BRAILLE, a system of reading and writing for the blind and for those with severe conditions of low vision, has been around for over 200 years.
Despite being criticised as old-fashioned, some still regard the Braille system as their primary and reliable means of accessing information. Others, in order to keep up with global trends, have shifted away from this traditional approach to use modern digital technology in order to adapt to the growing demands of the 21st century. This conflicting position between the two has sparked a heated debate among Braille activists as it has resulted in the disturbing decline of braille literacy in the developed world.
Braille is a simple yet sophisticated system of six raised dots. When used in various combinations, the six dots can be used to form letters of the alphabet, musical notations, chemistry symbols, numbers, and punctuation. Traditionally, a special typewriter called the “Brailler” is used to emboss these raised dots on paper in which the blind would read them with the tip of their fingers.
Today, Braille printers called “Embossers” have also made it possible to produce mass quantities of Braille materials. And quite recently, a small device called the ‘refreshable Braille display’ has been developed to support the ever increasing digital access needs to personal computers and popular touch-screen tablets.
However, despite the recent innovations, there are still many misconceptions about the Braille system. For example, Braille has been blamed for isolating and stigmatising students from peers who read print or Braille is always slower than reading print and difficult to learn. Yet studies have found that Braille is an efficient and effective reading medium with students demonstrating a reading speed exceeding 200 words per minute.
According to the Braille Literacy Crisis in America report published by the National Federation of the Blind in 2009, Braille literacy has declined in the United States to the point where it is estimated that only a shocking 10 per cent of blind children are learning it.
Although there is no clear consensus on the causes of this decline, a number of factors have been cited. Among them are negative attitudes towards Braille, greater reliance on speech output and print-magnification technology, a rise in the number of blind children with additional disabilities who are non-readers, disputes on the utility of the Braille code, and the decline in teachers’ knowledge of Braille and methods for teaching it.
However, the most likely reason for the declining pattern is the apparent affinity by the visually-impaired to opt for speech output and print-magnification technology. But is this 21st century approach really a threat to preserving Braille literacy?
It is often hastily said that technology obviates the need for Braille. In the context of literacy development, the availability of text-to-speech technology and audio texts, for example, is advanced as an argument against the use of Braille as auditory methods have too been supported as an effective stimulant for learning.
In a published journal article entitled, “Is Listening Literacy?” by Tuttle in 1996, listening or being read to can be an alternative form to developing basic literacy skills for children with visual impairment. If this is true, why then would learning Braille still be necessary today?
On the other hand, other schools of thought argue and insist that literacy is the ability to read and write. While using speech output and recorded books is an alternative way for children to gain information, it is not enough to teach them basic reading and writing skills.
In fact, children, regardless whether regular or visually impaired, who rely solely on listening as a means of learning have been found to be struggling in areas like spelling and composition, which are key indicators of basic literacy skills. In other words, listening alone through speech output technologies is not enough – it needs to be combined with either a visual or tactile approach.
In Brunei Darussalam, it is estimated that there are more than 120 students with visual impairment who have been referred to the Special Education Unit (SEU) at the Ministry of Education (MoE) thus far, and are currently studying within mainstream schools throughout all the four districts.
While a majority of them are categorised at having low vision, less than 10 per cent of them have been identified as having congenital blindness (born blind) and will require Braille to support their learning needs.
Remarkably, some of this latter group have scaled up beyond post secondary and they acknowledge that their proficiency in using Braille has certainly helped them to achieve much success in their academic life.
Dk Soffiezah binti Pg Hj Abu Bakar, a 2011 graduate from Universiti Brunei Darussalam (UBD) accredits part of her success to Braille. She shared, “Being able to use Braille has had a huge impact in my life as a congenitally blind student. It is the key to literacy, and it has made me realise my potential and enabled me to accomplish many things in life that otherwise would not be possible.”
Yet many people are still unaware of the usefulness of Braille, which also makes World Braille Day a relatively little known occasion in this part of the world. There is definitely a significant relationship between Braille literacy and academic success, higher income, employment, and it is undoubtedly the key to full participation in society. The SEU, MoE in Brunei Darussalam assists in the planning, coordinating and implementation of special education programmes and support services for students with special needs, including students who are blind and those with low vision. Mandated as the lead agency, the SEU upholds inclusive education in Brunei Darussalam by providing training, conducting courses and other professional development activities for teachers in the area of special education.
One of the provisions provided by SEU Support Services for Children with Visual Impairment Section is the Braille literacy and proficiency training workshop. This is a short training course held throughout the year, and especially designed for teachers who are interested to pursue skills related to teaching students who are blind and severe low vision with grade 1 and 2 Braille. To date, about 180 teachers within mainstream schools have been trained by the SEU and certified to teach Braille.
A recent SEU initiative was the publication of the introductory guidebook on supporting students with visual impairment in the classroom. Among the specific areas include the basics of orientation and mobility; teaching daily living skills; and an overview of the Braille Code.
World Braille Day was first celebrated on January 4, 2001. The date also coincides with the birth date of Louis Braille (January 4, 1809). World Braille Day has now become an annual event celebrated globally around the world, mainly by organisations dedicated to improving Braille literacy and the livelihood of people with visual impairments. – Text and photos courtesy of SEU, MoE