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.

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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)

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.