EBU(Junior Group) Fine Work
Braille In The Age of Technology
Finland Susanna Halme (15/Female)
The vast advances in technology have also influenced the assistive technology for persons with visual impairments. There have been improvements even to Braille writing. Nowadays there are more options than just pummelling on page after page of text on an old and noisy Braille-writer. Now it is possible to utilize IT and other technical devices. This opens more opportunities for everyday life, for study and work.
I myself am currently attending the last year of comprehensive school. My future plan is to head for higher education with emphasis on languages and natural sciences. The most important assistive device I use to help me in my studies is a computer and a Braille display connected to it. I have always preferred reading to listening. That is why my use of the speech synthesiser is rare and the Braille display is in constant use. A Braille display is significantly easier and more effortless way to read than piles of Braille folders. A Braille display is handy for reading study books and it is also easy to use for making notes. It can handle mathematical symbols and foreign languages, too.
As it has become possible to use Braille with IT devices, it has also made it possible for Braille users to give their texts to sighted people to read. When a text has been written on a computer, the sighted person can read it from the normal screen and the visually impaired person from the Braille screen. Braille text written on paper can only be read by a sighted person who is Braille literate. Thus, the technology has diminished the need for sighted persons with Braille knowledge.
However, there is a drawback to these huge developments. Namely, I have noticed that I belong to a small minority. As the technical aids develop, in addition to the development in Braille devices, so do the listening devices and synthesisers. Thus even listening is made easier and easier. Listening is almost invariably faster and more effortless than reading: there is no need to learn Braille.
The majority of students I know prefer listening to reading in their studies. Each and everyone of course has the right to choose the study techniques that suit them best, but the increase in listening and decrease in reading is not a good thing. Fewer and fewer people can read Braille. That is the same thing as illiteracy. Even if you can listen, you canít say that you are literate. That is why Braille should be taught to children and used at school and in the services for persons with visual impairments.
Braille is literacy for visually impaired people and the diminishing use of Braille is a threat to it. Technology can be a threat to the future of Braille. In my opinion, we should revaluate our attitude to Braille and start protecting and cherishing it. After all, we donít want illiterate visually impaired people, do we?
So how to incorporate Braille into the lives of more and more people? Before, Braille was the only possible means to read. Now development has brought in all sorts of listening devices, note-taking devices, digital recorders and so on. These devices are still developing and increasing numbers of children do not bother to learn Braille thinking that they will not be needing it. Even people who have become visually impaired at a later age can more easily continue their lives and learning Braille is not essential.
It is of utmost importance to teach Braille to all blind children at school. Thus they would learn to read alongside their sighted classmates and they will have been taught the basic skill of reading, even if they give it up later. In addition, they would feel equal: after all they can read in a way where a visual impairment is no hindrance.
However, it is more difficult to find an incentive to make children use their reading skills later on. When the children grow up and learn about all the different devices, their sheer number and choice can make them forget about the importance and value of Braille. In reality, Braille is utilized in only a few assistive devices. I donít think there are many well-known assistive devices other than Braille displays. Happily, even Braille displays are developping, too, and a variety of display types are available. Perhaps they will help revive the interest in Braille.
Those who have become blind in adulthood, easily remain Braille-illiterate. They should be given more instruction and information about Braille. Where would this then take place? Maybe as part of rehabilitation or on different courses. Attitude is the key. Learning Braille is not difficult if you have the right attitude and the desire to learn.
Also, assistive technology developers could bear Braille in mind more often. Why develop a bunch of talking technical devices when you could utilize Braille much more than is currently done? Surely it would be possible to further develop different types of note-takers, reading devices etc.? It wouldnít mean replacing literacy skills, quite the contrary; technology should ? instead of decreasing - increase reading.
At least in Finland the library for the visually impaired offers books in all formats: audio books, traditional Braille books and electronic books. Their collection includes both fiction, non-fiction and text books for students. The reading of paper Braille books has undoubtedly diminished and will continue to do so in the future. It is understandable because they are space-consuming and impractical. Nor am I saying that audio books are not a good option. I myself like listening when reading fiction.
Particularly in studies the electronic books will surely become more common as assistive technology becomes more widely available. IT has a larger and larger role in the everyday studies and working lives of more and more people. Electronic books and magazines can either be listened to with a speech synthesiser or read with a Braille display. At least among my friends, listening is more popular. A Braille display is used only for mathematics and languages, because mathematical symbols and correct spelling do not come across well enough when listening. Personally, I also read longer texts and books using my Braille display. That is what I call reading. It definitely is not the same as listening to a mechanical, synthesised voice.
This is why I am a faster reader than my friends. They donít like Braille, because they are slow Braille-readers. But the only way to become better is by reading. After all, wouldnít it be nice for every visually impaired person to be able to say ďI too can read just like the sightedĒ instead of being reliant on voice (possibly on somebody else reading) applications. Therefore, I emphasize the importance of reading. The only way to learn to read is by reading. Learning Braille only takes the right attitude. Once youíve learned it and started using it, it will start feeling quite easy and natural.
Braille markings can be found for example in train seat numbering, headphones, and I have even found street name signs written in Braille in Rome. Now, letís think about a Braille illiterate visually impaired person. How could he or she benefit from these facilities provided by society for persons with visual impairments? The answer is that he or she couldnít. Is there any other way to inform the visually impaired of the seat numbers in the trains than Braille? Voice-based solutions canít be used for everything. A sighted person runs into several texts daily and has to read them. Why shouldnít and couldnít a visually impaired person do that, too?
The significance of different types of text in peopleís lives is huge. Brochures, advertisements, postersÖ If a person with visual impairments can read, he or she has better possibilities to participate in society than a person unable to read. He or she is not so dependent on assistance and other people. Of course, listening and other forms of aids can be used in addition to reading, but in no case should they replace the important skill of reading.
In developing countries the aim is to teach people to read and write. Those are considered important skills in improving their quality of life. Why then in affluent, industrialized countries the visually impaired donít necessarily know how to read Braille and yet their quality of life isnít necessarily considered bad? Braille literacy is the same as sighted peopleís literacy and it should be treated as such. As long as sighted people are taught to read, the visually impaired should be also taught Braille. As long as the sighted are literate, so should the visually impaired be.
What would the world be without writing? A lot would be lacking. We donít want such a world for people with visual impairments, do we? The answer is easy: we donít. Therefore, let us all cherish and protect Braille and give it the appreciation it deserves. Reverence to Braille!