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Braille is disappearing
May 7, 2010 5:30 AM   Subscribe

Braille is facing extinction, says Canadian newsweekly Maclean's, thanks to strained budgets, audiobooks and text-to-speech. "In the 1950s about half of all blind children learned Braille, says the U.S. National Federation of the Blind. Today, that number has fallen to 10 per cent -- and it's about the same in Canada. For some, like NFB director Mark Riccobono, that means we're letting blind children grow up as illiterate as Braille's 19th-century contemporaries. 'If only 10 per cent of sighted children were being taught [to read],' he told Maclean's, 'that would be considered a crisis.'"
posted by mcwetboy (67 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
I do believe that it would be a good idea for any blind person to learn Braille. However, Braille is not really as essential as it once was, since there are now computers that can speak to their users, can read them their email, can scan printed material, etc. (Not that all blind people can afford all the technological devices that could make their lives easier.)
posted by grizzled at 5:36 AM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


But do people who don't learn how to read also fail to learn how to write? Because that does seem like a problem.
posted by hermitosis at 5:41 AM on May 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 5:41 AM on May 7, 2010 [3 favorites]


Can someone please translate ZenMasterThis' comment for me?
posted by gman at 5:47 AM on May 7, 2010 [8 favorites]


Rafferty says Canada is the only G8 country to not fund library services for the blind.

Well, that's weird. I'd love to see numbers about Braille use in other countries, because if the lack of financial support is more to blame for the decline than a lack of interest/use of electronic readers among blind people, then this becomes a different story.
posted by mediareport at 5:50 AM on May 7, 2010


'If only 10 per cent of sighted children were being taught [to read],' he told Maclean's, 'that would be considered a crisis.'"

inner...nerd...struggling...not...to...derail...about...percentages....
posted by DU at 5:55 AM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Braille also suffers from being not very "make at home friendly." You can buy braille printers, but they are pretty expensive (looks like most are in the $800+ range), so, as hermitosis notes, even if you can read, you can't write outside an institutional setting, which hampers it as a skill. Voice input and reading programs, on the other hand, allow visually-impaired people to send messages between them (and with the non-visually--impaired) without so much mediation.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:58 AM on May 7, 2010


Oops, missed that there was a U.S. stat, too:

In the 1950s about half of all blind children learned Braille, says the U.S. National Federation of the Blind. Today, that number has fallen to 10 per cent—and it’s about the same in Canada.

I hadn't thought about this at all but it's fascinating. Here's the U.S. National Federation for the Blind's Braille site, which lists the first reason for the decline as "not enough teachers."
posted by mediareport at 6:02 AM on May 7, 2010


Everywhere I go, I see a bunch of signs with braille underneath the text. Elevator buttons, signs on doors, etc. It seems like quite a problem if many blind people aren't able to make use of these.
posted by FishBike at 6:05 AM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


.

Bharati Braille

Introduction

Bharati Braille is the adaptation of the six dot system for the languages of India. The history of Bharati Braille dates back to the period prior to India's independence. Schools for the blind had already been established in the country during the later part of the nineteenth century and Braille had found acceptance as an appropriate medium for educating the blind. The complexities of the writing systems of Indian languages had somewhat hindered the development of Braille specific to the Indian environment.

It is interesting to observe here that Braille can be viewed as a script for writing a language. Indian languages are based on a writing system which is essentially phonetic in nature. Hence some scholars had recommended Braille as one of the scripts that could be used for writing text in the different Indian languages. In fact India had made a recommendation to UNESCO to consider a universal standard for Braille, based on a Phonetic representation of sounds using the six dot system.

posted by infini at 6:06 AM on May 7, 2010


so, as hermitosis notes, even if you can read, you can't write outside an institutional setting,

Yeah but what I'm really asking is, if people don't learn read/write Braille are they also not learning to read/write AT ALL? As in, they could not scribble a note if they needed to or understand someone's speech if they were spelling something out loud?
posted by hermitosis at 6:07 AM on May 7, 2010


You can buy braille printers, but they are pretty expensive (looks like most are in the $800+ range)

What a bargain. Only eight hundred bucks enables you or your child to write.

As the article points out, being able to compose stories or essays or letters directly into a voice recorder isn't the same. There's no easy way to edit, for a start, which is half the challenge of writing effectively.
posted by rory at 6:09 AM on May 7, 2010


But, are there as much blind children now, as there were in the 1950s?

One of the reasons I've heared for the decline of Braille, is that there simply aren't as many children born with incurable defects, nowadays. So there aren't as many institutes needed to deal with their issues.

Putting the problem in percentages neglects this; as serious though as the problems for blind children may be.
posted by ijsbrand at 6:16 AM on May 7, 2010


But do people who don't learn how to read also fail to learn how to write? Because that does seem like a problem.

