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Is Braille Now Optional?

Is learning braille now optional? If so, why? Or is optional braille another example of the weakness in today’s educational system – decried by the Obama administration – that allows students to get by, not learn the tough subjects, and not graduate ready for college or a career? In letting today’s youth skip braille, are we handcuffing them for life?

Most would agree that learning can occur auditorily and that for many, auditory learning is the preferred mode. Many software applications (including those available from Bookshare) and devices render printed content as spoken language for readers with visual impairments and auditory learners. In fact, some educators now accept “auditory reading” as a form of reading. If all information can be acquired auditorily, some will say that braille is not required for learning, although supporters vehemently disagree and argue that it’s much easier to read and learn with braille.

Another argument in favor of braille is that it is easier to learn to spell and punctuate. Braille helps with understanding the complexity of sentences and the structure and meaning of language. These skills are essential for good writing which is still a necessity in higher education and will definitely increase options and success in a career. Text-to-speech applications are not designed to explicitly illustrate grammar or punctuation, such as reading “comma” or “semi-colon,” although some applications and devices will spell.

Beyond these first few academic reasons for learning braille, in this blog I want to uncover some of the less obvious benefits that contribute to life skills and quality of life.  In consultation with blind colleagues and friends and through observation of their use of their braille devices, I have heard about many and will share a few.

When today’s blind students enter the working world and go to meetings, they will want to take notes on the meeting. How will they do it? They can’t speak their notes into a recorder without disrupting the meeting. Are their career choices limited? The ability to take notes is a critical career requirement and is not limited to just meetings.

As today’s blind students aspire to high level professions and to advance in their careers they will likely be asked to give a presentation, and while some speakers can deliver presentations from memory, most use notes. Is it possible to hear notes through an earbud and talk at the same time? The blind professionals I know subtly follow their notes on their note takers. Their fingers barely move. Their connection to their notes is more invisible than looking at and turning pieces of paper.

The hidden benefit I found most insightful came from a blind colleague, Rob Turner, a technical support manager at Bookshare who likes to read. When I asked what he liked most about knowing braille, he said, “why would I want to hear someone else’s interpretation of a character’s voice and personality? I like to imagine the characters for myself.”

This blog is a beginning. I’m sure readers will have many more ideas about why you like knowing braille, and I invite you all to comment, and to contribute to the discussion.


  1. cannona

    Without braille:

    Good luck really learning a foreign language.
    Hope you’ve got an incredible memory, otherwise you’ll have trouble operating all but the simplest of electronic devices.
    Mathematics and advanced chemistry will be beyond you.
    Hope you’re never in a situation where you need to look something up quickly. Without Braille, you’ll be fiddling with your electronic reader long after those who can read have moved on.
    If you run out of batteries, or if the electricity goes off, you’ll be out of luck, while those of us who can read will keep on going.

    There is no excuse (except for those extremely rare exceptions) for someone not to be taught to read.

    BTW, so called “auditory reading” is not reading at all. Since when is listening reading? It’s just a thin excuse from lazy professionals in the education field who would rather see kids fail than put forth some real effort. The next thing you know, they’ll be calling students who fall asleep in class “passive learners.”

    Again, I do understand that there are rare exceptions. However, it seems that all to often a child is called an exception, when they’re really not, just to avoid something hard.

    • Betsy Burgess

      Thank you for your very insightful additions to the conversation.

    • Sweet Ramos

      I agree with what’s being said here. I’m a multi-sensory and/or a kenisthetic learner. I use both the speech and the Braille display on my notetaker at the same time to read. It works better for me than being limited to one or the other especially on such a small device. I do not retain most of what I hear when I read audio books and in fact I get very easily distracted and usually lose interest in listening to the book if the reader is not very expressive and if it’s a long book which many textbooks are. Ideally, all my books would be in a digitally written format so that I can quickly use the find command to find keywords and have my screenreader set to read at a fast speed, or better yet, so I can use my notetaker as a Braille display along with my screenreader or can download the material to read with my notetaker. I once had a college DSS coordinator say something like that Braille is just a preference for me, and I think many educators and DSS officers at colleges probably think the same so don’t take the need for Braille seriously. I’m currently going to a university where there is only one computer in the school that has a screenreader (in the tutoring and not the testing center), so I have to use a human reader for testing, and it is really frustrating for me not to be able to read the test myself. I often need the reader to repeat almost every question, and I’ve gotten to the point where I just use my notetaker to copy down each question so I can go back to them later. It would be much less complicated if I could take the test in a digital format so that I could use a screenreader and possibly my notetaker-turned-Braille display to read the tests myself and have the same opportunity to skip around the page myself like my sighted classmates can. I do have one teacher that is very good about how she reads my tests; she’s very interactive with me in that she’ll remind me of questions I’ve answered earlier, which are the questions I might have referred back to had I been able to read the test on my own, and if I tell her not to include answer choices that I know are not correct, she’ll reread the question with only the remaining answer choices. But most readers will not think or know to do that. However, a human reader for tests and audio versions of textbooks are considered reasonable accommodations, so unless the technology such as screenreaders or Braille-printers are already at the school, there is not much of an effort to use alternatives probably because they are too expensive and because the DSS people are not familiar with that technology in the first place. I’m so thankful for notetakers that can be used as Braille displays and for digital Braille books in general, because it means I can easily carry around .txt- and ,rtf-formatted books and papers, and I also have access to a library of Braille that I could never fit in my room.!

