There are 1.3 million people who are legally blind in the U.S., and the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 285 million people worldwide are visually impaired — 39 million of them are blind, and the remaining 246 million have low vision. Historically, people with blindness or visual impairments have been limited to using braille to read. But just as digital books have changed the way sighted people read, so is technology changing the way people with blindness read.
New Technologies Open Doors
Emerging technologies are opening doors to new, exciting resources that enable people to get information in a variety of ways. A team of researchers at MIT have been working on a device they are calling Tactile, a print to text converter that can be used on anything from pamphlets to textbooks. When using Tactile, the individual places the reader over printed text that is quickly imprinted on the connecting surface in braille. Tactile is expected to reach the market within the next two years.
Other devices already available for purchase include the Braille Pad. This device premiered in 2016, and features braille on a tablet display allowing users to surf the web and check email. There are also many computer screen readers that read out loud what is displayed on a computer screen, making tasks like reading large documents or textbooks more accessible and efficient.
Apps on mobile devices have opened up the world to people with limited vision by naming objects and even describing colors. While these accessibility features are certainly an exciting aspect of new technology, some fear that an increased dependence on computers threatens the literacy of people who are blind or visually impaired.
The Value of Braille
Advocates for braille believe that teaching blind children to read braille is just as important as teaching sighted children to read the written word. A recent study by the National Federation for the Blind Jernigan Institute showed a correlation between blind individuals’ ability to read braille and a higher educational level, likelihood of employment, and income. Braille also offers readers the ability to read privately, something that an audio screen reader doesn’t provide. This could be especially important during a meeting or when reviewing legal documents.
The National Federation of the Blind estimates that fewer than 10 percent of blind people can understand braille, and attributes this mostly to a chronic teacher shortage in this area. Another reason is that young people are using tech alternatives to get information, and to avoid having to store bulky volumes of braille text. In our information age, less than one percent of printed text is even available in braille.
Braille: The History
Louis Braille was born in France on January 4, 1809. Following an accident, Louis experienced an infection that spread to both of his eyes and caused blindness.
During his time at the National Institute for Blind Youth in Paris, Louis became familiar with a code intended for military communications. Over time, he noticed that the code system could be more efficient with smaller dots printed on the page that a single finger could glide over.
Braille as we know it today has spread to nations around the globe more than 150 years after the death of Louis Braille.
The future for braille is unclear. Perhaps the solution for increasing literacy among the blind population is to bring technology and braille together as one force, as the MIT developers are doing with Tactile. The debate over tradition versus innovation is bound to continue. Rather than labeling new technologies as a threat to the existence or relevance of braille, combining the two concepts is becoming key to expanding opportunities for people with visual limitations.
As technology finds new and innovative ways to incorporate braille into everyday activities, people with blindness are experiencing more options than ever before in how they receive information. With this, we realize that progress may be measured in the ways we can modernize braille for future generations.
Interested in Learning More?
Read the National Federation for the Blind’s article on this topic:
Braille Literacy Crisis in America
Check Out These Mobile Apps
TapTapSee takes a snapshot using your camera and tells you helpful things, like the color of your t-shirt or what type of fruit you have in the fridge.
Office Lens enables a screen reader to scan a single surface and read what is printed. This app can be useful for identifying what is printed on a business card, whiteboard, photos or pages in a book.
LookTel Money Reader is exactly what the name suggests. It used the camera on your mobile device to take a picture of your cash and reads the amount out loud.