No, in Canada young vision-impaired students get computers with screen readers quite early and are taught to type as early as mainstream children are taught to write in cursive.
posted by Space Coyote at 6:19 AM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Listening to Braille," from the NYT last December, is worth reading too:

“What we’re finding are students who are very smart, very verbally able — and illiterate,” Jim Marks, a board member for the past five years of the Association on Higher Education and Disability, told me. “We stopped teaching our nation’s blind children how to read and write. We put a tape player, then a computer, on their desks. Now their writing is phonetic and butchered. They never got to learn the beauty and shape and structure of language.”

[...] At the annual convention for the federation, held at a Detroit Marriott last July, I heard the mantra “listening is not literacy” repeated everywhere, from panels on the Braille crisis to conversations among middle-school girls. Horror stories circulating around the convention featured children who don’t know what a paragraph is or why we capitalize letters or that “happily ever after” is made up of three separate words.

Declaring your own illiteracy seemed to be a rite of passage. A vice president of the federation, Fredric Schroeder, served as commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration under President Clinton and relies primarily on audio technologies. He was openly repentant about his lack of reading skills. “I am now over 50 years old, and it wasn’t until two months ago that I realized that ‘dissent,’ to disagree, is different than ‘descent,’ to lower something,” he told me. “I’m functionally illiterate...”

posted by mediareport at 6:19 AM on May 7, 2010 [14 favorites]


They never got to learn the beauty and shape and structure of language.

English's inherent ugliness is the reason people essentially trying to reverse-engineer how words are spelled get it so far off.
posted by Space Coyote at 6:24 AM on May 7, 2010


ijsbrand : But, are there as much blind children now, as there were in the 1950s?

I can't seem to find the historical trend of total-vs-childhood blindness, but taking a look at the major causes of it, most appear age-related, with childhood blindness as a small minority of all cases:

According to Wikipedia, we have:
1. cataracts (47.9%)
2. glaucoma (12.3%)
3. age-related macular degeneration (8.7%)
4. corneal opacity (5.1%)
5. diabetic retinopathy (4.8%)
6. childhood blindness (3.9%)
7. trachoma (3.6%)
8. onchocerciasis (0.8%)

For those who don't recognize all of those, the ones above #6 correlate highly with increasing age, and the ones below #6 result from a pathogen.
posted by pla at 6:27 AM on May 7, 2010


o o
OO
oO
posted by jquinby at 6:27 AM on May 7, 2010


Electronic Braille readers are too expensive? Too hard to use?
posted by pracowity at 6:37 AM on May 7, 2010


I think screen-readers and *gasp* online book piracy are opening up a much greater world of knowledge to people who can't read print than waiting around for a massive braille edition of a book to be made for you. Especially for technical books and anything that needs to be reasonably up-to-date. Braille as a useful way of making signage accessible is great but as a medium for communication it simply can't keep up where technological measures are more than adequate.
posted by Space Coyote at 6:37 AM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


If I had a kid (I don't) who was blind, I would be worried about the kid being completely reliant on computers to do anything. I guess I always have this small voice in the back of my mind worrying about the End Times and what if all this technology goes away, then where will be? I know it's a little overly dramatic. But I would want my kid to feel like he could do anything he wanted, not be reliant on technology that can fail, be crippled remotely on the whim of whatever megacorp, become irrelevant, drown in a flood, etc. Learning and using braille makes one reliant on the devices that print braille, I guess, but it's just raised dots. It can't be that hard to make those.
posted by amethysts at 6:49 AM on May 7, 2010 [3 favorites]



Everywhere I go, I see a bunch of signs with braille underneath the text. Elevator buttons, signs on doors, etc. It seems like quite a problem if many blind people aren't able to make use of these.

Can anyone explain to me how blind people actually use these? Elevator buttons I sort of understand, but my office has the office numbers written in braille on each office, and I have no idea how a blind person even finds these signs to read the braille.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 7:05 AM on May 7, 2010


What percentage of them learn how to touch-type on a QWERTY keyboard? Aren't there text-to-speech programs that can read as they type, so they know if they do a typo?

I imagine it'd be hard to learn, but not impossible thanks to the bumps on the F and J keys.
posted by mccarty.tim at 7:12 AM on May 7, 2010


I understand that for the last few thousand years or so, the printed page was the only way to pass ideas over great distances and through time so that if you were not literate you were pretty much out of luck in terms of learning anything from anyone who wasn't there with you. So the ZOMG! Literacy! thing doesn't come as a complete surprise to me.

But of all the reading you've don't lately, what portion of it has been off a printed page and what portion from a monitor? A 70 character braille display appears to run about $10,000 and the the $800 price appears to be for a used printer. So not really cheap and pretty limited. (Imaging trying to scan through a book one semi-twitter at a time to find the part you wanted.)

