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The Decline of Braille: Doomsday For The Dots?

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.


  1. Jerry Weichbrodt | February 26th, 2010 | 4:07 pm

    As a person who is totally blind, I feel that Braille is a treasure we cannot permit to fall out of use. Braille has practical and emotional value that is hugely important in the lives of people who learn to use it well. Braille is certainly not for everybody, but I firmly believe it needs to continue to be available for those who can make use of it.

    Braille continues to have practical value. It is a true reading and writing system. Braille readers are continually exposed to the mechanics of spelling, punctuation, paragraph structure, and other elements of syntax. It is a truism that there is no better way to learn to write than to read extensively. I find that this holds true throughout life. It never hurts to reinforce one’s reading and writing skills by ongoing exposure to high quality writing.

    Braille has great practical value as a means of labeling everything from postal correspondence to the front panels of electronic equipment. Page scanners may permit reading printed books and correspondence, but Braille labeling can do so much to ease finding those books and letters more quickly. Then, too, compact discs and other media suddenly become distinguishable when they bear labels a blind person can discern in seconds.

    I would never have succeeded in engineering without a means of reading and writing mathematics. Braille gave me that ability. Admittedly, most of my college textbooks were recorded on audio tape, but I am firmly convinced that I would have had greater understanding, especially of the mathematical aspects of my classes, if I had had more access to Braille texts. I would have benefitted tremendously from more availability of raised line drawings with Braille markings to communicate key elements as well. Statistics exist that show a strong correlation between success in technical areas and a strong working knowledge of Braille among those with severe vision impairment. Braille codes exist for music, mathematics, and computer-oriented material, and these codes have enabled many blind people to pursue their varied interests.

    As well as the practical aspects I have mentioned, Braille offers the intimacy with the written word that many sighted readers cite. A Braille reader is permitted to hear the words of characters in a book speak in his/her head rather than having some narrator interpret dialogue according to that narrator’s conceptions. A Braille reader also has the ability to use footnotes and other specialized information in the same fashion that a print reader does. There is an intangible intimacy to feeling words pass under the fingers that is very difficult to express in words but that Braille readers know well.

    Braille still has great value in this digital age. To some extent, the drop in the percentage of young blind people using Braille may be explained by the increasing number of blind people with multiple disabilities who survive beyond childhood with improvements in medical technology and care. Not everyone can make effective use of Braille, but I firmly believe Braille must continue to be an available tool to help those who can use it to pursue their dreams and goals in life.

  2. Doug Sprei | February 26th, 2010 | 8:01 pm

    As a leading provider of assistive audio materials for the blind and print disabled communities, RFB&D is in complete agreement with Tommaso Daniele’s assertion that Braille and the new technologies are complementary, not competitive. Many thousands of our members read Braille extensively, listen to audio books, and enjoy the best of what these media have to offer toward access, learning and independence.

    Doug Sprei
    Recording for the Blind & Dyselexic
    Washington, DC

  3. Sheila Armstrong | March 2nd, 2010 | 11:51 am

    I read the E-Access bulletin translated article on braille and the comments on this site with great interest and agree with most of the points raised. One thing about the article, though. Braille is not a language – it’s a form of print. I believe this is important since denying blind people the opportunity to learn and use braille is the same as denying sighted people a good education, which wouldn’t be tollerated in many parts of the world. Whilst it is true that many yung people do not read so much now and tend to reach for the headphones, they do in many cases also have the choice actively to read. I use both audio and braille, myself, but I assure you that I remember much more of what I actively read in braille than I do when listening. It’s so easy just to drift off! The statistics quoted in the article were interesting too. Italy’s doing really well if 25 % of its blind people can use braille. The % in the US is, I believe about the same as in the UK, but it includes people registered blind in older age – not the same as a percentage of blind children, which should be higher – but if it isn’t, we have a great deal of work to do!

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