The Importance of Braille Literacy

Why is braille literacy so important? Does Braille even matter today, in a world where everything is read aloud? What the heck even is it?  In light of World Braille Day that was celebrated on January 4th and the entire month being designated as Braille Literacy Month, let’s take a look and try to answer some of these questions.

First off, what is Braille? Braille, invented by Louis Braille in 1824, is a writing and reading system consisting of groups of 6 dots arranged in combinations to form letters, numbers, and other symbols. Braille was invented to increase  literacy and make readable material more readily available to children who were blind. Some have described it as an equally revolutionary invention as the printing press, bringing literacy to a group of people who previously had little or no access to written materials in all walks of life. Today, Braille is used by people all over the world in over 133 languages, with more being added as time goes by.

Things are a little different in 2022, however. Screen reading technology is here, as is a wide variety of material available in various audible formats. So, in a world of electronic materials, screen readers and audio books, is Braille now irrelevant and unnecessary? I would say no. Not only is it still relevant, but Braille literacy still is and should always be an essential skill and a vital part of education for children who are blind or partially sighted.

Here are a few reasons to consider.

Spelling, punctuation, and formatting
Braille is uniquely placed to teach spelling, punctuation and formatting in a way auditory learning cannot. Screen reading software can only convey spelling to a certain degree without being time consuming and will read words aloud correctly even when spelled wrong. Furthermore, most readers have punctuation reduced to a degree of merely relying on pauses to tell that punctuation is being read, not precisely which punctuation mark is being used. Finally, screen reading software can only report formatting information, not give an accurate representation of things like centering, spacing and word placement.

Availability and Travel Convenience
In many countries around the world, Braille is still the preferred method of delivering information to people who are blind or partially sighted. During my three trips to Japan, each time I was amazed at how much braille was around, particularly in big cities. At the same time, as someone who failed to learn Japanese braille properly, I was reminded of the importance of literacy. I could speak Japanese fluently and understood what I was being told, but my illiteracy in Japanese braille proved to be a stumbling block because of the amount of information that would’ve been available to me if only I had learned Braille properly. Even here at home in Vancouver, there is far more likely to be braille signage available rather than audible indicators of rooms numbers, bus stops and other things that are vitally important.

More Vision Than You Might Think
There is good evidence to suggest that reading braille stimulates the same visual areas of the brain people who are sighted make use of while reading print. This means that through braille, particularly for students who are totally blind, there is a vital way to make use of the visual areas of the brain that would otherwise be unavailable. As has already been mentioned, Braille teaches visual concepts such as formatting in ways that simply listening would not, and that’s particularly essential for subjects like Math or any of the sciences. Not only that, but Braille teaches concepts such as spatial awareness and how to connect different things together in terms of location in relation to one another, which are both important components of orientation and mobility training.

Connecting the Dots
Spelling and formatting, the ability to take in written information quickly without having to rely on an audio aid, and training in visual concepts are just a few reasons why braille literacy from a young age, or as soon as possible, is important. Technology doesn’t replace or manufacture professionalism, nor should we expect it to. And professionalism can be well demonstrated by the quality of someone’s writing. Yes, the cost of braille is expensive, and requires more labour. But I believe that those short-term pains are unquestionably worth the long-term benefits. Lastly, here is a quote attributed to the inventor of Braille himself, Louis Braille, that I hope serves as a reminder that written communication is just as important as oral communication and being blind does not make it any less important.

Access to communication in the widest sense is access to knowledge, and that is vitally important for us if we [the blind] are not to go on being despised or patronized by condescending sighted people. We do not need pity, nor do we need to be reminded we are vulnerable. We must be treated as equals – and communication is the way this can be brought about.
-Louis Braille, Ca. 1824

By Clement