The Braille crisis

In an audio-book era, do blind children still need to learn to read?
Photograph by Andrew Tolson

The first fight over Braille took place 181 years ago, not long after 20-year-old Louis Braille unveiled his revolutionary code—the system of raised dots that would soon be the blind child’s equivalent of the printed word in much of the world. Students, on the one hand, were euphoric. Once condemned to illiteracy, they could finally read and write. But the Royal Institute for the Young Blind in Paris, accustomed to making money off crafts produced by its boarders, wasn’t pleased. Hoping to stamp out the student body’s new independence, the institute’s director had all of Braille’s handcrafted books gathered together and burned.

Another kind of battle is on as Braille once again faces extinction—this time as a result of overstretched school budgets and the ever-evolving portable audio book. In the 1950s about half of all blind children learned Braille, says the U.S. National Federation of the Blind. Today, that number has fallen to 10 per cent—and it’s about the same in Canada. For some, like NFB director Mark Riccobono, that means we’re letting blind children grow up as illiterate as Braille’s 19th-century contemporaries. “If only 10 per cent of sighted children were being taught [to read],” he told Maclean’s, “that would be considered a crisis.”

The issue bubbled up to the surface in Canada when the Canadian National Institute for the Blind threatened, in January, to close the doors of its library, claiming it could not afford its $10-million annual operating cost. The library circulates two million items each year to the 836,000 Canadians with significant vision loss. And it holds the country’s largest stock of Braille books, which are printed in its basement, on large, stiff paper. It even has hard-to-come-by items like a complete Braille dictionary that it jokingly refers to as “the pocket edition.” It is 72 volumes.

Myra Rodrigues, a frequent user of that library who is now nearing 70, began learning Braille when she was five and a student at what was then the Ontario School for the Blind. Infantile glaucoma was slowly eating away at her vision, but in 1948, Rodrigues could see fairly well. And that made things tricky. “Because I could see it—if I sat near a window with the sun coming in, reflecting off the dots,” the stately sexagenarian laughs. “Teachers used to put a mask on me. I’d sit there and try to feel these dots.”

There’s a good chance that if Rodrigues was born today, she would never learn Braille. Thanks to devices like text-to-speech recorders, many blind people can get by without the raised dot code—especially those who lose sight later in life. “So that whole demographic of people doesn’t use Braille anymore,” says CNIB president John Rafferty. Rafferty actually thinks that’s fine. As he notes, children who are born entirely blind are still taught Braille from the start. The problem, he says, concerns those who began life like Myra: the 85 per cent of legally blind children who can, to varying degrees, see. Many read, provided there’s lots of light, and the type is big enough. Is it still worth teaching them Braille?

When the question comes up, typically during the kindergarten years, the answer isn’t clear-cut. At age five or so, explains Ruby Ryles, coordinator of the Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University, all children are reading large-font texts. So blind children with limited vision usually fare fairly well. The trouble comes later. For one, children’s eyesight can deteriorate. So it may be that they can read print until they can’t—and then they either learn Braille as adults (which is difficult), or make do without. But it’s also that reading print, when your vision is bad, is hard, and discouraging. The NFB’s Ricco­bono himself was one of those in-between children. He was not taught Braille. “I started reading large print in third grade,” he explains. “By fifth grade, I was reading large print with magnification.” By university, he was scrambling to get by. “I should have learned Braille earlier,” he insists. “I struggled mightily.”

As Ryles puts it, “At the age when we should be teaching Braille, we think: our limited-vision kids are doing very well. But then they start falling further behind.” Riccobono says that’s the story across North America. At public schools, he insists that “Braille is considered the last resort”—a tool teachers pull out when the strained eyes of their somewhat-sighted pupil can no longer keep up.

Photograph by Andrew Tolson

The shift began in the ’70s, when most designated “schools for the blind” shut down, and blind children were integrated into public school systems. While blind schools had mandated the use of Braille for all, public schools often did just the opposite. Fuelling that shift, says CNIB’s Rafferty, were a host of new concerns associated with being the lone blind kid among the sighted masses. “For a lot of parents,” he says, Braille became “a stigma that labels children who might have a little bit of vision as being blind.”

