The Freedom To Read

On February 26, Canadians will begin celebrating Freedom to Read Week, which reminds us of the danger of censorship and the importance of intellectual liberty for everyone. It’s a time to reflect on the harm done by banning books and restricting access to controversial ideas. I’m a big fan of this occasion, because I routinely seek out viewpoints that make me uncomfortable. Forcing myself to ask hard questions can be unpleasant, but frequent soul-searching helps me keep my mind open and my opinions balanced.
As dear as this cause is to my heart, I’ve found that the phrase “freedom to read” means something different to me—something deeply personal and specific to my disability. You see, much of my childhood and young adulthood was made less fulfilling because I did not have total freedom to read. Braille books were difficult to come by, especially rare ones, and audio books used to be prohibitively expensive. Later, when a mix of talking books and access to the internet helped me nourish the hungry bookworm that has always lived inside me, I realized just how difficult it had been to live in a world where I missed out on so much while my peers dealt with no such limitations. Imagine waltzing into a library or bookstore and just…reading, whatever you want, whenever you want! This is a privilege most able people will never have to think twice about; it’s automatic and taken for granted by the majority of people. For me, though, it was a novel concept.
I couldn’t experience the pleasure of binge-reading; my supply of literature was far too inconsistent for that. I often curbed my urge to read everything in sight, knowing that if I didn’t ration my reading material, I’d regret it later. By the time I was in ninth grade, I’d literally read every book the nearest resource centre had to offer, which I found devastating. The CNIB library finally saved me, but until then I felt intense deprivation.
Reading, more than any other activity, gives me indescribable joy. Books are my refuge, sort of like a friend who will never desert me. Reading is how I relax. It’s how I learn. It’s how I entertain myself and expand my horizons. It’s an invaluable educational tool, because I get much less out of videos and am quite introverted. It’s my chief source of comfort and solace. Whenever life gets a little too complicated, I retreat to my books, though I read almost as much when times are good. I feel giddy at the mere thought of finding someone new to talk books with. In short, I cannot imagine a life without reading.
There are other times when my freedom to read is compromised. I can’t usually read signs, billboards, posters and other visual materials. Taking photos of objects using specialized software is one of the only ways to identify labels and read instructions (though instructions are commonly posted online now, which helps an immeasurable amount). If my portable scanner isn’t handy, I sometimes need documents in hard copy to be read aloud to me. I can’t normally read paperwork I’m supposed to fill out, meaning strangers are privy to sensitive information and must spend time they don’t have assisting me. I can’t use most debit machines independently. The list goes on.
In this, as in so many other situations, the internet has contributed to a more positive reading experience. I can binge-read to my heart’s content. I can be very selective about what I choose to read. I have access to almost all reading material in existence, whether it’s rare or common. For the most part, things are next door to perfect.
I want everyone to know how vital it is that people with disabilities be allowed to read as freely as they please. They have the right to be exposed to new ideas and a variety of stories, just like able people. The hardest part about being a very young child was my inability to read. Waiting around for a grownup to take the time was excruciating, and even now, when I have to be read to, I feel like a child. I don’t want future blind people to be treated like children. I never want them to be compelled to read books they don’t enjoy because there are no other options. I am passionate about literacy, and the right of every person around the world to benefit from it. (This is why I become incandescent with rage whenever people suggest that braille has lost its relevance.) Literacy was my ticket to an equal education, and it is the bread and butter of my career. Navigating an educational system that believed I was “lucky to go to school at all” could only be accomplished by proving I was a good student, for which reading was key.
If we can all have the freedom to read, I think the world will be a much better place.

