Judy Dixon is something of a braille icon. She is Consumer Relations Officer at the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled, part of the Library of Congress in the United States; President of the International Council on English Braille; and has written a myriad of books for National Braille Press relating to braille and assistive technology. She also owns what is widely considered to be the largest collection of braille slates and styluses, containing over 280 unique designs.
On 4 January, people across the world celebrated World Braille Day. This day, which marks the birthday of Louis Braille, is an important one for blind people and those connected to the blind community, so the Braillists Foundation couldn’t let it pass without recognising it and the significance of braille.
The Foundation hosted a panel discussion, inviting three braille users to speak about their lives with braille. More importantly, perhaps, they also shared their thoughts on how braille may adapt to the changing needs of the blind community in future.
The session also included a short audio presentation sharing the voices and perspectives of braille users from around the world, from the UK all the way to New Zealand.
We would like to extend our thanks to the Braillists Foundation for allowing us to publish this recording, and to the three excellent panelists for giving up their time to be part of the session:
Happy new year, and happy World Braille Day! Today (4 January 2021) is the 212th birthday of Louis Braille, inventor of the code that revolutionised literacy for blind people all over the world. In spite of intense opposition in Louis Braille’s lifetime, the code has been adapted for use in dozens of languages and disciplines and is widely recognised throughout the world as the most effective means by which blind people can read and write. There’s even a braille chess code!
But what about people who are partially sighted, who can just about read print if it’s large enough? Stephen Anderson is one such person: a self-certified “Braille Muggle”, he’s the proud owner of an honours degree in Politics from the University of Leicester, a fluent French-speaker, and Director of Music at the Parish Church of St Thomas, Kensal Town, where he also plays the organ. He has also played in the presence of two Bishops, at two Church of England Cathedrals, one Royal Peculiar and several other high profile churches and Cathedrals in the UK and overseas.
He was kind enough to agree to join me on the podcast to talk candidly about his experiences growing up and his thoughts about braille. He also talked about the Louis Braille Museum, which he recently visited.
Other Links of Interest
Index Braille is synonymous the world over with braille embossers. Founded by Bjorn Lofstedt and Torvald Lundqvist as Polar Print Production in Sweden in 1979, its first incarnation was as a university project to develop a braille typewriter with copy function. The company took shape in 1982 and, by 1984, a small batch of Index Computer Braille Printers (known as “Index 3.7” embossers after the firmware version) were manufactured in Bjorn’s garage. The current premises were obtained in 1985, financed by distributing assistive technology around Sweden. This distribution arm continued as Polar Print Production, and Index Braille became its own brand in the late 80s with the introduction of the Index Blue Bar, which took tractor fed paper. The Everest, for cut sheet paper, followed in 1992, then came the version 2 platform (Basic and Everest) in 1995, the 4X4 Pro for booklet printing in 1998, the version 3 platform with USB and network connectivity in 2002-4, the 4Waves Pro high speed production embosser in 2005, the version 4 platform with embedded translation and high speed cut sheet production in 2011, and the version 5 platform with wifi printing and printing directly from USB memory stick in 2016.
Christmas is coming; the goose is getting fat; and some of Santa’s most trusted helpers have been sent, on secondment, to the Royal National Institute of Blind People, where they’re busy writing letters to visually impaired children in accessible formats. Co-ordinating this effort on behalf of RNIB is Racheal Jarvis, News Agent Team Leader, and she joined us to tell us more about this exciting project.
To request a letter from Santa, please fill out the form on this page, email [email protected] or write to Santa Clause, RNIB, Midgate House, Midgate, Peterborough, PE1 1TN. Deadline for receipt of postal requests is Tuesday 1 December 2020, or Monday 21 December for emails.
Also on this episode, we hear about the Braille Challenge Alexa skill from Accessibility.net, inc.
Based in Boston Massachusetts since 1927, National Braille Press is a global leader in producing high quality, affordable braille materials and developing innovative technologies advancing braille literacy for blind and visually impaired children and adults everywhere. In addition to its first class braille transcription facility, producing everything from standardised tests to restaurant menus, NBP has a unique specialism in publishing original books by blind authors expressly for blind people, from cookery to technology. It also provides braille transcription and production services to like-minded organizations and, through the Centre for Braille Innovation, overseas the annual Touch of Genius Prize for Innovation.
