EBU(Junior Group) Fine Work
“Braille — The Importance of Advocacy in the Digital Era”
Netherlands Davy Kager(22/Male)
Being twenty-two years old, I had the fortune to witness the (late) introduction of electronic Braille-devices – most notably the Braille display – which were marching up to take over traditional Braille on paper during the ‘90s.A similar movement, albeit slower perhaps, can be observed in computers and handheld devices replacing the older Braille typewriters.For this essay, however, I will concentrate on the first of these two effects.It came together with a number of other modernizations, changes that form the reason for my belief that providing people with ways of reading has become more and more important as we entered the digital era.Braille enlightened my life, and I would love to explain why.
My sight is so limited that I can’t read any form of regular print. On the other hand, it is often enough for me to “visualize” things, to associate nouns and concepts with how they’d probably look. I feel there is a great difference between not knowing what a painting looks like and – as in my case – knowing what it looks like, but without most of the splendid detail that would astonish a fully sighted person. For me, this gives me the almost calming feeling I have a grip on my environment. And in my case that is where sight and Braille “touch” as one falls short and the other takes over.
The above goes a long way in illustrating my ideas, but it is still quite abstract. I will therefore accompany it by a more practical example, before describing the essential role Braille fulfills in my life. The cliché that says blind people have better hearing and/or are very musical is evidently an overstatement, to say the least. I myself am a good example to prove this theory false: while I have no trouble playing the occasional tune on the piano, I could certainly not reproduce a melody merely by hearing it like some musicians can, a skill I must admit I often wished I’d possess. To work around this I study the chords and melody of a piece and then try playing it from memory, occasionally improvising to make the music “my own”.But should someone catch me unprepared and ask me to play a particular melody, I would probably fail or at least be highly inaccurate.
Putting my musical limitations in the context of this essay reveals a striking similarity to Braille. When computers became more powerful over the years, both electronic Braille and electronic – that is, synthetic – speech made an enormous leap forward. Both are brilliant innovations that made many people’s lives easier and paved the way for new possibilities. Some chose to use text-to-speech, while others went for the more expensive option of Braille, and yet others make use of both. But can you truly always learn as efficiently when using only your ears?
As a nine-year-old attending a primary school for the blind, I was made familiar with computer Braille. My introduction to text-to-speech would follow about five years later. For me, Braille has become the irreplaceable way to communicate with virtually anyone around the world, thanks to the happy years of my youth. In fact, this decision made in the late ‘90s may very well be the basis for my statement that Braille is of increasing importance now that text-to-speech is a common phenomenon.
Braille and text-to-speech both provide a way for someone unable to read print to interact with one of humanity’s greater arts: language. But there is a vital difference, just like there is in the comparison “musical score versus absolute hearing”. The score for a song helps me understand and play it, Braille provides me with a convenient way to experience language. Through speech, one can come to learn grammar and, though with some difficulty, to learn to spell. Being blind doesn’t imply you can’t learn as well, your disability may even be a stimulating factor.By requesting the right information, someone relying on speech can learn equally as much as a Braille-user, and may in some situations very well be faster. I am definitely not condemning text-to-speech.Through long-time experience I know its benefits very well. But in sharp contrast to these benefits, there’s one especially strong point that will always set Braille apart for me: language is intrinsic. Spelling, punctuation… Reading Braille is experiencing language. Reading a schoolbook implicitly and “invisibly” teaches a pupil spelling, obviously helping a great deal when writing. True, this advantage will eventually become less noticeable. After all, the older you get, the more experienced you become. But still, most qualities fade without practice.
Of course the aforementioned points are incomplete and lack the required nuance. Most visually impaired people can read Braille, and they have no problem correctly spelling commonly used words either. But looking at the worldwide image, the cheaper and possibly faster alternative of a speech-synthesizer often appears to be the only option. This touches the very core of my initial statement: with the fast-paced modernization, access to a Braille display or -notetaker is not a luxury; it is the “right to read”, like printed Braille. The choice between text-to-speech and Braille should be made by the user and not be troubled by financial concerns, which is sadly not always the case. Reading is not the same as listening. Braille has made my education so much easier – from primary school all the way up to university. Reading Braille makes you familiar with the language you speak everyday without requiring any extra effort and hence helps you to properly express yourself when writing. It thereby improves your position within the society you’re a part of. Thus, I plead that everyone should have this “right to read”.