I think the lady quoted in the article is dead on accurate. Braille is the very best technology of the 1800s. If there are issues with the tools that are replacing braille, maybe the right answer is to fix those limitations.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:17 AM on May 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


Guitarist Jeff Healey was a big booster for braille literacy. He gave an interview, saying he felt that audiobooks and text to speech weren't completely adequate ways to experience literature; that children can't fully develop their powers of imagination when the text is being pre-interpreted to some degree.
posted by bonobothegreat at 7:22 AM on May 7, 2010


An interesting angle that I've heard both from a blind technology trainer and from a teacher who teaches braille in a public school is that since many of the neonatal causes of blindess (such as the practice of administering high levels of oxygen to newborns, discredited by the recently deceased Dr. Arnold Platz) are now prevented, more kids who are blind now also have numerous other cognitive and physical problems that make learning braille extremely difficult.

The whole "listening is not literacy" thing strikes me as just more format fetish and phobia, with a healthy dollop of "I had to do this so you do too"-itis.

I do know that out of the 500 or so visually impaired patrons we serve at our subregional library for the blind, only a handful have any interest in braille.
posted by ulotrichous at 7:28 AM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Electronic braille displays are, apparently, shockingly expensive. This I did not know, and I'm surprised nobody has bothered to make a cheaper version of what appears to be pretty simple technology. But they aren't the only way to produce braille at home. There are also six-key typewriters for punching braille, QWERTY keyboards with braille keycaps (for producing text to be read by sighted people), and templates that you use with a stylus to punch out braille manually.

In the era before everything was electronic, my grandmother ran a bureau that transcribed books into braille, and in fact they were early converts to computers, digitizing a lot of books by hand in the late 70s. It knocks the wind out of me to think that legacy is going to waste.
posted by adamrice at 7:32 AM on May 7, 2010


I do believe that it would be a good idea for any blind person to learn Braille reading. However, Braille reading is not really as essential as it once was, since there are now computers that can speak to their users, can read them their email, can scan printed material, etc. (Not that all blind people can afford all the technological devices that could make their lives easier.)
posted by grizzled at 8:36 AM on May 7


FTFY. Wait... that doesn't seem right.
posted by howling fantods at 7:38 AM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yeah, you'd think something like the braille output device from Sneakers wouldn't be too hard to create.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:39 AM on May 7, 2010


Well maybe there's a space between old-fashioned, limited Braille and being reliant on screen readers for a new thing to be developed. Let's get some college students on this.
posted by amethysts at 7:43 AM on May 7, 2010


I'm also curious how blind people are expected to locate the tiny dots on signs they'd have to see to realize are there. I guess a person could get used to an ATM or elevator, but there are plenty of non-routine places these things pop up that make me scratch my head.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 7:43 AM on May 7, 2010


The whole "listening is not literacy" thing strikes me as just more format fetish and phobia, with a healthy dollop of "I had to do this so you do too"-itis.

So who among the sighted people here will be first to advocate dropping reading lessons in their local schools in favour of screen-readers/audiobooks? How many use screen-readers to consume Metafilter threads? How about we toss out all the printed materials in libraries and keep only the books on tape?
posted by rory at 7:59 AM on May 7, 2010 [5 favorites]


Guitarist Jeff Healey was a big booster for braille literacy. He gave an interview, saying he felt that audiobooks and text to speech weren't completely adequate ways to experience literature; that children can't fully develop their powers of imagination when the text is being pre-interpreted to some degree.

That's a good point, bonobothegreat. Reading a book is a very different experience than having a book read to you. I was ready to jump on the 'why lament outdated formats' bandwagon, but I'm reconsidering.
posted by NationalKato at 8:05 AM on May 7, 2010


It make sense to me that if someone only ever *heard* words, rather than read them (whether as text or Braille), then learning to spell, and therefore write, would be almost impossible.
posted by jpdoane at 8:19 AM on May 7, 2010


Guitarist Jeff Healey was a big booster for braille literacy. He gave an interview, saying he felt that audiobooks and text to speech weren't completely adequate ways to experience literature; that children can't fully develop their powers of imagination when the text is being pre-interpreted to some degree.

the degree of accommodation is never going to be perfect, and i think whether or not to learn braille is up to the individual. but not all people who can read want to 'experience literature', and reading is not the only way to exercise one's imagination.
posted by fallacy of the beard at 8:35 AM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is very surprising to me. In our school district, it is mandated that every blind child be given the same material as every other student - in Braille.

As a teacher who often runs across something on the Internet or The New Yorker the night before and says "Wow, this would be great for my English class tomorrow," this was a little problematic when I had a blind student last year, but I managed to get most of the material Brailled for her in time. (She supplemented some of the novel reading with audiobooks.)

It would seem obvious that mastering the written language, whether through marks on a page or dots on a page, would activate different parts of our brain, and that it would behoove a blind person to be able to, say, read and reflect upon a novel in the same way sighted people do: at their own pace. So this decline in Braille literacy is disinheartening in the same way the precipitous drop in book-buying and newspaper-reading is. I heart literacy.
posted by kozad at 8:56 AM on May 7, 2010 [3 favorites]


I think that braille being less widely used is a function of two things: the general population shift away from books to audio and video (and let's be honest, only a small percent of the total population ever read for pleasure), the rise of the internet.

