Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Happy Braille Literacy Month

Celebrated: By and for the blind, although I'm not sure since when. National Braille Week is January 4-10.

Louis Braille (1809-1852) lost his vision before the age of five because of an injury-related infection that could probably be treated easily today. He learned to read using the HaĆ¼y system of raised letters, which substituted the sense of touch for the sense of vision. Braille took that idea one step further by adapting a military "night writing" system of dots and dashes into an alphabet based on a six-dot cell. The six dots can be combined in 63 possible ways, allowing for symbols for letters, numbers, and punctuation marks. Braille has evolved over the years to accommodate contractions and a kind of shorthand, with three "grades" available for beginning, intermediate and advanced readers.

Louis Braille published his system in 1839, while simultaneously working with the scientist Pierre Foucault on a typewriter-style machine that would emboss these dots on a page. The National Institute for Blind Youth in Paris, where Braille had been educated and later served as a teacher, rejected Braille's system, and he died of tuberculosis in 1852. Although schools for the blind in other countries had started to teach braille before that, the system didn't fully capture the world's imagination until Foucault introduced his Braille typewriter at the Paris World's Fair in 1855.

Braille is a medium, not a language. My Grandma Lamb spent her career as a kindergarten teacher at the Lavelle School for the Blind, where she taught kids basic life skills — including the braille alphabet. Some of my earliest memories are of braille flashcards and record labels; at one point I could recognize the 26 alphabet letters myself, though I couldn't do it now.

For more than 150 years, braille has made the world more accessible for the blind, but its use has been declining. Some of that is the collateral damage of good intentions: mainstreaming blind kids into the school system has made their social lives easier, but has cut the most important source of braille education, specialized teachers. Better, cheaper audio technology has made more material available to blind students, though it carries obvious drawbacks: it requires electricity, and it usually requires headphones, which isolate kids even more than blindness already does.

Also, as the American Foundation for the Blind points out, "listening to a book is not the same as knowing how to read it." More than a third of legally blind students (21 and under) in the United States are classified as "non-readers." They don't have enough vision to read enhanced print, but they're not literate in braille, either. They rely on audio resources for their information. As someone facing my own vision challenges, I find that an unacceptable level of dependency on technology and the kindness of strangers. The AFB is pursuing federal legislation to make more literacy resources available to students, but you can also help with private donations to them and to Lighthouse International.

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