4 Sources Of Functional Illiteracy That Technology Can’t Fix (Yet)

Most blind people are perfectly literate. We may need screen readers and/or braille dots to do it, but most of us can read as well as any sighted person. Further, much of the reading material that was once unavailable to us—magazines, newspapers, pamphlets—can be accessed online. It’s much easier to be a bookworm in 2016 than it was in, say, 1995. The world of the written word is, more often than not, accessible now. There will always be exceptions, though, and those unfortunate little exceptions can conspire to create a lot of grumbling, at least in my life. You see, no matter how accessible the world becomes, blind people will remain functionally illiterate when it comes to…

1. Signs

Signs: helpful little things, which do a lot more than indicate street names and business establishments. GPS and a healthy knowledge of the city was not helpful to me when I nearly trailed the delicate sleeve of my favourite blouse in wet paint because I couldn’t read the sign on the railing. I’ve nearly ruined a cherished skirt while trying to sit on a newly-painted bench. I’ve slid on wet floors, only finding (and knocking over) the helpful wet floor sign after the fact. (Those really do lend themselves well to being loudly and conspicuously toppled, don’t they?) I’ve tried to use elevators and toilets that were out of order. I’ve tried to walk through emergency exits when there was no emergency in sight. All the many helpful hints signs can provide are lost on me, and it is only the boundless kindness of strangers that has saved me from many an embarrassing mishap. (Thanks to the odd passers-by, I still own both blouse and skirt!)

2. Subtitles and Captions

So there I am, watching some powerful video or other, when suddenly the actors switch language. The nice video editors have thoughtfully provided subtitles, but I’m left feeling totally lost. If I’m lucky, the video comes with description, so at least the describer can read the subtitles to me, though this is quite distracting and really takes away from the flow of dialogue. Mostly, I’m unlucky, and nearby sighted people are subjected to eyelash-fluttering and relentless entreaty until they agree to read me the subtitles. It’s frustrating, and while it doesn’t come up very often—I’ve memorized the Elvish bits in LOTR, so that at least is no issue—it’s a real thorn when it does.

3. Handwriting

No matter how skilled we become at inventing and using technology that can read printed material from menus, books, and photos, I don’t know if we’ll ever progress to the point where the blind can access handwriting. Everyone’s handwriting is unique, some more readable than others, but even the neatest penmanship is essentially inaccessible to anyone who can’t see it for themselves. I’ve only a rudimentary understanding of printed letters as it is, so when someone leaves handwritten notes, or uses fancy calligraphy on a bottle of perfume, I’m left wondering. Reading about how personal and intimate handwritten letters are does not help with morale, either. Excuse me while I go shed a few tears over the fact that I’ll never receive a handwritten love letter. I’ll never even take a Buzzfeed quiz on what my handwriting says about me.
Okay, I’m done now.

4. Packaging

It’s getting easier to read labels on packaging now that we have image recognition apps. If you’re able to snap a clear photo of the object in question, it’s possible to have your smart phone rattling off the information in seconds. This assumes you, unlike me, are any good at taking good photos on the first or seventh try, of course. No matter how intelligent the technology, no matter how clear the photo, no matter how strong your desire to read the packaging, however, the fact remains that some companies just don’t make it easy for us. The print on some items is so miniscule even fully-sighted people struggle to read the finer points. Try reading an expiration date or ingredients list without a microscope. And, if you can find and read the instructions without five minutes of fiddling, come talk to me. It would take less time to read a five-page forum on how to open that stubborn bottle of toilet cleaner than it would to find the convoluted instructions printed in tiny lettering on the back. Besides, you meet cool new people while trying to open things. If that fails, you can always resort to more eyelash-fluttering, obviously.

I’m glad to report that, as with so many issues, functional illiteracy for blind people is diminishing. We’re able to access so much material online now that the need to read conventionally is lessening every day. I am seldom reminded of my disability when it comes to reading material, and maybe that’s why it’s so jarring when I am. If you become accustomed to accessing something, and are suddenly and definitively unable, it stands out even more sharply for its rarity. Nothing transports me back to childhood faster than having something read to me, and that’s not the type of childhood nostalgia I welcome. My hope is that strangers will stay kind, and friends will stay patient. Just remember, while you’re rereading that piece of paper for the fifth time, I’m just as frustrated as you are.

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.