Decades ago, a blind person could get their book knowledge and literature via braille, or a catalog of books on tape. It was a fraction of the knowledge available to a sighter person.

Now, blind and sighted have access to the universe of information from their home. So while learning braille yielded a clear and enormous benefit to the student or adult decades ago, now the benefit is less direct.

I think this also mirrors the decline in the general population of using libraries for books. My local libraries put CDs, DVDs, and web-connected computers front and center, and that's where most of the patron action is. When I was a kid, the same space would be for new books, the card catalog, and comfortable reading areas.
posted by zippy at 9:01 AM on May 7, 2010


Can someone please translate ZenMasterThis' comment for me?

⠂= ·–
posted by BrotherCaine at 10:41 AM on May 7, 2010


You can buy braille printers, but they are pretty expensive (looks like most are in the $800+ range), so, as hermitosis notes, even if you can read, you can't write outside an institutional setting, which hampers it as a skill.

You can get a slate, stylus and a stack of Braille paper for like a hundred bucks.

Another thing that hasn't been mentioned yet is that a lot of the assistive technology for blind people ends up being purchased by either school districts (for kids) or government agencies like the Department of Rehabilitation, and there are only a few companies producing it, so they get to set the prices (it's almost like a monopoly). The crappy thing about this is that if you're trying to buy something like a BrailleNote (sort of an awesome PDA kind of thing that has a mechanical Braille output and can be synched to a PC with a USB cable), you're pretty much out of luck unless you're independently wealthy, but if it's for work, the government might volunteer to pay for it (and even if they don't, you can still ask).

My own study (sample size: one person) suggests that Braille is still really helpful for a lot of things, like keeping track of telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, schedules, etc. (the kind of thing you'd use a notepad or PDA for), but that text-to-speech is a lot more useful for reading longer texts, and that books on tape are the most relaxing option for pleasure reading.
posted by infinitywaltz at 10:51 AM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Is Braille paper thicker like cardstock?
posted by BrotherCaine at 10:55 AM on May 7, 2010


Just because I think it's so incredibly cool, here's a link to the BrailleNote, the PDA-like device I mentioned, which is sort of the height of high-technology Braille, as compared to the slate-and-stylus method, which is also really useful but decidedly low tech.
posted by infinitywaltz at 10:57 AM on May 7, 2010


Is Braille paper thicker like cardstock?

Yeah, pretty much. It's heavy duty so you can punch dots into it without just punching holes (Braille is easier to read for most people as raised dots rather than indentations or holes).

Oh, and another cool and relatively cheap option for writing Braille: you can get label makers and tape. We use these around the office where I work a lot, like to distinguish between the sugar and the artificial sweetener jars in the kitchen and to mark the buttons on the microwave.
posted by infinitywaltz at 11:01 AM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Last night I had a dream that I was communicating with blind children in distant lands by using cell phones set to vibrate in morse code.

I'm sorry, it's not tremendously relevant as a comment, but it is true.
posted by klangklangston at 11:07 AM on May 7, 2010 [4 favorites]


Oh, and another cool and relatively cheap option for writing Braille: you can get label makers and tape. We use these around the office where I work a lot, like to distinguish between the sugar and the artificial sweetener jars in the kitchen and to mark the buttons on the microwave.

great hack to add to my 'collection', thanks
posted by infini at 11:08 AM on May 7, 2010


Yeah but what I'm really asking is, if people don't learn read/write Braille are they also not learning to read/write AT ALL?

They can write using a 20/20 pen (kind of like a Sharpie) if they have limited vision. You can also get plastic things to put over your checks, for example, that help you figure out where the different lines are for amount, payee, signature, etc.

Plus, there's text-to-speech software, like JAWS (which is amazing because it accomplishes so much while still being a massive headache) that reads as you type and can read stuff like word processor documents (works great!), PDF files (not so great!) and websites (it totally depends and may work great or just completely crash your computer!). The widespread adoption of text-to-speech software is, I think, probably the main reason for the decline of Braille.
posted by infinitywaltz at 11:09 AM on May 7, 2010


Can anyone explain to me how blind people actually use these? Elevator buttons I sort of understand, but my office has the office numbers written in braille on each office, and I have no idea how a blind person even finds these signs to read the braille.

All over eastern Europe - where accomodations for those with disabilities would seem to be in its infancy, I've seen signs in Braille in elevators, entrances to public buildings and whatnot. What's amazing about that is that these signs are often printed, not "raised." Thus making them absolutely unreadable for anyone who's blind.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 11:41 AM on May 7, 2010 [3 favorites]


A friend of mine who is blind uses a computer program that reads off letters on the screen as the cursor moves across - it's essentially the same as brail in that it is "reading", not being read to. This of course depends on being able to hear, Helen Keller could only read Brail and ASL, so there will always be a place for Brail for the deaf+blind.
posted by stbalbach at 12:14 PM on May 7, 2010


The whole "listening is not literacy" thing strikes me as just more format fetish and phobia, with a healthy dollop of "I had to do this so you do too"-itis.

