Why Braille?

At Seeing Hands, we’re all about Braille. One of our main objectives is Braille literacy, and we’ve gotten some questions from parents who are curious why we’re so intent on it. I’d like to take some time to explain what Braille means to us and why we think it is crucial for everyone who can to learn it.

Braille is independence

Although Braille literacy itself is one of our major objectives, two others are independence and access to employment. In both cases, Braille is a very helpful tool in getting there. Braille is used almost everywhere, and in some cases, it is the primary tool available. For a basic example, consider signs on doors. In all modern buildings, these must have Braille text on them to comply with legislation. If you can read Braille, you can identify the room numbers you’re passing with ease, and having that means you can map out the structure of a building and find your way to an unfamiliar location. If you can’t read it, it might not work. Some signs might have raised print letters, but some of them are flat and can’t be read by touch. You could try to scan them with a phone, but it will take a while and if someone has added labels to the signs, the app might not recognize them. Compared to a quick touch of the sign, any alternative is likely to be time-consuming and unreliable.

This might sound like a small thing, but I can assure you that it is anything but. If you require assistance to find your way through a building, you may find yourself lost quite often, and that really doesn’t help with independence. It’s not just doors either. There are a number of things where a simple Braille label, easily made and attached to any surface, makes it easy to navigate something that wasn’t designed with the blind in mind. For example, I could buy an internet-connected oven for over a thousand dollars and hope that the phone app to control it remains accessible, or I can spend thirty seconds with a Braille labeller and make any oven work. I could spend a lot of time memorizing an organizational strategy for identical objects, or I could just label them with the certainty that, if I come back after a long time, the labels will still make everything clear. The more I can manage this with simple and cheap tools, the less work I have to do to live as independently as everyone else.

Braille is flexibility

The examples I provided above are small snippets of Braille, such as what is found on a door sign, but Braille is probably even more important when reading longer documents. If not using Braille, the alternative is usually speech, either from a human narrator or from a computer. While that is valuable, there are times where it simply isn’t helpful to rely on that. For example, if you’re a student taking notes in class, you need to be listening to the teacher or professor simultaneously. If you are listening to a computer and the teacher at the same time, you are likely to be distracted by trying to use one sense too much. Braille, on the other hand, allows a student to listen and read notes at the same time. The same benefit applies to writing notes in a meeting, at a presentation, or anywhere else a sighted person might use a pencil.

Braille becomes even more useful when presenting or giving a speech. If you’re in front of an audience, you don’t want to be wearing headphones, and you certainly don’t want them to listen to your computer jabbering at you. Both of those will distract from what you’re telling them. That’s where Braille notes, often displayed on a refreshable Braille display, come in very useful. With one device, you can make sure your presentation slides are correct, read notes you made about what you planned to say, and control the presentation software. This is probably most obvious when you need to quote something during your presentation. If you’re listening to an audio version, it’s easy for the speech to get out of sync with you. Yet if it’s important that you read it word for word, you may not want to rely on having it memorized before you start. As long as you can read Braille quickly enough, you can read out loud just as any sighted person could with a sheet of paper, and in fact you have an edge over them because you can continue to look at the audience while a sighted speaker would have to look down at their notes to do it.

Braille also lets you read in the same way as anyone else does. When a sighted person reads print, they sometimes move their reading position back and forth to confirm a word or just to keep their focus. If they’re reading something complex, like a mathematical formula, they do this a lot. Without Braille, a user of speech will find themself moving the cursor over characters while they consider them, which is slow and divides their focus. Braille allows for a tighter focus on a region when it is needed without slowing down when it isn’t necessary.

Braille is a tool

This doesn’t mean that you should use Braille in every situation where you could. Like anything else, it has its disadvantages. Paper Braille books are much larger than the print versions of them. Refreshable Braille equipment is expensive and sensitive. There are times when using a speech-only solution is a completely justifiable choice. If you don’t learn Braille, though, you’ll find that you’re at a disadvantage wherever it would be the best tool for the job. There are good reasons why blind people who read Braille tend to have a much higher employment rate than those who cannot. If you can’t read print, or if you are likely to lose the ability to, you should consider learning a bit of Braille and understanding what it can do for you.

So, what’s next?

We encourage any blind person to learn Braille if they can. That is why we provide Braille children’s books with print text in sync. We encourage all parents to request that their blind children are taught to read Braille. Some school-provided teachers will try to explain why Braille is no longer necessary, but although they mean well, we believe that they are mistaken and that going along with the suggestion will harm your child’s future educational and employment prospects.

If you have found that a school system is unwilling to teach your child Braille or provide educational materials such as tests and books in Braille, we encourage you to get in contact with us. You are not alone in this. We have firsthand experience with convincing people about the need for Braille education and connecting students and schools with the resources they need to provide it. Sometimes, they don’t know how to teach it well, but that is no excuse to deny your child such an important and useful tool.