No Braille? No Literacy!

On SeroTalk 227 we featured an article contemplating whether or not Braille was headed for obsolescence. The idea is not a new one. Everyone can agree technology is reshaping the way a blind person consumes information, but the debate prompts a larger question about whether or not there is a link between Braille and literacy. This point has also made its way around the block but is still igniting heated responses.

The question could boil down to this: If you are a blind individual unable to read printed information, are you illiterate if you cannot read Braille?

In today’s politically correct and overly polite society it’s easy to express hesitant opinions that fear offending opposing viewpoints. These opinions are sadly watered down and do nothing to stretch our intelligence. I have no interest in offending anyone, but as someone who has a high regard for your intellect, and as someone who enjoys spirited debate, I trust you will take me to task, and back up your arguments, if you disagree with my opinion that you would indeed be illiterate.

We received the following responses shortly after the release of 227. Although these comments will be featured in their entirety as part of our regular Mailbag segment in 228, I offer the relevant statements here for the sake of a concentrated discussion of this touchy subject. The point here is not to pick on these individuals, or their comments, but rather to respond to thoughtful viewpoints likely shared by others in the community.

I encourage you to listen to the episode in question to draw your own conclusions.

From Josh:

I also take some issue with Joe’s definition of literacy. As an avid reader of audio books, I believe that while reading is important, it doesn’t have to only mean recognition of how letters look. While I am not advocating for the use of audio books only, I don’t think the question should be either or, but both. I realized that reading textbooks in Braille was slo and absolutely inefficient for me in high-school. On the other hand, if I couldn’t read braille signage, I’d be in big trouble!

My response:

Perhaps your issue has more to do with my interpretation of literacy. I would not be so arrogant as to define what literacy means to the rest of the world, so for the sake of neutral reference points to frame the discussion, let’s consider a few independent sources.

First, the National Assessment of Adult Literacy provides this definition: “Literacy is the ability to use printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.”

Regardless of where you stand on the debate, I think we can agree Braille can substitute references to printed information moving forward, yes?

Second, because people argue the definition of literacy has evolved, here’s a definition offered by the Ohio Literacy Resource Center:

“Defining literacy in our changing world is not easy. Several years ago, being literate meant being able to read and write a little. Now, being literate means being able to read and write at a level to be successful in today’s world and also being proficient at math, knowing how to use technology, and knowing how to solve problems and make decisions.”

Now, Before you seize on that reference to technology as justification for why you’re right and I am wrong, I think we can agree “literacy” in the Center’s definition is being used as a link to competence in a given subject. For example, an engineer is most likely literate in mathematics.

Finally, just in case you were disappointed not to see a standard dictionary entry, Oxford defines literacy simply as: “The ability to read and write.”

Okay, let’s drill down a little more, because that’s the second time we see a reference to “reading”, so what is reading?

A Houghton Mifflin Company site offers the following:

“Reading is the process of constructing meaning from written texts. It is a complex skill requiring the coordination of a number of interrelated sources of information (Anderson et al., 1985). …

“Even definitions of reading that emphasize meaning indicate that reading is activated by print. The reader must be able to translate the written words into meaningful language. Virtually all four- and five-year-old children can communicate with and learn from oral language, but very few can read, because they lack the ability to identify printed words. While simply being able to recognize or “say” the printed words of text without constructing the meaning of that text is not reading, constructing meaning from written text is impossible without being able to identify the words.”

Okay, so there you go, some unbiased definitions, none of them from blindness resources, that both frame the discussion and make my point. Are there texts out there that refute these terms? Perhaps. Feel free to make use of the comments to offer them.

Now, as to your point about Braille and inefficiency, I believe this is a lack of support by school districts that: 1) do not believe in Braille as a viable reading process; or 2) lack the resources to teach Braille. Neither of these is the affected student’s fault, but these factors should be all the more critically weighed to prevent more individuals from growing up illiterate.

From Gary:

I listened to your excellent Serotalk podcast this evening. During your discussion of Braille, my impression was that you were coming very close to equating Braille and literacy. There is little question that were one suddenly able to become a proficient Braille user, few would decline the opportunity, including me. Braille is a skill I would like to have developed when I was young. However, when I did try to teach myself as an adult, my success was minimal. Even so, the little I did learn was very useful.
Having acknowledged the point that being able to use Braille efficiently would be a very good thing and further knowing that young blind children learning Braille would be a good thing as well, please do not suggest that learning Braille is the only path to literacy. The notion that not knowing how to read and write using Braille is somehow equated with not being able to become fully literate is silly and quite wrong.
I also think that is a deep rabbit hole you head down when you suggest that using readers or text to speech or other electronic methods is not reading. Since few written materials were originally produced in Braille, having them converted to Braille and then reading the Braille is not much different than having them converted to speech. You come close to arguing that your accommodation is better than my accommodation which is another one of those silly arguments.

