The Future of Braille

Photo courtesy of the American Printing House for the Blind, Inc.

Why use Braille?

Technological developments are bringing more and more assistance to those who are blind or have visual impairment. A standard iPhone ships with the VoiceOver screen reader app, allowing users to have information read to them. Speech synthesizers, once infamous for their robotic and sometimes difficult-to-understand timbre, have become more and more naturalistic.

And the cost of many assistive technology devices continues to come down and become more available to people of every economic means.

Some observers have noticed children who are visually impaired have come to rely on these advancements to the extent they are not learning Braille in the same numbers and at the same level of proficiency as they used to. A few are even beginning to question whether Braille will continue to have a place in everyday life and in professional endeavors.

Photo courtesy of the American Printing House for the Blind, Inc.

Experts we spoke to, though, see a bright future for Braille. They believe the tactile reading and writing system is key to literacy and independence for those who are blind or are visually impaired.

Indeed, they see assistive technologies as going hand-in-hand with Braille rather than replacing it.


Braille = literacy

“Braille is more relevant now than ever. Literacy plays an increasingly important role in the ‘information age’ in which we live. The ability to independently read and write is the key to freedom, literacy and a fulfilling life of independence. There is no other way to achieve these simple goals without Braille,” said Larry Skutchan, director of technology product research for the American Printing House for the Blind (APH), the world’s largest nonprofit organization creating educational, workplace and independent living products and services for people who are visually impaired.

Photo courtesy of the American Printing House for the Blind, Inc.

New assistive technologies like VoiceOver have dramatically increased the amount of material people who are visually impaired can consume.

“But with a speech synthesizer, they are not reading, they are listening. Listening restricts the benefits of literacy by skipping important components like spelling, punctuation, formatting and emphasis,” Skutchan said. “Braille represents dignity, privacy and independence. If you can’t read or write for yourself, you are condemned to a life of dependence on others.”

He notes Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft all support refreshable Braille displays for mobile devices along with screen readers. So users can switch between text-to-talk and tactile reading on the fly. Apple even includes a Braille input method so people can type Braille directly into any text box without having to use the onscreen keyboard.

APH offers their own Visual Brailler app, which helps users learn and use Braille. It’s available for free download in the Apple App Store.

Despite talk of assistive technologies replacing Braille, APH has actually seen an increase in Braille production of textbooks, Skutchan said. He notes Braille is still the only way to present the written word to a person who is blind or has visual impairment in the same way it is presented to a sighted person.

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