In adapting to public health guidelines designed to minimise the spread of COVID-19, National Braille Press has found safe ways to produce braille for the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled (part of the Library of Congress), is offering free digital downloads for both children and adults until 31 August 2020, and continues to supply original titles explaining food delivery and preparation options from a blindness perspective. On Friday 15 May, the Braillists Foundation was privileged to host Brian MacDonald, NBP’s President, on its weekly Stay Safe: Stay Connected conference call, and participants had the opportunity to ask questions about how more high quality braille is finding its way into the hands of more readers throughout these challenging times. We’re pleased to present a recording of that session on this episode of Braillecast, with sincere thanks to Brian and all of the contributors for their permission.
To contact Brian, email [email protected]. If you’re an aspiring author and would like National Braille Press to consider publishing your work, email [email protected] or view the Frequently Asked Questions on the NBP website.
Links of Interest
- NBP Book Store
- Braillo Norway, manufacturers of high speed production braille embossers
- NBP Tours
- Boston Globe article about NBP
- Sightsavers International
- A Sighted Man’s Path to Braille from the “Inside NBP” blog
- Braille Me affordable braille display
- NBP Events
- Cooking with Feeling by Deborah DeBord
- Dr. Atkins Carbohydrate Gram Counter by Robert C. Atkins, M.D.
- Recipes from my Kitchen: Asian and American Comfort Food by Christine Ha
- Super Short Stories in Uncontracted Braille
- Braille books update
Touch of Genius Prize Winners
The Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children (RIDBC) is Australia’s largest non-government provider of services supporting thousands of adults, children and their families with hearing loss or vision impairment. Established by an Act of Parliament in Australia in 1860, it now operates via a number of Centres, promoting the rights of all persons with vision impairment to inclusion in education, employment and society on the same basis as sighted persons – leaving no-one behind. Of particular note for this podcast is the Renwick Centre which, in partnership with the Macquarie University, is Australia’s leading centre for the provision of high quality teaching and learning opportunities for professionals in the area of Special Education for students with hearing or vision impairment, research in these same areas, and related community service.
In September 2014, the Renwick Centre launched UEB Online, an interactive website offering free training in the Unified English Braille code. An Accessible version followed in September 2016 and, since then, the website has reached over 15,000 people in 197 countries. Most recently, in 2020, it received an Award for Innovative Practice on Inclusive Education and ICT from the Zero Project. It is being continuously updated with new features and new content and now boasts a 2-part Literacy course based on the UEB Australian Training Manual (in turn edited from the RNIB Braille Primer) and two purpose-written Mathematics courses (Introductory and Advanced), with a further Extension Mathematics course due to be launched by the end of 2020.
To find out more, we’re joined by three members of the team behind the UEB Online website:
- Frances Gentle is the Team Leader for the UEB Online project. She’s also a Conjoint Lecturer at the RIDBC Renwick Centre, President of the International Council for Education of People with Visual Impairment (ICEVI) and Co-President of the South Pacific Educators in Vision Impairment (SPEVI).
- Trudy Smith is Manager of the Continuing Professional Education program at the RIDBC Renwick Centre and is responsible for the day to day management of the UEB Online courses.
- Josie Howse was editor of the original UEB Primer published in 2006, is co-editor of the UEB Australian Training Manual and is the author of the UEB Mathematics Training materials on UEB Online. She has worked in vision impairment for more than 40 years and, prior to her retirement in 2019, was the manager of the Braille, Large Print and E-Text Production Department of the New South Wales Department of Education. She has represented the Australian Braille Authority at all six of the International Council on English Braille (ICEB) General Assemblies held every 4 years and had a strong input into UEB discussions from the developmental years. Josie has conducted extensive workshops throughout Australia on numerous braille related topics and has presented papers in Thailand, Germany, New Zealand, South Africa, the USA and Austria.
James Bowden is the Braille Technical Officer at RNIB, whose hard copy braille library is currently out of action due to COVID-19. We asked him what alternatives might be available.
For many in the blind community, Dean Martineau will be a household name. Prolific in the technology sphere, he’s perhaps best known for his Top Tech Tidbits newsletter, which has been published every Thursday for over ten years. In the past, he was also the voice behind the Sound Computing audio magazine, and delivered bespoke technology training under the brand of Top Dot Enterprises. Towards the end of 2018, he started a new initiative which uses a combination of audio tutorials, electronic braille files and the Orbit Reader 20 to deliver personalised, long-distance instruction in the braille code. We caught up with Dean to find out more about the project, as well as the person behind it, just after it launched. We didn’t manage to bring the interview to you at the time, but thought we’d bring it to you now.
In other braille news:
This episode features the last of the content that we recorded at the recent Sight Village South East exhibition. Namely, a seminar from the Braillists Foundation entitled “Making the Case for Braille in the 21st Century”, the notes from which are included below. We also present a comprehensive demonstration of the Braille Screen Input feature on iOS.
Chapter markers have been inserted throughout this episode to aid navigation.