My response:

If Braille is not the only path to literacy for a blind person, what alternatives should we consider? You mention electronic methods. I disagree and will get to that in a moment. In 227 a point was made about raised letters, and I suppose that is another viable path to literacy. Yet, if there is a lack of resources to teach and produce Braille, I find it hard to believe there will be adequate resources to teach and produce raised text. Remember the lack of resources devoted to Braille is based in part on the notion that screen access software is replacing the need for blind individuals to learn a conventional reading method. In other words the lack of Braille support is partially based on an attitudinal perception about what is best for a blind person. Maybe the lack of Braille support is even driven by financial convenience since it might be easier to buy someone an iPad than it would be to send a teacher out to a location for proper Braille instruction.

You suggest readers, text-to-speech and electronic methods provide an alternative path to literacy. First, these factors fall flat if you accept my contributed definitions of what it means to read. If you have a definition other than an interpretation of printed symbols, by all means share it in the comments, and let’s debate its merits.

Second, since you mention readers and text-to-speech in the same sentence, I’m left to assume that by “readers” in this context you are referring to human readers. If Jack reads Jill a bedtime story, are you suggesting Jill is equally partaking in the reading process as Jack? I am going to submit that Jack is the only one reading. Jill is only listening, which leads to my final point.

Third, let’s use an example of linguistics. Language proficiency exams test on writing, reading, and listening. There is a reason why there is an accepted difference between reading and listening. There is a different level of cognitive activity between the two methods. Or, is it your position that a blind person ought to be exempt from the reading requirement in such a scenario because, for a blind person, reading and listening are intertwined?

Now, you make the point that “since few written materials were originally produced in Braille, having them converted to Braille and then reading the Braille is not much different than having them converted to speech.” If we’re drawing a direct comparison between Braille and print, print is print regardless of whether you’re looking at text on paper, splashed across a screen or scratched in dirt. Braille is Braille regardless of whether the bumps form letters on a display, a sign, or cobbled out of egg cartons. In short, the production process will differ, but the emphasis in our discussion is not the production process, but rather the consumption.

You say I come close to arguing my accommodation is better than yours. I honestly don’t understand that argument and welcome you to elaborate so that I might better respond.

From William:

Secondly, on the matter of Braille, an opinion was expressed and agreed upon, that if one did not learn Braille one was illiterate. That comment was surely not meant to be as offensive and bigoted as it sounded to those of us who loss sight later in life and have never learned Braille proficiently. One who takes advantage of electronic text and does not know Braille is far from illiterate. I assume this comment was made in an off hand manner and was not well considered.

My response:

Bigotry refers to an unfair dislike or intolerance of other people or ideas. I never claimed to dislike, or be intolerant of, people who cannot read Braille. I may have a range of reasons for why I dislike certain people, but somehow being illiterate will never rank high on that list. Let’s have a hearty debate here, but let’s not put words in people’s mouths or throw out accusations that are as inconsiderate as the claim.

The point is raised about people who are not proficient at Braille because they lost their sight later in life. Putting proficiency aside, a point could be made that if a person has some Braille instruction, they may be what is called functionally illiterate. According to Wikipedia: Functional illiteracy is reading and writing skills that are inadequate “to manage daily living and employment tasks that require reading skills beyond a basic level”.

I won’t expand too much on this point because it’s too likely we’d get sidetracked on issues of daily living, employability and overarching philosophies of blindness and independence. Suffice to say we could get into the weeds of degrees of literacy. I submit it’s a slippery slope and could create a cop-out for people not interested in forming their own definitive conclusion.

It’s worth contemplating maybe our methods of learning Braille are insufficient. Reading Braille on an electronic display could be more convenient than reading it in a large physical volume. Reading Braille as part of a communication with other people could be a lot more enjoyable than reading a one-sided narrative. Braille communication can be as dry or as engaging as we make it, but make no mistake, it must be made a priority if we are to get good at it. Otherwise, we would have chucked our iDevice if we had not made learning the navigation of touch screens a priority.

Final Thoughts

Let’s see the discomfort for what it is. I believe people would generally agree the lack of Braille in some circumstances equates to illiteracy but feel offended to be called illiterate. This is cold comfort, but if this is you, then you are part of about 32 million Americans, or 14 percent of the population in the United States, according to the Department of Education in 2013. 19 percent of high school graduates cannot read. Surely we are not pretending the evolution of technology has single-handedly solved the literacy problem across the board? Has literacy become an illusion? Rather than draw flimsy links between listening skills and active reading, we might do well to get angry with such statistics and do more to promote literacy among our peers regardless of their visual impairment.

Yes, there are some circumstances where Braille is not a viable option. There are medical conditions that would make the process of distinguishing dots difficult or downright impossible. Only you can decide if your impairment is genuine or self-imposed.

Maybe it’s time to stop complaining about how your teachers didn’t offer it growing up and make it a point to learn it now. You’ll never lose anything by learning the skill.

If you learned it but do not feel proficient at it, maybe it’s time to devote time to practicing it. You can’t really lose your literacy once you’ve gained it, just like you don’t ever really forget how to read Braille. It’s like riding a bike. Anyone can pound out the rust from any dormant skill if they want to bad enough.

