The future of Braille is being threatened by the rise of digital audio technologies, but it continues to hold valuable potential to enhance the lives of blind people, according to an article in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica translated exclusively for this month’s E-Access Bulletin by Margherita Giordano.
Braille could become a “dead language” as new technologies such as telephone services with synthetic voices to read newspapers; talking computers and audio-books mean the tactile alphabet is being used less and less, the article says. These days, only 25% of Italian people who are blind (362,000) and 10% of blind Americans (1,300,000) know Braille, compared with a figure in the US of more than half of all blind children in the 1950s, according to a recent issue of the New York Times.
Braille has been adapted for the computer age with an eight-dot version corresponding to the digital ‘ASCII’ screen characters, used in refreshable Braille displays that translate lines of text on a computer screen. However these displays remain very expensive and are not as popular among young people as text-to-speech tools, the article says. “More prosaically, why should you read Harry Potter in 36 volumes when you can listen to it in MP3 format?”
Braille’s supporters, on the other hand, cite scientific studies that show the importance of reading in a child’s cognitive development. They say it is a way to emancipate the blind, offering independent and unmediated access to knowledge.
The way forward could lie in a combination of languages and techniques: “old and new, dots and bits”, the article says.
Tommaso Daniele, Chairman of the Italian Union of the Blind (Unione Italiana Ciechi), told La Repubblica that new technologies have the power not to destroy Braille but to enhance it. “We deny the assumption that they are competitive. The two . . . work together, they are complementary. Technology is revolutionising the lives and the autonomy of blind people, allowing them to surf the net and to read texts that would be too bulky and expensive if translated into Braille”.
But Braille has its unique strengths too, Daniele says. “It is original, universal, it is a direct way to access communication…reading is slower, but allows a better learning process. It does not need any mediation”.
NOTE: For the translation of the full article by Alessandra Retico for La Repubblica see Section Two, this issue. Margherita Giordano is the translator of the Italian edition of our newsletter, which is supported by the Cavazza Institute of Bologna.