Making the Case for Braille in the 21st Century
Braille is difficult to learn. Braille is expensive to teach. Braille is irrelevant now that we have assistive technology.
Statements like these are all too familiar, but are they really true? In this seminar, we provide an alternative perspective by outlining the inherent advantages of braille and exploring practical applications of braille in modern day life.
Attendees will become positive advocates of braille in their day-to-day lives and be equipped with the knowledge to be able to effectively champion braille in both a professional and personal context, recognising it as an integral component in a well-structured package of independence skills.
By the end of this seminar, attendees will be able to:
- Recognise the need for braille as a primary literacy medium
- Exemplify both traditional and modern uses of braille
- Understand how braille and technology complement each other
- Describe several ways of reading and writing braille at varying levels of difficulty and different price points
Points in Favour of braille
- Literacy: a blind person who only uses speech output misses out on incidental reinforcement of:
- Spelling (n.b. it could be argued that contractions get in the way, but this is often due to the way they are taught – teach T-H-E rather than the)
- Grammar (subtle uses of punctuation, such as the semicolon and apostrophe; capitalisation, in particular of proper nouns which have become normalised (e.g. Post Office); paragraphing; quoting; etc)
- Typesetting (use of bold, italics, underlining; superscripts and subscripts (particularly in technical subjects); etc)
- Formatting (centred lines, right justified addresses, running headers, page numbers, tables, contents pages, etc)
- Independent judgement: a blind person who primarily uses speech output does not learn to doubt the pronunciation of his/her speech synthesizer. This is a particular challenge when dealing with text in a foreign language, including Welsh – many blind people would pronounce Cymru as “Sime-roo” instead of “Cum-ree”, for example. If the same word was read in braille, its unfamiliarity would result in an increased likelihood that the braillist would ask for help pronouncing it.
- Efficiency of review: speech can read horizontally very easily but it is more difficult for a screen reader to be precise when reviewing vertically. Similarly, extra typographical information such as superscripts/subscripts, italics/bold/underline and change of colour can be extremely verbose when vocalised by a screen reader; the braille equivalent is often less obtrusive. It is often therefore more efficient to deal with subjects such as Mathematics in braille. Consider the following example equation: w=(12(s₁+s₂)÷52)+(b₁÷4)+b₂
- Discreetness: there is a myriad of scenarios in which braille draws much less attention than speech, both personally and professionally. Straightforward examples include using a tactile watch to check the time as opposed to a talking watch. More complex examples include delivering a presentation from braille notes, either in hard copy or electronically. This is far preferable to wearing headphones so as to listen to notes spoken by a screen reader, partly because the latter method appears antisocial and partly because the presence of headphones impairs hearing. This, in turn, lessens the presenter’s ability to detect audible queues (e.g. fidgeting, which could signify boredom; or people attempting to ask questions). There are very specific cases along these lines to be made for braille in performance environments, e.g. radio presenting, singing in a choir etc.
- Instantaneousness: once produced, no further technology is required to read hard copy braille, thus eliminating the need to, e.g. change batteries at an inopportune time. This makes it particularly suitable for labelling, both individually (e.g. labelling CDs or items of food) and corporately (e.g. braille labels on lifts, hotel room doors, etc).
- Social inclusion: braille offers an ideal solution for the modification of card games. Regular playing cards (Red, Blue, Large Print Red and Large Print Blue), as well as specific sets for, e.g. Happy Families, Uno and Bingo, are readily available in braille, and other cards can be easily brailled locally. The skills required to read braille also transfer to reading, e.g. Tactile Dice (Large Tactile Dice available here), which are readily available and which instantaneously offer access to many more games and activities.
- Preservation of residual vision: a person who is severely partially sighted may still be encouraged to read large print instead of braille for a multitude of reasons, largely centred around denial (not wanting to look “blind”). However, the resultant eye strain could lead to the person putting him/herself in significant unnecessary danger, e.g. by attempting to cross a road at the end of the day using tired eyes. It is also fair to point out that large print above roughly 24 point may in fact be more bulky than braille.
Points Against Braille
- Braille is difficult to learn: cognitively, learning braille is no more difficult than learning, e.g. a foreign language or musical instrument. The argument is particularly common when addressing elderly people, and indeed in some cases it may be true, but it should not be the default position as it is clear that some elderly people are still able to learn.
- Braille requires too much tactile discrimination: again, this argument is heard most commonly when referring to elderly people, and again, it may be true in certain situations, e.g. for manual labourers. However, a significant body of older people do not fall into this category, e.g. office workers, musicians, salesmen etc. These people may have perfectly adequate tactile discrimination already, or certainly could be taught to develop it, so once again the argument should not be the default position.