If you never learned Braille and have no other way of processing printed information, and if you’re okay with that, then embrace your illiterate self! Don’t let me or anyone else dictate what skills you should or should not possess to meet your personal definition of success, but don’t feed me this bologna that because you can listen to a book with VoiceOver reading more than 300 words a minute you are as literate as I am. I hate labels as much as you do, but the undeniable truth is this: I can also listen to a book with VoiceOver working at high speed, and, I can read Braille. So, who’s the real badass? 😛

Okay, over to you. Hopefully I’ve lit enough of a fire under your butt to motivate a comment or two. If I’m right, back me up in light of the many others who will say I’m totally wrong! 🙂 And, a huge thank you to Josh, Gary, and William for sharing their thoughts. If we always agreed on everything, life would be a pretty dull state.

About Joe Orozco

Joe Orozco is the Communications Director for Serotek Corp. He is also Managing Director for AlphaComm Strategies. When he isn't writing web pages, proposals, and online marketing materials for social and commercial entrepreneurs, he enjoys reading and writing about technology, financial management, and strategic planning. Follow Joe on Twitter @ScribblingJoe
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31 Responses to No Braille? No Literacy!

  1. Beth says:

    Well, as with the blind and visually impaired, it is a fact that lots of sighted people read but do not do it well and their spelling can be atrocious, or they just don’t know how to spell words which should be obvious. Reading comprehension is lacking also, as is general reasoning power. Reading with expression and engagement is also poorly done. People seem to need help writing letters, memos, et cetera. Knowing basic facts is also inadequate, such as how many feet are in a mile. I therefore submit that, though I agree with the idea that non readers, whether using print or Braille, are illiterate, lots of sighted quote unquote readers are also illiterate, if you take even basic functionality into account and that is part of the literacy definition.

  2. Sean says:

    I’m been blind all my life, I learned print and used large print until 2010, when my vision got worst from glaucoma, and after a while I went to a NFB Center, BLIND Inc. – Yes I did learn braille but due to my learning disability even when I read print, I did not and still do not really understand most information I read unless I hear it audiblly (read back to me).

    So for me I guess I can be labeled functionally illiterate, since I know enough braille to read a restroom sign, or maybe label something simple if its in grade 2 I have a harder time understanding the braille letters.

  3. As a legally blind child, I was forced to read print, piecing words together as I went because of my limited visual field. When my reading vision – such as it was – failed as predicted, I spent my college years reading via audio methods and falling further and further behind, relying on my ability to BS my way through.

    I assure you, audio learning is not true literacy, if you accept the idea that literacy should mean the same thing for sighted and blind people alike. Those who believe, as some must, that blind people cannot or should not be held to the same standards as sighted people, are part of the problem not part of the cure.

    When I discuss literacy with sighted audiences, I use the following example to show the ridiculous nature of the assumption that audio learning equates to true literacy. Johnny, a sighted boy, comes home from school all happy saying, “Mommy, Mommy, my teacher says I’m such a good listener that I don’t need to learn to read and write print!”

    No parent of a sighted child has ever expressed anything but horror at the thought, but this happens to blind children routinely.

    Society once had a solely aural tradition of learning. We call it the prehistoric era, before language could be written and read. In those days, blind people (at least those with hearing) were on an equal footing vis-à-vis their sighted peers, limited only by their intelligence and ability/willingness to pay attention and their peers’ ability to verbalize their thoughts. The introduction of the written word changed that until Louis Braille came along.

    As for technology … I’d be lost without my screen reader, and I understand the perception that to some extent, it allows me access to the fundamental building blocks of written language – spelling, punctuation, sentence structure. The difference, however, between what Jaws does and what Braille does is one of continuity and efficiency.

    With Jaws, I have to go back over a passage and specifically access the spelling of a word, the punctuation marks, the point at which a paragraph ends and another begins, the use of italics or boldface. When Jaws reads to me I get little or none of this information. When I read Braille, I can’t miss it; it’s there in real time as my fingers slide over the dots. Braille is the only alternative to print for nonvisual readers that provides real-time access to the nuances of the printed word, i.e. literacy.

    The difference this makes is incalculable, especially for someone whose livelihood depends upon writing. Just the correct spelling of names requires a constant and (in my case) imperfect vigilance. I forget to check that Jon might not have the standard ‘h in it or that Smyth might not have an ‘I in it. Can I really trust myself to know all of the homophones and homonyms? Spell Check isn’t going to flag bazaar when I meant bizarre or hundreds of other properly spelled but nonetheless incorrect words that might come up. I am, if I want to be accurate, spending a lot of energy – not on absorbing the content of the text I am either reading or writing – but trying to second-guess my own assumptions about what I am hearing or trying to say. That in itself is a distraction from the very act of reading and a barrier to writing.

    When I started writing online, it was for a Harry Potter fan site. I wrote editorials about the series, but my first major hurdle came when my editor had a fit about my quotes from the books. I was using the recorded versions, not even considering that my concept of sentence structure and spelling might differ from the author’s. My “interpretations” were not acceptable. Reading the Braille versions was – pardon the pun – a real eye-opener.

    Some years ago, there was a study about the differences in literacy between blind children who were solely audio learners and their sighted peers. It demonstrated that the audio learners, when they wrote, had poor writing skills in terms of their sentence structure, placing them at a disadvantage academically. Most people assume that blind kids can’t be expected to keep up, but the real problem is the tyranny of low expectations not the ability of the human being to live nonvisually.

