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

I’ve heard the case against braille books, and I agree with all of it. 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 incredibly expensive to make, so most of us don’t own our own books. We usually end up borrowing them from special libraries and resource centres. Braille is inconvenient: all throughout junior high and high school, my backpack weighed somewhere in the neighbourhood of 25 pounds, because it was crammed full of 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 forty pounds of equipment and books back and forth every day. That’s 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 in multiple volumes because of braille’s bulk. My first braille dictionary (and last—I never got another one) was twenty-five volumes in length. My high school chemistry book, which was also stuffed with 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. 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 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 know the case against braille, and it’s a valid case. Knowing this, people are then astonished when I declare that braille needs to stick around, inconvenient as it is. People keep insisting that braille is dead. With screen readers and other text-to-speech products, what do we need braille for? Blind bookworms, students, and employees can just sit back, relax, and let their computers read to them. Who really needs to have the actual text in front of them, anyway? Isn’t being read aloud to enough?

No, it is not enough—not by a long shot. It’s not enough, because we still deserve to read. 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 children still need a literacy tool. They still need to learn to read just like everyone else.

Imagine if, when you send your five-year-old to kindergarten, the teachers decide that reading is overrated. Instead, they just read out loud to your child, not letting her see or understand how print works. Now, imagine that the teachers then insist on teaching the child to write, without teaching her to read first. Sure, a child can be taught to type and never have to know how to write by hand, but how can one write if one cannot read? How can a child learn to spell if he doesn’t have access to the ability to read first?

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, but I do find that I don’t retain information quite as well just by listening. Not everyone is an auditory learner (I’m definitely not one) so reading on your own is still a crucial skill. It’s even more essential that a child learn to read on her own. While many sighted children are abysmal spellers, I continually encounter blind people who cannot spell at all because they have never actually “seen” the words on a page. It’s easier to be a good speller when you have the opportunity to memorize the words, and you can’t do that without reading. 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 in blind people:

• 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 almost never correct (Sarah vs. Sara, etc.)

Unless we are religious in checking the spelling of anything new, mistakes like these still crop up a lot in the blind community, and I really believe that a lack of independent reading is the culprit. 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 always have the luxury of knowing how a thing is spelled the moment it comes up. If a new restaurant opens in town, the sign will immediately tell them how it’s meant to be spelled. They’ll never have to ask, and they’ll probably never get it hopelessly wrong.

“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 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. Braille gives you the opportunity to read aloud to yourself, which will help improve grammar; grammar is another thing most people don’t have a healthy grasp of, and blind people are even more disadvantaged, simply because they “read” less. If you’re not an auditory learner, learning a new language–or improving your mother tongue–is much easier if you can read for yourself.

Frankly, we need all the literacy tools and skills we can find. The writing of the average person is bad enough without contributing to the problem by killing off braille. Braille is the only way in which blind people can read just like a sighted person. It’s 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.