Louis Braille was born on January 4, 1809. Five years ago, the United Nations honored him by proclaiming that date World Braille Day. World Braille Day celebrates the importance of Braille’s revolutionary raised dot system, which allows people who are unable to interact with ordinary print to read through touch. World Braille Day also kicks off Braille Literacy Month, which we observe throughout January.
Calling the invention of braille “revolutionary” is no exaggeration. Before the development of braille, people with vision loss severe enough to prevent them from reading had virtually no independent access to written information. They had to rely on others reading to them. Communicating in writing was also impossible for most people with blindness or severe visual impairment.
Needless to say, braille was a game changer for many people over the decades that followed, opening doors to education, work, recreational reading and countless other daily activities. As Louis Braille himself once wrote, “Access to communication in the widest sense is access to knowledge.”
Over the past half century, however, braille literacy has declined sharply, and the percentage of individuals with vision loss who read braille is at an all-time low. One reason for this decline is that resources for braille instruction have shrunk dramatically, with predictable results. In 1960 nearly half of all students who were blind were fluent in braille. By 2016, only 8.5% of those students identified as braille readers, according to the braille advocacy organization BrailleWorks.
While the steepness of the decline in braille literacy is jarring, we shouldn’t be totally surprised. Braille remains an incredibly powerful tool for accessing and producing information. But it is no longer the only tool.
Technology never stops evolving. Just as braille was a lifechanging technological breakthrough, other breakthroughs in connecting people with information have taken place since then. Audiobooks, screen reading software and screen magnification are a few examples. The array of accessibility tools readily available on smart phones, tablets and personal computers is growing fast, and the emergence of artificial intelligence stands to accelerate that growth. We encourage anybody interested in exploring these access technology options to contact the Council at Info@WCBlind.org or 608-255-1166 to learn more about training opportunities.
At the same time, braille is in no way becoming obsolete! In fact, technological advances are making braille more accessible for more people. For example, refreshable braille displays and braille notetakers can interface with various devices, effectively bringing braille into the electronic age and empowering braille users to read and produce content more efficiently than ever. The National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled (NLS) both offers braille material that can be read on refreshable displays and lends patrons refreshable braille devices to read it on.
We recommend that anybody interested in learning braille explore the range of self-paced workshops and other resources available through Hadley. Learning braille need not be an enormous undertaking that takes years. You may choose to gain a basic level of proficiency for everyday tasks like labeling and reading public signs.
In short, our World Braille Day message to you is this: Embrace the communication tools and technologies that are available, and develop the skills to effectively use the ones that work best for you. Because access to communication is, as Louis Braille put it, access to knowledge. Happy World Braille Day!