    Anyone who thinks substandard expectations for blind people is OK has already deviated from true literacy in their thinking. Part of the problem with explaining the importance of Braille literacy is that we live in a world which has moved away from an understanding of the importance of literacy in general.

    I’m not a great Braille reader; I should have studied it formally, and nowadays, I have problems with my hands that influence my ability to read more quickly, but I use it all the time and would be lost without it.

    I have no wish to insult or criticize any blind person who is comfortable with their adaptations to blindness, even if they have chosen not to use Braille. My problem comes when those individuals seek to hamstring blind children and newly blinded adults by forcing a limited understanding of the value of Braille on them. Braille, when taught by a truly qualified instructor who believes that a blind person can and should function at a level commensurate with their intelligence, talents and willingness to succeed, is a game-changer for the majority of blind people. And, technology – so often cited as the reason Braille is unnecessary – has created an explosion in the availability of Braille books and other written materials, including tactile graphics.

  4. Gary Crow says:

    I think your post is very thoughtful. Using your narrow definition of literacy, I was unable to read it but was able to have it read to me by JAWS. Since you restrict “literacy” to either consuming your text by seeing it or touching its Braille representation, listening to it through electronic conversion to sound is clearly not an acceptable form of literacy. Given your restrictive definition, you are absolutely correct. I am less literate than you. I am very happy for you and sad for me.

    Your point about human “readers” is quite true, although I had never thought about it that way. The reader is certainly literate in so far as he or she can read by seeing the text.

    I really enjoy “listening” to your podcast and listening to what you write as well.

    Thanks for the chance to respond to your perspective.

  5. Josh Andrews says:

    Thank you for posting such a thoughtful response. In the end, I am forced to agree to disagree on your definition of literacy. My mother read thousands of books to me when I was a child being home schooled in addition to teaching me Braille. Personally, I am able to remember many more facts that were presented through books which were read aloud to me than from books I have read in Braille. When I said that Braille was inefficient for me in high-school, I meant that, because I was a slow Braille reader, I wasn’t able to consume as much of a book as a sighted student could. Since I was only able to process Braille character by character, I could not quickly scan a page of text to find what I needed. I have personally witnessed a huge improvement in my spelling capabilities when I use Braille. My ultimate belief is that no access method should be excluded in order to emphasize another. I believe all blind individuals who are physically able, should learn Braille. However, I believe it is wrong to insist that reading can only be accomplished through the use of Braille or print. My personal, admittedly biased definition of reading is not limited to the recognition of letters, but the ability to comprehend the ideas they express. I find it much easier to take in information presented to me through auditory forms than through Braille. Even though I was extremely slow reading Braille, my high-school vision teacher insisted I continue to read my textbooks in Braille. This approach is absolutely wrong in my opinion. I believe each individual must decide for him or herself whether he or she finds Braille will most effectively enable him or her to pursue their personal goals to the fullest.

  6. Ann Parsons says:

    I am quite passionate about this subject. As practically the only person in Western New York teaching Braille to adults, I have to say clearly and unequivically that listening to a computer or to an audio book is the same as listening to a story teller around a campfire. It is *not* reading!

    I am currently tutoring six, count ’em, six, adults who are losing their sight they want to learn Braille. One wants to read to her nephews and nieces. Another wants to read to his four-year-old daughter. Still others have said if they could only read the Bible! Decoding and encoding are the bases for literacy. Braille is a code, like print. It is designed to reproduce the aural speech of humans. If you cannot read and write, then you are not literate. Now, some people are literate in print but not in Braille. They are blind, but they haven’t learned Braille. They are literate, they have a knowledge of word struction, sentence structure and the like. The can spell. Even though they don’t read Braille, they are literate.

    I worry about kids who come up through school illiterate. Because of their disabilities they may not be able to be literate in print, yet no one helps them to read Braille. Might as well glomp them together with folks who have to get other people to read stuff for them because they can’t do it themselves. (Naturally, this excludes folks who are blind and get their literature in a format they can’t access.) A.P.

  7. Bill Pasco says:

    I suspect one of the reasons some people object so violently to being classified as illiterate is they are equating the term with ignorant. In fact, historically, litteracy and education did go hand in hand. It is only in recent times that mechanisims have evolved allowing education on a mass scale without requiring litteracy. Remember though, litteracy is not merely reading, it is writing. So, the person who types out a response to you in perfectly good English is not illiterate. They just cannot read which is a different thing.

  8. Alma says:

    I do think that those who cannot read Braille are illiterate and am so so thankful every day for the fact that I was among the fortunate. I have seen people who are visually impaired who have relied heavily on audio textbooks and such, and their spelling is horrible. I knew someone once who was in middle school who thought title was spelled TITAL. That’s just one example that comes to mind right off.

    There’s something, even now, about the ability to read Braille that gives me the capability to make more sense of words, see how words form sentences and such. I don’t feel like I would have nearly as clear an understanding of writing and grammar had I not been allowed to receive the gift of Braille.

