose much sleep for it.

    that isn’t to say there isn’t a positive use case for it–Meagan is a perfect example of the contrary. But I wonder if, in a cost/benefit analysis long-term, braille would lose out more often than not.

    I’d also like to add that whether you be blind, sighted or somewhere in between, in 2015 there is no earthly excuse whatsoever for not being able to spell–even if you’ve never seen a written (brailled, perhaps, would be more accurate) word in your life. Before, you’d tap the person sitting next to you on the shoulder and see if they could spell $MysteryWord. If they could, you were laughing. Now, you’d tap Google instead. Or Bing, if you’re one of the type to think anything Google’s involved in is made of pure evil. As long as you’re close, it can more often than not figure out what you were trying to spell–and correct you. So even if you’re in a dark room with the door locked and the windows closed, as long as you’ve got internet access, “I didn’t know how to spell it” should be the farthest thing from an excuse you’ve got. It won’t do much to solve the grammar problem, mind, but one small step at a time.

    • You make some excellent points. I still think braille is absolutely vital for a blind child who is learning to read. I can’t conceive of another method that would be as effective. You are right, though: once you grow up, braille loses its relevance. See, I was the opposite of how you were in school; I loved Braille to bits, even if I did do a lot of my schoolwork using it. I was a bookworm (still am, of course) and I always preferred to read a book rather than listen to it or “read” electronically. I hear what you’re saying about cost-benefit analysis. With the growing prevalence of braille displays, though, it’s not hard to have braille handy. Now, the thing to do is to get manufacturers to reduce them to a price that is affordable. The markup on braille displays is extortionate.

  11. Hi, Jeff. I’ve approved your comment, but it’s not showing up on the site for some reason. In answer to your question, of course you may republish the article and link to the blog. Thank you for taking an interest; I hope you continue to enjoy it.

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