So who among the sighted people here will be first to advocate dropping reading lessons in their local schools in favour of screen-readers/audiobooks? How many use screen-readers to consume Metafilter threads? How about we toss out all the printed materials in libraries and keep only the books on tape?


This.
posted by rodgerd at 12:57 PM on May 7, 2010


How fast is Braille reading vs. audio listening? I'm pretty sure I read text much faster than listening to audio, but if Braille isn't as fast, then I could see why adoption of Braille over audio is declining.
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:51 PM on May 7, 2010


Experienced users with text-to-speech are pretty fast; you can crank the speed up on JAWS software, for example, to the point that it just sounds like a blur to the inexperienced. I still think Braille is faster, but with text-to-speech there's instant gratification, where with Braille you've got to call the place, find out if the book has been translated, find out if it's in stock, then wait for them to mail it to you.
posted by infinitywaltz at 2:24 PM on May 7, 2010


How fast is Braille reading vs. audio listening? I'm pretty sure I read text much faster than listening to audio, but if Braille isn't as fast, then I could see why adoption of Braille over audio is declining.

It turns out that we can comprehend very fast speech just fine, especially with a little practice. What's difficult, for a human being, is producing speech that quickly. (Remember this guy? If you pay attention, you can totally follow what he's saying. What's incredible is that he's saying it that fast.)

But computers' speech production isn't limited the way a human's is. If you use screen reading software, you can control how quickly it speaks — and most people who use it turn the speech rate way up. At that point, they're getting information about as quickly as you can by reading text on a page. It sounds funny, but it's efficient as hell.
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:36 PM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


I taught myself Braille when I was in ninth grade, just because I thought it was neat, and sparked by finding a Braille Reader's Digest in the recycling heap when I worked a day at Eco-Cycle for a church group fundraiser (in 1986). My grandmother had the same Reader's Digest issue so I used that to decode the Braille.

It was pretty cool, at the time, to have a secret alphabet I could write on my books the name of the boy I liked, that sort of thing. I could not really read it bump-wise, but I liked the patterns of dots.

I'm sad it's going by the wayside. It's criminal that electronic reading devices are so crazy expensive.

I live in the same neighborhood as the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, so I see a fair number of blind people out and about, and many live nearby.
posted by marble at 3:02 PM on May 7, 2010


Oh, forgot to mention: I think the prevalence of Braille on signs is due to some ADA-compliance rule, just a guess. Also many blind people are not 100% blind, and they might be able to just make out where a sign is, so they can put their fingers on it to read it.
posted by marble at 3:03 PM on May 7, 2010


How fast is Braille reading vs. audio listening?

I googled this and found that some braille readers can reach 200-400 wpm, which I'm guessing is faster than I could comprehend spoken words, and appears to be the same range as the reading speeds for sighted readers. These speeds are apparently mostly seen among those who were blind at an early age, and people who go blind later in life do have trouble, well, getting up to speed.
posted by adamrice at 3:53 PM on May 7, 2010


So who among the sighted people here will be first to advocate dropping reading lessons in their local schools in favour of screen-readers/audiobooks?

This is a red herring. If all I did was read stories in a linear fashion then it probably wouldn't make much difference if I just did audiobooks.

But, well, today I went through like twenty papers on antibody / antigen kinetics. I wasn't reading them, I was browsing them - reading section headings skipping around, looking for things to let me know if the paper I was looking at was going to give me the information I wanted or if I was barking up the wrong tree.

How long is it going to take you to do that at 70 characters a throw? (Or for a mere $1.2 million you could chain a bunch of them together and have the same kind of screen real estate I got last month for $300. You'll need long arms though.)

Insisting that the blind learn braille because that's a rough analog of how you interact with text resonates really well with the concept of "white man's burden." The thing is, history seems to have decided that the white men who felt thus burdened were total dicks.

If you want to make things better would be to talk to blind people, find out what works and doesn't work for them, and try to produce something that better suits their needs rather than just saddle them with something that is kind of like what works for you. At worst you'll be labeled well meaning but ineffectual. That's a step up from total dick.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 4:25 PM on May 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


Can anyone explain to me how blind people actually use these? Elevator buttons I sort of understand, but my office has the office numbers written in braille on each office, and I have no idea how a blind person even finds these signs to read the braille.

I'm not blind, but I was talking to some people at my university's disability services office about this just last week (I'm there a lot, so the receptionist and I were chatting). One potential use is for the locative equivalent of fine-motor; we have a number of people here (both staff and students) who do just fine getting around by cane; the difficulty arises when they need to find the right office. If you put the braille signs in the right place (read: at the same height, approximately, and next to a door), then a user can find the door using a cane or a dog or limited vision and then use the sign to either verify that they've found the correct door, or to say "hmm, this door at the corner is 204, I want 211 ... that's probably across the hall and 3 doors down".
posted by spaceman_spiff at 4:38 PM on May 7, 2010


If you want to make things better would be to talk to blind people, find out what works and doesn't work for them

Like the researchers mentioned on p.2 of the linked article have, you mean?