- Braille is time-consuming and expensive to teach: whilst this is undoubtedly true, especially if a thorough mastery of the braille code is desirable, it need not be any more expensive or time-consuming than other forms of specialist intervention, e.g. mobility training. Indeed, mastery of IT and assistive technology is also expensive and time-consuming if done well, and rapid training in order to overcome a short-term problem nearly always results in poor performance later on which can only be remedied by additional training, which is often less opportune for the end user.
- The support requirements of braille are too onerous: often heard in education, where a Teaching Assistant is often required to learn braille alongside the student in order to transcribe work. Appropriate use of braille technology, e.g. a notetaker or braille display connected to a computer or tablet, minimises the requirement for human intervention particularly in the braille to print transcription process. However, there is no substitute for knowledgeable human intervention in any aspect of blindness education, not least braille. Blind people use computers very differently to their sighted counterparts and it is therefore a false economy to suggest that it is easier to support a computer-first approach to accessibility merely because the technology appears “normal”, either because the technology will inevitably require repair which the TA is ill-equipped to perform, or because the TA will inadvertently teach bad habbits which will need to be overcome by romedial intervention at a later stage.
- Braille is time-consuming and expensive to produce: the proliferation of high quality electronic resources in the mainstream, e.g. Amazon Kindle or Apple Books, results in a blind person being able to read most straightforward titles on a braille display connected to a tablet or computer with no additional human intervention, thus eliminating the time and expense of transcription altogether. The traditionally high initial cost of such a display can often be covered by grant funding, or modern, cheaper braille technology can be obtained instead, e.g. the Orbit Reader. For those who prefer hard copy braille, advances in automated braille transcription solutions and personal braille embossing technology take advantage of high quality mainstream output to vastly reduce transcription times and costs. Examples include RNIB Bookshare in education. Though human-transcribed braille is still desirable over automated alternatives, it is now most useful for technical subjects such as Mathematics, science, foreign languages and music, which is usually only a small subset of the amount of material that someone may need to access, and the expense in this instance may be offset against a reduction in support costs and higher retention and attainment levels resulting in a decreased potential need to, e.g. defer or retake examinations. For adults, the cost of transcription may be offset against the gains of employment and may usefully be covered either by schemes such as Access to Work or benefits such as Personal Independence Payment, with wages as a last resort.
- Braille is bulky and wastes resources: this is unfortunately inevitable for hard copy braille. However, care should be taken when comparing braille with other formats, as large print above 24 point also becomes bulky and may, in some cases, in fact occupy more shelf space than braille. It is also important to investigate all possible means of maximising available space, e.g. by embossing on both sides of the page (to reduce the number of volumes) and using braille paper which is wider than A4 (to increase the amount of braille which will fit on a shelf) – or, indeed, in certain situations, using braille paper which is A4 or smaller (so that it will fit through a letter box). Continuing advances in braille technology, such as the Canute, are increasingly renderring “soft” braille a viable proposition, where the equivalent of hundreds (if not thousands) of traditional hard copy braille volumes can instead be delivered via media such as an SD card.
- Modern technology renders braille obsolete: this is true in as far as modern technology also renders print obsolete. It is possible, for example, to receive bank statements and utility bills in hard copy braille, but nonetheless sensible for a blind person to instead access this information online (possibly using a braille display) if that is his/her preference, as is true for sighted people. However, there will still be a need for braille for as long as there is a need for print, and there will still be a need for hard copy braille for as long as there is still a need for a pen and paper. It is not fair to deny a blind person the choice to read braille, even refreshable braille, unless we are also prepared to deny a sighted person the choice to use their computer with a screen. It is also important to point out the reduced access that blind people have to incidental writing, e.g. text on street signs and product packaging. It is therefore imperitive that blind people are afforded regular structured opportunities for reading in order to reinforce basic concepts of literacy. This is not achieved by exclusive use of speech access solutions.
Who Should Learn Braille?
- Anyone who does not have enough vision to read print, unless physical or cognative factors prevent this
- Anyone for whom serious sight loss is predicted in future, e.g. due to a deteriorating eye condition
- People with partial sight who may require a second reading medium, for instance because they can only read print at a reasonable speed above a certain font size (e.g. 36) or indeed below a certain font size (e.g. size 8 due to tunnel vision), or because their ability to read print is severely impacted by lighting conditions (e.g. night blindness or eye sight sensitive to glare)
- Sighted supporters of the above, in both a professional and personal context (e.g. QTVIs, rehabilitation officers, sight loss agency staff, friends and family (and colleagues, in some cases) of the braillist)