  9. Linda says:

    Wow! where do I start?
    Though I read far less braille these days, I can’t emagine my life without it, but as a diabetic, who faces the real possibility of losing sensitivity in my fingers, I’m glad for the wealth of audio material, and text to screen readers.
    However, my deffinition of literacy, has to include writing. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that I don’t feel that never being able to write braille which is the only true replacement for print, leaves one at a disadvantage.
    I see this happening with sighted people who now use e-readers, and electronic means of writing such as tablets.
    What do people do, if they’ve never learned braille, and in the sighted world, if they’ve never learned to write with a pen, and suddenly, their means of communication isn’t available?
    that might not be such an exaggeration, if in the not so distant future, schoolchildren aren’t taught penmanship, and I hear that already happens today.
    If the deffinition of being literate were only to include the ability to read conventional print, then I, who can’t count the number of both braille and audio books I have consumed, deeply resent that, when there are so many sighted people in the world who never pick up a book. If on the other hand, we include the ability or inability to write, well I just don’t know. Am I illiterate, because i can’t write a check, fill out a bank deposit slip, or jot down a recipe for a friend? I just don’t know.
    Of course I’m typing on a computer now and I have a perkins brailler which I never use, but don’t ever deprive me of one of the slates and styluses I have, even though it often hurts to use them. In my mind it compares to a world with no pens, pencils, and notebooks in the sighted world.
    I probably should have listened to the podcast first and may comment more, once I do, but this controversy really intrigues me.

  10. richard brooks says:

    Braille is just another tool like a hammer, slide rule, screw driver, etc. Just like doing math on paper or, in your head; you don’t need those skills, but in a survival situation they sure as hell can help.
    It never hurts to learn how to use all of the tools provided to you: especially if you are totally blind from birth, as I am, and don’t have a huge toolbox at your disposal, this sillly contreversy is just that, silly.

  11. I am not sure if I would use a word as strong as illiterate to describe people who do not know Braille. They are still able to process and understand information in their language. I feel I still gained the same information from a novel when I listened to the audio version than I did when I read it in Braille. I was able to draw the same information from this blog post as I would have if I had read it with my Braille display and I would know all of the words in it if I had been taught them by listening. I have heard that listening to books help develop and improve vocabulary and I attribute the fact that I had a slightly advanced vocabulary at a younger age to many an old English audio book I listened to as a child.

    However, I certainly do not believe this makes a person fully literate. Listening to words does not teach me how to spell them and all those old English books sure didn’t help me when I started writing in school because the words mean nothing on paper unless you know how to write and spell them. I often get a surprise when I am reading through something on my Braille display and I see how it is spelled. It usually isn’t even close to how I thought it was spelled when my VoiceOver spelled it to me. I\m certainly not about to switch my rotor to characters and read every word letter by letter. Sure I can get through something with a screen reader or a voice sped up and I got my reading homework done quite quickly and efficiently but so many things are missed when it is not right in front of me to interact with.

    I find positioning the cursor to edit something much harder on the computer than on my note taker because on the note taker, I can feel where I want to edit and position the cursor where I have to guess and trust the voice when doing it on the computer. I also think Braille books are extremely bulky and cumbersome and that is why I don’t read them anymore. I can, however, download a Braille book like “The Hunger Games” trilogy on Bookshare and it takes up the same amount of space as my note taker. This means I really have no excuse for not reading a novel in Braille. I read some in audio as well but I try to keep a balance between them.

    The point I am trying to make is that instead of arguing about whether somebody who doesn’t read Braille is Illiterate or not, let’s look at how audio and Braille go hand in hand. I believe a combination of the two makes for great efficiency. Listening can get me through the text much quicker but Braille really helps me to look at it. When I compose an E-mail using my Braille display paired with my iPhone, I will read the message through with Braille and check for spelling and grammar mistakes and then I will step back and listen to it with VO just to make sure it is good to go. I think people who listen to screen readers and spoken word and don’t read Braille are missing out on an important experience and some beneficial skills. People who read Braille and do not use audio to help them read may also, on a slightly lesser scale, be missing some beneficial skills. I used Braille on my note taker all through school without speech because it saved me having to wear headphones in class but when the teacher gave us 5 minutes to read 20 pages, I would break out the Victor Stream and blast through that text so I would understand the important points when the teacher began talking about it.

    I’m sorry this comment has droned on and I would be very surprised if people are still reading it but I think they are both great to have if you want to be the most efficient and effective person you can be in regards to the written word. In a slightly nicer version of the words of Joe, I can listen to a book at 300 words a minute but I feel great knowing I can read that same book in Braille and possibly get so much more from it.

  12. Josh says:

    I use a slate and stylus and a brailler to write braille. But I mostly use a slate and stylus. I pretty much taught myself how to use the slate and stylus. I learned braille as a child only using a braille-writer or perkins brailler. But often times I find a slate and stylus more convenient especially as a nice inexpensive and quiet braille notetaker. And it is absolutely silent when you use it with thermoform paper. I was so happy when I found out that with a slate I can braille on all kinds of types of paper and experiment with each. It even lets me braille on light metals such as aluminum foils. I can braille almost but not quite as fast as a sighted person writes with a pen or pencil. And the best part is I can have one for $5 or $6 or so, a nice plastic slate that makes good quality dots. I also have a one line label slate for dimo tape. So if you want a good braille notetaker get a slate and stylus. but remember you braille from right going to your left, and dots 1-2-3 are on the right column and dots 4-5-6 are on the left column. I wrote with write with the hinge on the left. they even make interpoint slates.