In a study Ryles conducted, she found that blind students who’d been taught Braille early scored about the same as sighted students on a standardized test measuring reading comprehension (61 versus 62 per cent). For those with no Braille training, that score fell to an average of 38 per cent. The discrepancy was worse for spelling. Having a written culture, versus an oral culture, also shapes the way we think, according to some scholars. In another study, a University of Calgary communications professor Doug Brent and his wife, Diana, who teaches blind children, studied short stories written by blind students. They found that stories by kids who did not know Braille were more likely to feature fantastical characters or plots—not a bad thing. But they also tended to be grammatically poor, disorganized and illogical. “As if all of their ideas are crammed into a container, shaken and thrown randomly onto a sheet of paper like dice onto a table,” the Brents concluded.

Or how about the comment someone has now added to the article?

I am a blind 27 year old woman who never read a book until I was 23 years old because I hated to read because I had my face on my desk, pressed to a page, trying to read large print. When I learned Braille four years ago, my world changed. I am just sad that I got jipped out of being able to read for so long.

No meantion of audiobooks or text-to-speech there, although at 27 she will have had access to them for most of her life.

It's not a red herring. If hearing a text is truly sufficient, there's no more reason for sighted people to read and write than there is for blind people to learn Braille. The fact that sighted people continue to read/write suggests that audio alone isn't sufficient. Various Braille readers and researchers in that article say that Braille adds a valuable extra dimension to people's relationship to a text. Nobody's suggesting that it's exactly the same dimension as sighted people's reading/writing.
posted by rory at 9:42 AM on May 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm sad it's going by the wayside.

The key here, like other examples of dying media, is to make it cool again. Start publishing zines in braille. Create a nonsense political group that only dresses in plaid and communicates in braille. Write poetry in braille, or letters to the editor of any random publication. Create a new soft drink and label the cans in braille only. The Jonas Brothers could do their concerts in braille. That would be beneficial for everyone.
posted by krinklyfig at 8:32 PM on May 8, 2010


"Everywhere I go, I see a bunch of signs with braille underneath the text. Elevator buttons, signs on doors, etc. It seems like quite a problem if many blind people aren't able to make use of these."

I can read the dots that make up the numbers without even trying to learn them. Simple numbers and universal symbols are unlikely to fall into uselessness.

"Can anyone explain to me how blind people actually use these? Elevator buttons I sort of understand, but my office has the office numbers written in braille on each office, and I have no idea how a blind person even finds these signs to read the braille."

Most buildings are consistent, once you figure out where the signs are you can find them fairly easy once you orient yourself to the door. And of course there are wide swathes of people who aren't able to read text but can disconcern shapes (contrast helps these people; brass plagues on a beige wall should be avoided.)

"you'd think something like the braille output device from Sneakers wouldn't be too hard to create."

Unlike electronics it's a hard mechanical problem that is unlikely to get much easier. All those little actuators and even one failing is a severe impediment (unlike say a dead pixel).

"Oh, and another cool and relatively cheap option for writing Braille: you can get label makers and tape. We use these around the office where I work a lot, like to distinguish between the sugar and the artificial sweetener jars in the kitchen and to mark the buttons on the microwave."

This both awesome and face palm obvious; I'm going to be ordering one.
posted by Mitheral at 9:45 AM on May 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Unlike electronics it's a hard mechanical problem that is unlikely to get much easier. All those little actuators and even one failing is a severe impediment (unlike say a dead pixel).

I haven't actually seen the movie, but the BrailleNote device I linked to in a previous comment does this, I think. It's got little mechanical bumps that raise and lower, and you can hook it up to a computer via USB cord and use it like a PDA. As Mitheral points out, if one of those little mechanical bump things fails, you've pretty much got to send it back to the manufacturer, but it's still an amazingly cool little device.
posted by infinitywaltz at 11:13 AM on May 9, 2010


I've got two brailleurs in this office, not 15 feet behind me. We use them all the time. They print on tractor-feed printer paper, and they are loud as shit....so we got a soundproof case. We've also got electric brailleurs and all sorts of other goodies floating around this office. TTY's, confidential face-to-face messaging boards, etc, because we must be able to communicate with anyone who walks, wheels, or otherwise enters this office.

Sidebar, we've recently done some research on the prevalence of sexual assault on persons with disabilities, particularly non-verbal or assistant-dependent people, and the results are somewhat staggering. That's one of the things we do here---sexual assault and crisis navigation for people w/ disabilities, because not surprisingly sexual assault is generally a self-reporting phenomenon, and there are people who find themselves unable to self-report.

But we also help families and individuals learn new and alternative communication methods, find the resources to get the equipment, etc.