  2. Not having Braille for a blind person, is exactly like not having print for a sighted person. You aren’t literate. If a sighted child were only taught through auditory means, they would not be considered a literate child. Why would it be any different for a blind child?

    Literacy is about the ability to comprehend, and use, the “written” word. Audio, even if it is read from something written, is obviously not a written subject. It’s demeaning to be told that blind people should not be taught Braille, because in essence we are being told that we aren’t worth the work it takes to make us literate. Educators are fond of saying that all people should be taught to read and to write, but often give blind students audio only. To me this says that they think us less than other people, and I find it insulting.

    Braille is no more optional today, than it was 50 or 100 years ago. If blind people are to be literate, all their lives, they deserve to learn Braille as children. I am putting no distinction here between children who are totally blind, and those who are legally blind. The legally blind may also learn print, but how often can they achieve true academic equality with their peers using print alone? Even if they do for a while, how long can they continue?

    I myself am legally blind, and in that class a fairly “good” print reader. I am also extremely good at headaches and back aches that most of my Braille literate colleagues lack. Why make it harder for legally blind children? It seems unfair to burden them with extra work and effort that their Braille reading brethren, and sighted children need never face.

  3. debeeatjfcldotcom

    We should insist that blind children learn Braille for all the reasons given. The problem I see with blind adults who don’t know it is they don’t have a good reading and writing system. They attempt to utilize their good memory for tracking information, but it’s just not as efficient. Unless they work extremely hard to develop compensatory skills, these blind adults have trouble making presentations, running meetings, tracking details in their jobs and doing everything else the sighted handle with pencil and paper. Now if you have neuropathy or other conditions that limit the sensitivity in your fingers, you may have no choice but to develop compensatory skills. I knew a very organized blind quadraplegic once, who relied only on audiotapes, because his cerebral palsy was too severe for him to use Braille. But he was an exception; he worked diligently to develop creative solutions to keep him efficient. Most children don’t have the problem-solving ability of an adult, so they need Braille because it’s just easier.
    As for this idea that audio learning is good enough; it is. Some people, even sighted people, are better at audio learning than visual or kinesthetic learning. But not everyone is an audio learner. A blind child should have the opportunity to experiment; to find out which learning mode is easiest and most natural for him. But even if audio learning is preferred, a sighted child would be expected to learn to read and write print, and a blind child should be expected to do the same with Braille. Being an audio learner just means he’ll have it easier when listening; he won’t have to take as many notes or repeat information as much. Personally, I do far more of my reading using audio, but I retain information best when I read it in Braille. If I were sighted, I’d probably be a visual learner. So to get through hundreds of pages, I do use audio. But to review what I didn’t understand, I go back over the material, using Braille if possible.
    I have low vision friends who read and write large print when comprehension is essential, but use audio to get through the reams of email, textbooks, manuals and such that one must read. Large print helps them track their clients on the job, their friends birthdays, calendar dates and handwrite notes. But they don’t use their vision to read everything, because it’s not efficient.
    It’s not Braille Vs. audio; it’s important to believe that both compliment each other, and should be used in tandem for learning, especially when children are being educated.

  4. Betsy Burgess

    Another great comment. You, the community, have more to say and say it so well. Please continue.

  5. I am a totally blind computer science student. In my experience, a Braille display is essential for programming. My instructions to the computer are not given in English sentences, but in constructs of symbols and numbers. Talking at me without Braille would never get these concepts across. The same is true for higher math. And, as one who calls it the way I see it, I call this a double standard.
    If we don’t need Braille, then it is logical to conclude that they, the sightlings, don’t really need print. Now that we have technology, lets all stop reading and store everything as audio data, shall we? Before we know it, we’ll be sitting around a fire telling our audio stories about why things stopped working. Of course educators would never take the proposal that everyone give up reading seriously, so why us?

  6. Learning braille is just but a must for the touch readers as it is the basic platform for the conversion of the thoughts and ideas into readable format. It is like a child who is starting to speak and the language a child will learn is the mother tongue since its the mother who spend a lot of time with a child.
    Now, the digital technology i.e the AT/IT is just providing an alternative to braille and to help the blind persons to be at per with their colleagues who use print materials. As we all know that educating a blind person is so expensive in terms of the learning materials. Am an Assistive Technology teacher at Thika school for the blind -Kenya-Africa, It is the oldest school for the blind in Africa started in 1946. This is a place where the learning materials are not locally available, so by providing this technology we encourage the students to first and fore most go for braille class before they begin computer classes.
    Currently we have one case where the technology has to purely replace braille.
    There is a boy whose touching senses are dead meaning that he cannot read braille, he is class eight and must also do an exam, so what next? provide an alternative, and through that he is now able cope with the rest and the sighted world.
    Thanks for our esteemed and strategic partners who provides us with the online accessible materials through Our Reading Spaces Foundation.
    Braille is essential.

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