  13. Abbie Taylor says:

    I think it’s a case of to each his own. When I was younger, I enjoyed reading books and magazines in Braille, but now that I’m older, I prefer them in an audio format. However, I still like to read some documents in Braille instead of listening to a text to speech voice reading them. I know some senior citizens who just lost their vision and don’t want to take time to learn Braille. Instead, they enjoy listening to books on digital cartridges. I wouldn’t call them or anyone else with a visual impairment who doesn’t read Braille illiterate. As long as you’re reading books one way or another, you’re literate as far as I’m concerned.

  14. Tim says:

    Having read this blog and all the responses to it, I believe that Richard Brooks has made what I consider to be the most intelligent contribution to this discussion. Like Richard, I too am totally blind since birth. Between home and work I possess 2 note takers and 4 braille displays if I include the note takers. Of course since I am blind since birth I had to learn braille in order to develop literacy especially since I was of school age quite sometime before the advent of computers and screen readers. That said, I essentially use braille today only to take notes and sometimes proof read documents. I liken the decline in the use of braille to the decline I understand has long been underway in the ability of sighted students to practice penmanship. Now that I have provided some background for its basis, here is my opinion. I think this is a senseless debate because I think the real question is which of the two media (synthetic speech or braille) does a better job of interpreting messages which the sighted world is using print to communicate. I believe that access without productivity is not true access. As screen reading technology has evolved, we have seen the ability to provide access in braille improve along with the ability to use the technology to hear the print we as blind people have to deal with every day. I have observed that when new versions of screen readers are released, the emphasis is on making new productivity tools available and not so much about the ability of the technology to take visual information and represent it non-visually. With the computer has come the ability to create a whole raft of techniques for creating connotative meanings to go along with the denotative messages being conveyed by the printed word. I believed that neither braille nor synthetic speech have truly kept up with the evolution of these techniques nor can they. I suppose it could be said that braille does a better job because there is a lesser degree of separation between what is actually being said visually not just by the words but also by the font used etc. My understanding is that a lot of the thinking behind the Unified English braille code was intended to address this. At this point in my life, I think I can safely say that I’m comfortable with my grade 2 braille and the likelihood that I will essentially relearn braille just so I can know what font a writer used in print is pretty slim. So for me this is not a black or white issue and we are all living in glass houses.

  15. Jordan says:

    After a hand injury then Lymes Disease, I cannot read Braille very well. Nor can I feel very well in general. There are people especially in one organization who try to push Braille on me, but I have learned to stand my ground about the use of technology to read print.

  16. Joe Orozco says:

    To my friends who say this is a silly or otherwise useless debate, let’s be grateful that it is still a debate at all. I fear there could come a day when Braille is dismissed out of hand because it is deemed too inefficient, out of date or simply impractical. What might we do then? Perhaps we can resort to our own system of raised symbols to design labels for everyday appliances and think outside the box to recreate the letters we once knew.

    I was sincere in my point that people should embrace those skills that best support their personal definition of success. No one should dictate how you consume data, but choosing said skills are only as good as the existing options. Today schools rule out Braille as an efficient teaching tool. Tomorrow Apple decides their Braille drivers are no longer worth updating. Anything’s possible right?

    That seems a bit too alarmist. Yet, there are people who openly call for the abolishment of Braille as an arcane form of communication, and that’s our own blind peers. Imagine what could happen if someone sighted was influential enough to push us further toward that reality.

  17. Melvin says:

    Hello, this is Melvin. [i] started learning braile at the age of 7. and [i] can’t even amsion what wood bee like not haveing text books in braile.

  18. William Austin says:

    This commentary is so chock full of non sequiturs and straw man arguments there are too many to address. Clearly Braille is a valuable and worthwhile tool and I wish I had proficiency in using it, but as one who has lost sight later in life it is a daunting challenge to master. However, as one who can write coherently, using proper grammar, proper punctuation, and also have having had a number of works published, in what way am I illiterate? Bigotry does not mean an unfair dislike of people or ideas as you state above. Bigotry means Bigotry is intolerance to ideas based on bias that differ from your own. The above statements illustrate that in this case the bigotry was indeed the correct one.

  19. William Austin says:

    Braille is simply an alphabet that substitutes the sense of touch for the visual sense. I don’t know Braille well, I do know Morse Code, which subsitites the sense of hearing for vision, is Joe Illiterate if he doesn’t know Morse Code? Of course, not Joe can clearly write articulately even if his ideas are rigid, prejudiced, and not well developed. Literacy is the ability to communicate via the written word, and Braille is only one method a blind or visually impaired person can accomplish this.

  20. Joe Orozco says:


    It’s only a straw man if I argue a point that is blatantly indefensible. The argument here is not the worthiness of Braille, but rather, whether or not Braille is a form of literacy. If you’re referring to the later comments about whether or not the debate is worth having at all, I think the fact we’re engaging in the discussion to begin with proves there are no firm opinions. A definitive conclusion is up for grabs.

    The fact you have Braille knowledge makes you literate. That was my whole point about a slippery slope with functional literacy, because we could get into the weeds about the degrees to which one can be literate.

