So I will be the first to admit: I’m a Little House on the Prairie fan. In that series, Mary is one of my favorite characters. Now, for those who may not know of the show, or the books, Mary becomes blind as a teenager, and is forced to learn Braille in order to learn how to read.
For those who may not know, the Braille alphabet is how those who are either blind or visually impaired learn to read texts. It is not necessarily a separate language in itself, but a type of code: several dot patterns represent a letter. In writing this, I definitely have to note that many blind persons literate in Braille do consider it to be a separate writing system, instead of just a transcription of English. In English Braille, there are multiple forms of Braille writing. There is the standard, writing out every full letter, and then there is what I will refer to as the abbreviated form. In this form, there are many contractions, like there are in English. For example, the writing of “blind” in English Braille is actually spelled as “bl.” Many of these contractions need to be read in context, as they are too ambiguous otherwise.
The real reason I am writing this is not just to expose others to the Braille alphabet (which I really find quite interesting), but to expose others to a real issue in teaching this system. In 2010, it was discovered that only about 10% of blind adults are able to read printed Braille. Of that number, it doesn’t even say what type of Braille; it could be the standard, letter-by-letter Braille, or the more advanced type. This has become quite a problem since developing computer and text-to-speech programs. What ultimately happens is that adults are illiterate. It may be hard for those of us who are sighted to understand that the Braille alphabet truly is a writing system.
Some of the arguments saying that this isn’t a problem include that it’s “hard” to learn Braille. Well yes, it is difficult. It takes years to do it correctly, just like it takes the average sighted child years to learn how to read. I’m sure if a child only learns Braille three hours per week, it will be very difficult for it to stick. Just because it’s difficult does not mean we shouldn’t learn it anyway. The other common argument is that it isn’t “necessary” because of our computer technology. I’m sure nobody would suggest that sighted children not learn how to read just because technology gives us the ability now to live our lives without it. First, those who are illiterate do not necessarily “hear” the differences in punctuation and sentence structure. Second, maybe we’re assuming too much that we can rely on computers. What is the visually-impaired, illiterate person to do when their computer crashes and they have to send out bills immediately, but they don’t know how much to send because everything is done online?
Just thinking from my own experience, I’ve known several truly successful blind adults. All of them are able to read Braille. They don’t use it all the time now, because they don’t need to, but they still maintain the ability. I wonder if they would have been so successful if they never had the opportunity to learn. The blind and visually impaired are certainly able to be successful, but they need to be literate in order to do it. Although it doesn’t affect most of us, we should be concerned that a whole group is on the verge of becoming truly illiterate because of a lack of teaching and instruction in this area.