For the most part, in the US, there is a decent degree of accessibility to these technologies if you know where to look and whom to ask.

On a side note, I believe whole heartedly that braille is a MUCH MORE sensible way to teach language than Glyphs, because Braille = Print Binary, and it makes SO MUCH MORE SENSE than "B". I mean, if I didn't know your glyphic alphabet and I did know the logical progression for braille, I could EASILY tell you the 15th letter's shape w/o having ever seen it before.

We're going to have a baby, and quite honestly I intend to incorporate sign and braille into his/her language development from a very early age.
posted by TomMelee at 9:49 AM on May 11, 2010 [2 favorites]


Oh, and to respond to the same questions that Mitheral answered above:

The signs (in the US) are at a mandated height. The bumps are even at a mandated thickness, as are the shapes on the signs. If they're not compliant, they should (must) be replaced. As are obstructions in the hallways greater than 27" above the ground, public telephones (fun fact, pay phones w/ blue plastic on the phone cords @ the receivers are Hearing-Aid compatible, ergo they transmit sound electronically as well as audibly so the hearing aids can pick it up and convert it to sound), and yes, people make use of them.

Disabilities are an equal-opportunity protected class. Anyone is welcome to become any degree of disabled at any point, any second, of any day. Making buildings, signs, etc. universally accessible isn't just a good idea for people with disabilities, it's a good idea for everyone.

What's interesting about accessibility is the things you don't think about. For example, LOTS of places put Bathroom signs on the DOOR. And most doors open OUT. So here you are, a cane-guided person needing to take a leak, and you find the bathrooms. Now you're checking the signs to see where to go---and you get WHACKED by someone coming out of the door. What about the room layout? Which stall is the accessible one? Which one is the ambulatory one? Where are the sink faucets?

Folks with sensory disabilities often navigate very well, and many groups exist to help people learn to navigate independently---you'd probably be very surprised. The standards are easy to parse, easy to find, and easy to follow. It's easy to miss little bits and pieces, but all in all there's no reason to not be compliant.

This area of civil rights law (and technology) is fascinating to me and a big part of what I do, anyone is welcome to shoot me a message at any time to talk about any of it.
posted by TomMelee at 9:57 AM on May 11, 2010


TomMelee : The standards are easy to parse, easy to find, and easy to follow. It's easy to miss little bits and pieces, but all in all there's no reason to not be compliant.

Very good post, and you've probably singlehandedly made me more sympathetic to the issue than anyone else, ever.

That said, I can offhand think of two reasons for noncompliance. The first, and most obvious, cost of retrofitting. Yeah, when building a nice new building from scratch, it costs almost nothing extra to make it accessible; Buying a place only to find out all the doors need to grow one inch, though (which happened to a friend who bought a small apartment building, in great condition and complete with 100% occupancy by fully-abled tenants, only to have the city tell him exactly that about door widths or they'd shut him down)? Ouch! And nevermind some of the more absurd situations, like the ADA demanding you bring your 200 year old inn up to code, while the historical society demands you not change a thing.

That, though, merely amounts to matters of money, and I can accept the answer "don't want to comply? Don't open to the public".

My bigger objection comes from the tendency for public buildings to all look like cookie-cutter rectangular blocks of concrete all wearing differently colored dresses. Some of the most gorgeous architecture I've ever seen would, unfortunately, count as a nightmare for someone depending on a fairly consistent layout to get around. And that saddens me, that we end up building such ugly cities mostly to serve the interests of a small minority of users.
posted by pla at 10:20 AM on May 11, 2010


Someone tell me if I need to go MeTa or to memail. I think these are important issues and there's a fair amount of GRAR out there that's misplaced because of misinformation.

First off, anything built since 1994 has to be compliant. SO MANY TIMES people complain about the retrofit, and the building was built wrong in the first place. But, I feel your pain, so you have to look at REASONABLE accommodation. The law says (federally anyway, some states have different requirements) that 1/3 path of travel and/or 20% of total cost have to go towards making buildings accessible, but only when modifications are done. You don't have to make every exit accessible, but you do need to make 1 or a %. You don't need to make every bathroom accessible, just 1 or a %. SO MUCH of the accommodations are so simple, like removing obstructions from wall walkways or putting in some grab bars and signage.


(And your friend should have called an ADA specialist. Unless it's a philly rule, not every apartment has to be accessible, only 1 in 4, and some things require modification and some don't. And furthermore, if the building was already zoned as rental, it was already out of compliance before the purchase and he should be eligible to get out of his purchase and/or hold the city or former owner liable. Compounding that, there are wicked write offs available for the modifications. And, also, the ADA is Civil Rights Law, which means there's no such thing as grandfathering.)

