When Louis Braille invented braille, it revolutionized the way people who are blind access written text. As we celebrate his birthday and World Braille Day on January 4 – and Braille Literacy Month throughout January – it’s a good time for adults with low vision to consider learning braille.
Of course, there are many tools for people with low vision to absorb language without sight, such as audiobooks and screen readers that speak written text out loud. But nothing compares to interacting with text, whether in print, large print, or braille.
Plus, some adults with low vision may be losing more sight as the years go by, which means someday magnifiers or large print books simply won’t be enough. That’s where learning braille comes in.
“Braille is a tool and it’s empowering,” says Carlton Anne Cook Walker, BEAR-Blindness Education, and Advocacy Resources, Teacher of Students with Blindness/Low Vision, and President of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children, who also has a child who is blind.
She says oral language – which includes American Sign Language (ASL) – does have its place. But without text, readers lose sentence structure, paragraph structure, text structure, and spelling. In other words, braille provides a level of literacy that audio formats simply do not, both for reading and writing.
“Written text allows an individual to interact, to realize the difference between words like ‘there,’ ‘they’re,’ and ‘their,’ and to move around the text independently,” Walker explains. “Interaction with the text is key, especially for math. Just try doing it all in your head.”
Making reading more efficient
Even when people with low vision use optical magnifiers, it can limit their ability to read effectively. For example, when longer words are magnified they might take up an entire line on the page.
“For someone with low vision, print is often not efficient – and I believe text needs to be efficient, effective, and sustainable,” Walker says. “Braille is the opposite. When reading braille our fingers are moving and there’s more efficiency.”
Walker emphasizes that braille isn’t difficult to learn – “Braille isn’t hard,” she says. “It’s just different.”
For people who are losing their vision, learning braille before they are legally blind can put them ahead of the curve. Braille is empowering because it fosters independence. For example, braille tags can be used to identify different canisters in the kitchen, such as salt and sugar. They are also great for labeling canned goods, kitchen appliance controls, and even clothing. Walker suggests using magnetic tags, to reduce the need for re-brailling. What’s more, many common household items, such as measuring cups and spoons, are available for purchase in braille.
The value of dual media
While people with low vision are learning braille, there’s no reason not to take advantage of technology, such as Optical Character Recognition (OCR) or screen readers.
“Having more tools is better,” Walker says. “You’re not going to use them all at once, but although a hammer is a great tool, sometimes you need screwdrivers and pliers and wrenches and more.”
For example, she explains, someone could use a color app on their phone or other software that will read labels to them, or tell them how to spell something. “That’s fine, that’s still independence because they’re choosing to use that technology. But the point is to have as many choices as possible.”
Walker is a fan of APH’s Juno, which is a handheld video magnifier with OCR built-in. “If you have low vision, you can read the text. Or you can use speech to text,” she says. Juno is versatile enough to use for self-grooming tasks, reading, writing, distance viewing, and even hobbies such as sewing. She also recommends APH’s Janus Slate, which is handy for taking notes or writing down information like phone numbers in braille.
APH is in the midst of reimagining low vision technology. APH’s long-term goal is to create a suite of magnification tools, running on a unique APH low vision platform, that’s flexible and easy enough for anyone to use. But APH always has, and always will, encourage the use of braille alongside technology.
For anyone who has low vision, especially if they may eventually lose their sight, learning braille is crucial to independence and communicating fluently. Even if they retain some vision, braille gives people one more choice. And as Walker says, the more choices the better.