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article imageIs Braille facing extinction?

By David Silverberg     May 8, 2010 in Technology
Schools are shirking Braille for more tech-savvy tools to assist blind students, such as text-to-speech software and audio-enabled ebook readers. But will the loss of Braille detrimentally affect the blind?
In the mid-20th century, the use of Braille was enormously popular: "schools for the blind" helped children learn Braille, the raised dots appeared in restaurants and elevators and hospitals, and a new culture of respect for this handicap became the norm.
Times have changed. According to an article in Canadian magazine Macleans, "overstretched school budgets and the ever-evolving portable audio book" are killing Braille. The article cites a sobering fact: In the 1950s around half of all blind children learned Braille, according to the U.S. National Federation of the Blind. Today, that number has dropped to 10 percent (Canadian numbers are comparable).
NFB director Mark Riccobono is quoted as saying: "If only 10 per cent of sighted children were being taught [to read] that would be considered a crisis.”
Braille has fallen off the radar in schools due to tight budgets. "New technology is cheaper than hiring a Braille teacher," the article states. Audio books reading text are useful for many children, and text-to-speech software enable Web surfers to "hear" what is being presented on many sites.
Gadgets such as the iPad could also allow users to listen to ebooks or articles, depending on the app downloaded.
But ignoring Braille could have serious consequences. A study found that blind students who’d been taught Braille early in their childhood scored about the same as sighted students on a standardized test measuring reading comprehension -- 61 versus 62 percent. For those with zero Braille training, that score fell to an average of 38 percent.
The study's author wrote: "Low-vision kids need to be taught Braille. Early Braille education is crucial to literacy, and literacy is crucial to employment."
The same researcher came to another conclusion relating to Braille: 77 percent of non-Braille users were unemployed. But for those who knew Braille, unemployment figures hovered around 56 percent. Among those whose Braille knowledge was “extensive,” most were working.
A page of Braille close-up
A page of Braille close-up
by mstcweb
Canada is facing its own troubles. The Canadian National Institute for the Blind announced in January its expensive library to maintain would have to close, if it didn't receive federal funding. Various provinces stepped up to assist the CNIB, but the institution regards it as a stop-gab solution -- long-term sustainable funding is needed to keep offering its members Braille books.
Despite the dire news about the decreasing use of Braille today, several initiatives have sought to boost Braille's visibility. For example, the United States introduced the first coin written in Braille in 2008.
Also, a Toronto photographer created "the world’s first softcore-porn book for the blind" using textile graphics. As the article states, the "book’s explicit softcore images were made in clay before being covered with plastic in a labour-intensive process that took some 50 hours to complete."
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