For school districts, new technology is cheaper than hiring a Braille teacher. And even Rodrigues, who calls Braille her “most precious tool as a blind person,” waxes rhapsodic about her Daisy Digital Talking Player: a new-fangled, internationally standardized audio book for the visually impaired that has top-tier sound quality and allows her to “flip” between pages. Rodrigues says that, on many a night, she falls asleep to the sound of hers. But she admits the poetry of sitting down to read a book is lost on an audio CD. “Braille makes everything come alive,” she muses. “I can stop and ponder a word. Or I can go back and read part of the last paragraph. The words just dance off the page under my fingers.”

Some advocates for the blind say it’s not only the magic that’s lost. In a study Ryles conducted, she found that blind students who’d been taught Braille early scored about the same as sighted students on a standardized test measuring reading comprehension (61 versus 62 per cent). For those with no Braille training, that score fell to an average of 38 per cent. The discrepancy was worse for spelling. Having a written culture, versus an oral culture, also shapes the way we think, according to some scholars. In another study, a University of Calgary communications professor Doug Brent and his wife, Diana, who teaches blind children, studied short stories written by blind students. They found that stories by kids who did not know Braille were more likely to feature fantastical characters or plots—not a bad thing. But they also tended to be grammatically poor, disorganized and illogical. “As if all of their ideas are crammed into a container, shaken and thrown randomly onto a sheet of paper like dice onto a table,” the Brents concluded.

There’s even an economic case for Braille: in a study of legally blind adults who’d lost their vision between birth and age 2, Ryles found that a whopping 77 per cent of non-Braille users were unemployed. That number dropped to 56 per cent for those who knew Braille. Of those whose Braille knowledge was “extensive,” most were employed.

But if a child learns Braille, in Canada there is no minimum guarantee of how much instruction he or she will receive. “It depends on the school system,” says Rafferty. Schools look at Braille like “tae kwon do lessons,” Ryles says: something kids should get for a few hours a week. “If we taught print to our six-year-old sighted kids in that same way, no one would be literate.”

That said, there are blind adults who do just fine without Braille. New York Gov. David Paterson, who refused to learn it as a child, is one. Cathy MacDonald, a stay-at-home mom in Lower Sackville, N.S., is another. MacDonald lost her sight to diabetes in her twenties. She gave Braille a try, but was “never really inspired” by it. She graduated from community college with the help of talking books, and thinks Braille is an archaic system. The people pushing for Braille, she says, are often “baby boomers who don’t want anything to do with computers and who are not opening their mind up to new technology.”

CNIB is not averse to technology’s wonders. At any hour, the recording studio at its Toronto office is full of (mostly) silver-haired volunteers—like Simon Curwen, a deep-voiced Brit and self-professed “ham”—who come in for three-hour shifts to lend their songful voices to the production of new audio materials. But the institute is adamant that technology should be a supplement for most childen. Its website proclaims: “Braille = Equality, Braille = Independence, Braille = Choice.”

Four months after its threatened closure, the CNIB library remains open—thanks to the governments of Ontario, Alberta, New Brunswick, P.E.I., and the Northwest Territories, which all answered the plea for short-term funding. But Rafferty says this is unsustainable. He asks that the CNIB library be federally funded, like other public libraries. “It’s a fundamental human rights issue,” he protests. “Why should someone who is blind have to go to a charity to receive their library, when every other Canadian gets it through regular government services?” Rafferty says Canada is the only G8 country to not fund library services for the blind.

Advocates worry that if Braille materials are harder to access, the balance between Braille and audio will be tipped even further. Ryles, a former Grade 1 teacher, began researching Braille when her own son was born blind. Given the state of things today, she says she’s starting to feel fortunate that he was born completely in the dark: with no sight at all. That way, he was at least guaranteed some Braille. “We were very lucky that we didn’t go through all that: ‘Should he read print? Should he read Braille?’ ” she says. “You could not have convinced me at the time that we were lucky. But we were lucky.”