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Do I Really Have to Learn Braille?

Now that blind students can have access to talking computers, why in the world should they have to learn Braille? Computers are fun, even addictive; Braille is hard. Computers are twenty-first century; Braille is nineteenth century. Computers are cool; Braille is, well, old-fashioned.

Before looking a little more closely at the issue, a few words of self-disclosure may be in order. I didn’t have to learn Braille until I was twenty-seven. I’m not an especially good Braille reader. I’ve never read a Braille book or magazine and, for various reasons, probably never will. I’ve been using speech technology and computers since 1984 and would be lost without them. And yet, I use Braille every day and think that any blind student who graduates without good Braille skills has been seriously shortchanged in their education.

I doubt there is anyone today who would argue that Braille is a substitute for computer technology. However, I think it is an important adjunct for some very important reasons.

  • Spelling and punctuation. I’ve heard more than one teacher of the visually impaired (TVI) say that they can always tell if a blind student is a Braille reader by looking at their writing. Being adequate, to say nothing of good, at spelling and punctuation assumes you can “see” the text. Listening to it is no substitute. The average high-school graduate has a vocabulary of approximately 50,000 words, not counting technical terms and proper names. Even if a student correctly remembers every single word that ever appears on a spelling test, the only way she will learn to spell the other eighty percent plus of her vocabulary is by “seeing” how words are spelled in print.

The same is true for punctuation. Learning all those rules in class is only a beginning. To have anything more than a bare-bones understanding of how they work, you have to have the lessons reinforced by “seeing” how they are actually used tens of thousands of times in print.

  • Promotes independence. While there are numerous ways in which talking technology helps you to live independently, there are still some things that can be done quicker, cheaper, and more efficiently with Braille. You only need the most basic Braille knowledge, which almost anyone can master relatively quickly, to label all of those digital appliances that we have come to take for granted -– washing machines, clothes driers, dish washers, microwaves, stoves, and more. Sure, there are apps to help with this, but taking a second or two (at most) to read the Braille labels you’ve put on are a whole lot easier and more dependable than dragging out your phone, working your way to the appropriate app, taking a picture, and then hoping that it is accurate.
  • Public presentations. Recently, I was asked to do two hour-long presentations at a professional conference. Using Braille notes made it possible to be certain I covered everything I wanted, in the order I’d planned, read several lengthy quotations seamlessly, and do it all while insuring that I was focused on the audience for feedback. To be sure, you might be able to do this by listening to an outline of your notes while simultaneously trying to talk, but you have to be very skilled with lots of experience trying to do this, and, I promise, it will be vastly more difficult and stressful.

If you’re thinking, “I’ll never have to do something like that,” that might be true, but the large majority of us, sooner or later, are required to do public presentations of some type or other and being able to do them unobtrusively and well is extremely important.

  • Privacy and confidentiality. In almost every situation you’re going to be in, Braille doubles as a wonderful encryption system. We’re repeatedly told to create unique and original passwords for every account or website we use and put them in a very safe place, but, come on, how many people really do it? Cyber-security experts tell us that it’s not a question of whether or not our identity will be compromised but only a question of when. Of course, my Braille records of credit card and Social Security numbers, computer passwords, financial information, etc. can be compromised, but I suspect it’s a lot more secure than whatever electronic system my neighbor is relying on.

There are a number of other good reasons for not abandoning Braille to rely exclusively on talking technology, but this will give you some idea of why Braille is still an important tool. Although there are those who would disagree, I’m not uncomfortable if someone with high partial vision that is likely to remain stable never learns Braille. This is very much a personal decision. But, if you have little or no vision or if the vision you have is likely to deteriorate, not learning Braille is likely a serious mistake of the first order.

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