Regarding the historical modifications, every building is on the historical register for a REASON. A particular piece of it is historically significant. Some for their interiors, some for their exteriors, some for their walkways, etc. The ADA does NOT require modifications to be done to the defining bit of historical significance. I wish I had a link, but in Arkansas, they city needed to make its courthouse accessible on an ancient building, and so they were able to ramp it in such a way that the integrity of the building is still gorgeous and historical, by using period-accurate materials and lines. It's gorgeous.

So anyway, you make your building accessible to the guy in the wheelchair, you also make it accessible to the mother with the stroller. You put up your bathroom signs and you help the low-vision grandma AND you help the can't-yet-read 5 year old. You put up your cane-stops on your ramps, and you keep grandpa from slipping through the edge while you keep people from losing an ankle in the rain. You throw your high-contrast truncated domes on your sidewalk, and you keep the visually impaired person from walking off the curb while you keep the dude talking on his cell phone out of traffic.

What's interesting about the biases people hold of the perceived injustices that benefit the disabled population is that very, very few places are compliant. The people in wheelchairs aren't prisoners, they haven't done anything wrong---they have every right to be every place you are. It's a little eye opening when you stop thinking me versus them and start thinking "us." Sure, if I'm blind I don't need to go into the dance club. But...shouldn't I be allowed to? I already have to drink out of a different water fountain and use a different toilet stall. And, furthermore, it's not like people who have to rely on technology or aides or dogs or whatever are exactly there by choice. It's not like they arbitrarily decided not to walk any more, or to give up their own ability to choose where they get healthcare or can live or whether or not they can have families.

And...I think your cookie cutter buildings are a false dichotomy. They're cookie cutter because cookie cutter is cheap, not because of the ADA. They're cookie cutter because every federal building has to be LEED, and they're cookie cutter because they reuse blueprints to save costs, and they're cookie cutter because it's in to be quick and simple.

I'm not aware of these fully inclusive, fully accessible "ugly cities" you speak of, however...in my mind, a city where everyone has equal access to all services at all times regardless of anything out of their control (race, creed, sexual orientation, or disability) would be a pretty awesome place to live afterall.

Anyway, all this reminds me that I'll be in DC in July for the annual NCIL conference, if anyone wants to meet up or have a drink or something. I'll post something to MeTa here sometime...if I remember.

And PLA, I'm not picking on you. I actually know a bunch of people who work with ADA and Fair Housing/accessible independent living in the Philly area. Pennsylvania (especially out of harrisburg) is really ahead of the curve in a lot of ways. There are oodles of resources over that direction to learn more, if you have any interest.
posted by TomMelee at 11:26 AM on May 11, 2010 [4 favorites]


"And that saddens me, that we end up building such ugly cities mostly to serve the interests of a small minority of users."

1) The ugliness in architecture you are describing comes from cheapness. Square blocks of concrete are cheap to make.

2) Accessible buildings and facilities help everyone not just a small minority of users. For some very simplistic examples: Curb cuts help people with carts and parents with strollers; accessible bathrooms are great for people with kids or if you need to change clothes or even perform a wipe down; wide doors make it easier to move furniture and equipment through them; wide doors also make for easier egress in a fire.

"Buying a place only to find out all the doors need to grow one inch, though (which happened to a friend who bought a small apartment building, in great condition and complete with 100% occupancy by fully-abled tenants, only to have the city tell him exactly that about door widths or they'd shut him down)?"

Can you provide at least the location where this took place? I've never heard of such draconian retrofit requirements for residential accommodation.

On preview, ya, what TomMelee said much better.
posted by Mitheral at 11:34 AM on May 11, 2010


I noticed that the diaper changing station in a restaurant I visited with my son the other day had, among the many languages on it, Braille. As much as I understand that blind people can, indeed, have children, *I* often struggle to find the changing stations in public restrooms (sometimes it's in the handicap stall, sometimes it's on an easily visible wall, sometimes it's around a corner, sometimes it's behind the door, etc) so I can't imagine a blind person being able to easily find them. And also, imagining a blind person changing a poopy diaper on their own seems like something that would be very... Inefficient. Or at least result in a baby not being fully cleaned - hell, with my 20/20 vision I still manage to miss poop sometimes. But perhaps the braille isn't there to help blind parents find the diaper changing station, but rather to inform blind non-parents in the bathroom of what the hell this big plastic thing is on the wall.
posted by antifuse at 10:26 AM on May 13, 2010


You are a person who has been with-sight for your entire life. Your frame of reference is one that involves the use of sight for daily survival. If you were to think about it, you'd probably have a hard time imagining a low/no vision individual making even slices of pie, knowing when the dishes are clean, running a vacuum cleaner, or operating a non-braille keyboard. However, these are things that many people do, every day, on their own, without the benefit of any vision. In most cases, I would pit their speed against yours any day of the week---them having had all/most/some of their lives to adapt (or rather than adapt, learn an alternate method if they could never do it your way) to their specific circumstance.
However:

The important factor isn't efficiency, the important factor is independence.


and a changing table in an accessible stall is an accessible stall out of compliance.
posted by TomMelee at 6:25 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


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