By Alessandra Retico
They are letters you can touch: six little dots you brush with your fingers, 64 combinations to encode the world. But now Braille, the blind person’s Esperanto, is set to become a dead language.
New technologies mean the tactile alphabet is being used less and less, as sound takes its place: technologies such as telephone services with synthetic voices to read newspapers; talking computers and audio-books. Many young blind people no longer learn the physical grammar that would allow them to communicate with any other user in any language, preferring to put on their headphones. 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). Invented in 1829 by Louis Braille, who became blind at the age of six and inspired by a military code for the transmission of messages at night, the system still survives, but faces strong competition from information technology.
So, is it goodbye? Not quite, but the six dots that, for more than 180 years, have translated letters, musical notes, numbers and chemical formulas, are no longer enough. The old Braille has added more signs to conform to the language of the web: eight dots instead of six and 256 combinations in all, to allow blind people to read web pages. The translation from video screen to fingertips takes place by means of a refreshable Braille display, translating the words and icons appearing on the screen into relief text using tiny pins rising and falling, running information into a line of 20 to 80 characters.
Enhanced and enriched, this is the Braille of the internet age. But it is still very expensive, and not very popular: even if the National Health Service delivers these displays for free, young people prefer to use their ears to connect to the web.
This is the era of sound. Marshall McLuhan argued that technology would bring Western culture back to a tribal and oral state: the decline of the world of writing would give birth to a post-literate generation. From the beginning, Braille has had its detractors, who considered it an arcane and marginal form of communication, a segregational code. Others have supported it as a way to emancipate the blind, offering independent and unmediated access to knowledge. But today, more prosaically, why should you read Harry Potter in 36 volumes when you can listen to it in MP3 format?
Should we worry? Braille’s supporters cite many scientific studies that show the importance of reading in a child’s cognitive development. For them, casting writing aside would be like returning to pre-Gutenberg times, when culture was in the hands of intellectuals and churchmen. But others argue that after all, we have only been reading for 6,000 years and mass literacy is a relatively recent phenomenon. The way forward could lie in a combination of languages: old and new, dots and bits.
Tommaso Daniele, Chairman of the Italian Union of the Blind (Unione Italiana Ciechi), is among the supporters of the old reading system and has been struggling for many years to promote it, especially in schools. He argues that new technologies have not set Braille aside – if anything, they have enhanced 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. It originated from a brilliant idea, which made it accessible to everybody. And it is very useful for training: reading is slower, but allows a better learning process. According to the Italian writer Camilleri, it is the only language that you can touch with your fingers. It does not need any mediation”.
NOTE: This article by Alessandra Retico first appeared in Italian in the newspaper “La Repubblica” of 21 January (Copyright La Repubblica 2010). Many thanks to Margherita Giordano for this translation.