    You say bigotry means “intolerance to ideas based on bias that differ from your own.” To that I point you to the sources I cited to help me build a framework for the discussion. I didn’t even go looking for NFB-type literature that would have supported my views. Rather I chose resources that define literacy as a whole, so if you want to accuse me of being a bigot, by all means provide something more substantive than a “because I said so” type of argument. That does nothing to advance the discussion. If you want to redefine literacy or reading or any of the other fundamental points to think about the debate, serve them up and back them up.

    In your second comment you yourself state: “Literacy is the ability to communicate via the written word.” Exactly! Therefore, no, I am not illiterate for not knowing Morse code. By all means tell me of another written way of reading the written word other than Braille. So far I have not seen you offer these. If you want to argue that hearing is a compelling alternative, then counter my points. So far you have felt more comfortable insulting my ideas, so you’ll forgive me if I am struggling to buy into what you have to sell.

  21. Joshua Hendrickson says:

    Hello. I have been blind my entire life, and I learned how to read braille at an early age. Throughout elementary and middle school, I was an avid braille reader. However, when I learned how to use a computer and download books from bard, my braille reading lapsed. This is my opinion that if you can’t read braille for whatever reason you are iliterat. Now like others have already pointed out, there may be some valid reasons for this. Such as a medical condition which prevents you from feeling the dots and learning what they mean. Also having learned braille later on in life. There is a good reason for learning braille, that reason is spelling. If you can read braille, then you can very easily figure out how a word, or words is spelled. If I had the money, I’d buy myself a braille display. I could then check my work if I was writing an email, or writing any kind of document. In my opinion, the future of braille lays in braille displays. You can download a large number of braille titles to an sd card or flash drive, then you can having to store several large volumes. I personally believe braille will never completely go away, and that if you can learn it, then use it. I know as I learned about the computer and how easy it was to obtain audio books, I just became lazy. It is easier for me to just sit in a chair and put on some headphones or se an external speaker and just listen to my victor stream, or booksense then it is to hold a large braille book on my lap and flip the pages. However, I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t learned braille. A great place to obtain low cost books for children and young adults is Seedlings Braille Books For Children. There website is, and telephone number is 1800-777-8552. Check them out. You can get a free catalog in braille, or download a ttext version on their website. You can place orders online using either a credit card or paypal. Have a great day all. Go Braille!!!!

  22. Ken Scott says:

    The way Mr. Orozco framed the issue in his post means there cannot be a meaningful discussion. The position and framework that he uses is a self-referential proposition that cannot be logically discussed or disputed. For this reason, I view his post and position as trivial.

    If Mr. Orozco had framed the issue along the lines that Braille literacy is necessary to succeed in life, we could have a useful discussion.

  23. Joe Orozco says:

    Josh, thank you for your candid response. A lot of us, including myself, enjoy the conveniences of audio consumption. Technology has indeed shifted the way we process material, but in my personal opinion, Braille provides an unparalleled means of maximizing those technologies.

  24. Joe Orozco says:


    Fair enough. Let’s rephrase the discussion to what you propose: Braille literacy is necessary to succeed in life.

    First, you admit there is a distinction between literate and illiterate. After all, you’re not suggesting I’m wrong. You’re saying I did not extend the argument far enough. By your logic, if you succeed, you are literate. If you do not succeed, you are indeed illiterate.

    Since you don’t give a clear standard for how we should judge success, here are some clear factors of illiteracy that impede success on a general spectrum:

    Unemployment: The unemployment rate is 2-4 times higher among those with little schooling than among those with Bachelor’s degrees;

    Little value is given to education and reading within the family, and this often leads to intergenerational transmission of illiteracy;

    Impact on health: Illiterate individuals have more workplace accidents, take longer to recover and more often misuse medication through ignorance of health care resources and because they have trouble reading and understanding the relevant information (warnings, dosage, contraindications, etc.).

    Source: Literacy Foundation

    According to ProLiteracy data from February 2011, adult low literacy can be connected to almost every socioeconomic issue in the United States:

    • More than 65 percent of all state and federal corrections inmates can be classified as low literate.
    • Low health literacy costs between $106 billion and $236 billion each year in the U.S.
    • Seventy-seven million Americans have only a 2-in-3 chance of correctly reading an over-the-counter drug label or understanding their child’s vaccination chart.
    • Low literacy’s effects cost the U.S. $225 billion or more each year in non-productivity in the workforce, crime, and loss of tax revenue due to unemployment.

    Globally, illiteracy can be linked to:

    • Gender abuse, including female infanticide and female circumcision
    • Extreme poverty (earning less than $1/day)
    • High infant mortality and the spread of HIV/Aids, malaria, and other preventable infectious diseases

    Source: Literacy Partners, Inc.

    Now, on the reverse side, looking at success from a blind-specific perspective, consider:

    Blind people who know Braille and use it find success, independence, and productivity. A recent survey of 500 respondents by the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute revealed a correlation between the ability to read Braille and a higher educational level, a higher likelihood of employment, and a higher income.

