TECHNOLOGY SEEKS TO PRESERVE FADING SKILLS: BRAILLE LITERACYDate: 2017-11-01
The National Braille Press is turning 90 this year and is trying to wrestle how to address record-low Braille literacy.
A rough estimate of 13 % of U.S. blind students was considered Braille readers in a 2016 survey by the American Printing House for the Blind, another major Braille publisher, located in Louisville Kentucky. The number has dropped from around 30 % in 1974 which was the first year the organisation started asking questions.
The National Braille Press's president, Brian Mac Donald, says the modern blind community needs easier ways and specifically affordable ways to access the writing style that was developed in the 1800s in France, by a French teacher Louis Braille.
The National Braille Press developed its own electronic Braille reader last year, the B2G. "Think Kindle for the blind," Mac Donald said. The B2G machine has an eight-button keyboard for typing in Braille as well as a refreshable tactile display for reading along in Braille.
The venerable press, which started in Boston as a newspaper for the blind in 1927. The company has also looked beyond printing Braille versions of popular books and magazine titles.
Educational materials like school textbooks and standardized tests, as well as business-related publications like restaurant menus, instruction manuals and business cards, comprise an increasingly larger share of revenues, Mac Donald said.
"Braille isn't dead by any means," he said. "But it needs technology to adapt and evolve."
The vast growth of technology has allowed people with visual impairments to live more independently than ever before. In large parts of what technology allows visually impaired people to adapt to their environment, computer software reads aloud emails and other digital documents. Smartphones help to complete daily tasks such as reading text messages of sorting e-mails.
While technology has opened up a new world for people not dependent on Braille, it also presents its best chance of survival, said Kim Charlson, the library's director.
Electronic Braille computers allow users to digitally store hundreds of Braille materials that would otherwise be large and unwieldy in print, not to mention access to the internet and complete other computer-based tasks in Braille.
Such machines have been around for years, but their average cost of $4,000 to $5,000 has so far kept them out of reach for most, says Charlson.
That is starting to change. The Perkins Library, for example, will soon start loaning out 200 devices that normally retail for about $475, and the National Braille Press' Braille computer costs $2,495.
"Technology is the key to making Braille more relevant by getting it into the hands of more people," said Charlson, who began losing her vision as a child and is now totally blind.
Another key is overcoming perceptions that Braille is hard to learn and inefficient to use, said Joseph Quintanilla, the vice president of development at the National Braille Press.
Quintanilla, who has been legally blind since age five, said he regrets shunning Braille growing up. He started to appreciate its role in imparting crucial grammar and communication skills only when he entered the working world and had to play catch up.
"I don't think we would ask sighted people to go through life without reading," Quintanilla said. "So we shouldn't do that for blind people."