    Source: The Braille Literacy Crisis in America

  25. Ken Scott says:

    I actually do not agree with your core proposition. From my prespective, you and most Braille literacy advocates qua literacy confused a method for a goal. Braille is a method to successfully communicate. Any method that allows a blind individual to successfully communicate according to current sighted standards for print is acceptable to me. If you accept my proposition for blind people who are not deaf, speech synthesis of electronic text is at least as good as Braille. In my experience, speech synthesis is faster for most blind people and includes capacities to review for issues like spelling punctuation and grammatical structure when needed with low enough time penalties to be competitive with Braille.

    I agree illiteracy is bad. Your general literacy arguments would carry more weight if Braille were universally available. I hope that we can agree that Braille is not universally available. If Braille is not universally available, this means that braille literacy in and of itself does not guarantee success in life or in most cases today meaningfully contribute to success due to the general lack of Braille.

    The problem with the NFB study is correlation does not mean causation. This is a core principle of logic and statistics.

  26. Vivien Palcic says:

    So it’s high time we (the blind community) fought to make Braille universally available!

  27. Jeff Young says:

    I think Laine’s point about the difference between literacy and reading comprehension in Serotalk 228 is right on. I think the to are being confused a lot here. Also, I believe if you have to rely on another human or an electronic device to listen to the information exclusively then you are not literate. Print and braille require neither. Listening to audio or TTS may give good comprehension, but this is not a way to decode the language. How does one learn individual letters and punctuation from listening. Seriously, who is going to put their screen-reader on say all punctuation just to learn about commas and question marks? It’s not gonna happen.

  28. Ken Scott says:

    Re-posting to Correct Mistakes
    I am re-posting to fix the following mistakes:
    • An Omission
    • A typo
    • A vague Reference.

    Revised Post

    I actually do not agree with your core proposition. From my prespective, you and most Braille literacy advocates qua literacy confuse a method for a goal. Braille is a method to successfully communicate. Any method that allows a blind individual to successfully communicate according to current sighted standards for print is acceptable to me. If you accept my proposition for blind people who are not deaf, speech synthesis of electronic text is at least as good as Braille. In my experience, speech synthesis is faster for most blind people and includes capacities to review for issues like spelling punctuation and grammatical structure when needed with low enough time penalties to be competitive with Braille.

    I agree illiteracy is bad. Your general literacy arguments would carry more weight if Braille were universally available. I hope that we can agree that Braille is not universally available. If Braille is not universally available, this means that braille literacy in and of itself does not guarantee success in life or in most cases today meaningfully contribute to success due to the general lack of Braille.

    The problem with the NFB study is correlation does not mean causation. Correlation does not mean causation is a core principle of logic and statistics.

  29. As far as the NFB study … I agree that Braille doesn’t guarantee success, but the study doesn’t claim it does, just that 80% (approx.) of those blind people who are employed read it. With so many unemployed blind people (even using the new Dept. of Labor methods of excluding those who have given up looking for work) it seems prudent to examine what differentiates blind people with jobs from those without.

    That said, I think we should refrain from using the word “illiterate.” It’s inflammatory and suggests that a perfectly literate person loses their literacy when they lose their sight. They do lose access to the skills they had through print literacy, and I still maintain that learning Braille gives anyone capable of doing so a leg up, but perhaps we should differentiate between literacy and being well-read. Many people who rely on audio are well-read. Since most of the general public doesn’t write reviews of the books they read (in which they would need to spell names correctly or accurately and copy quotes) the level of literacy is probably within what the social norms are nowadays for leisure reading.

    Still, with the level of literacy declining and norms changing (and not for the better) and opportunities for advancement shrinking for the middle and lower classes, why would we as a marginalized population want to hitch our collective horse to that wagon? In fact, demanding of ourselves a standard higher than that of the general public would seem a reasonable approach. Since we have more social barriers to break through, having more skills to offer can’t hurt.

    Not sure what you mean by “prespective” and “qua.”

  30. Ken Scott says:

    Donna W. Hill,

    I was not claiming that the NFB study said that Braille literacy leads to success. I was responding to an earlier argument by Joe Orozco about the correlation between Braille literacy and success that he was advancing by using the NFB study. I was presenting the long established principle that correlation does not mean causation to refute his argument. You would be surprised how many people confuse an association for a cause and effect relationship. I was trying to warn those reviewing the discussion about confusing an association for a cause and effect relationship.

    Any concerns you have about using the word illiteracy, you need to take up with Joe Orozco. Please review his earlier posts. I chose to skip the illiteracy question based on Joe Orozco’s prior comments. I was trying to stick to a refutation of Joe Orozco’s arguments in hopes of advancing the general discussion.

    Prespective is such a bad spelling error that I cannot figure out how I missed it. The correct word is perspective.
    I apologize that my word choice of qua caused you confusion. I obviously made a bad word choice . One of the translations of the Latin word qua is “in the character or capacity of.” A less common translation would be for the sake of. This is the sense in which I was using the word qua. A rough restatement of the sentence in which I used qua would be:
    “From my perspective, you and other advocates of Braille literacy for the sake of literacy confuse a method for a goal…” I obviously had way to many philosophy classes in college. Philosophers love Latin almost as much as doctors and scientists.

  31. Ken Scott, thanks for the clarification:)

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