George Bell has been at the helm of Techno-Vision Systems for at least 35 years. In that time, he has brought many blindness products to the UK market, repaired numerous machines which would have otherwise been condemned, and provided countless hours of technical support. He is particularly well-known for his involvement with the Duxbury Braille Translator, not only as UK sales and support but also through his tireless oversight of the documentation. He also enjoyed a very fruitful relationship with Dancing Dots, and imported many of their products including the Goodfeel braille music translator.
As we approach the end of George’s long and established career, we thought it would be fitting to spend some time in conversation with him, picking out the highlights of the past three and a half decades and thinking about what the future might look like.
Everything you Ever Wanted to Know about Teaching Braille but were Too Scared to Ask (Episode 29)
“Most of us who know braille were taught it.” It sounds like such an obvious statement – so obvious, in fact, that it seems appropriate to conclude that the world has an abundance of braille teachers, and the methods and techniques that they use are mature, uniform and understood by everyone working in the field. Presumably, approaches that work well have been iterated over time, those that haven’t worked so well have been abandoned, and the entire process has been well-documented so that future teachers can learn from the mistakes of the past.
The reality is less clearly defined, although certain concepts which have withstood the test of time especially well have become accepted as common knowledge. Pre-braille skills, for instance, feature regularly in discussions about teaching braille, as do the differences between learning braille by touch and by sight and teaching braille to children and adults.
On Tuesday 29 June 2021, we explored this topic in more detail in a live panel discussion with three braille teachers:
Christine Williams recently retired from Exhall Grange Specialist School and Science College in Coventry, where she held the post of Lead Teacher of the Visually Impaired. In that capacity, she taught braille not only to the pupils at Exhall Grange, but also peripatetically to pupils of all ages in mainstream schools throughout Warwickshire (via the Vision Support Service). Prior to this, she taught French at Exhall Grange for a number of years, where braille also played a significant role. In her retirement, she teaches braille voluntarily at Coventry Resource Centre for the Blind, predominantly to adults who are losing or in danger of losing their sight.
Melanie Pritchard has an extensive background in teaching braille to adults, either with visual impairments themselves or who are sighted friends or relatives of people with a visual impairment. Most recently, she taught the Braille For Beginners course remotely for the Braillists Foundation.
What is a BRF and Why would you Want one? (Extra 23)
We’re starting to hear more and more about BRF files. They’re the default braille format on platforms such as RNIB Reading Services; they’re regularly used in the transcription industry to share braille versions of documents between producers; and notetaker users have used them to transfer files from one brand of braille device to another. But questions still prevail:
What, exactly, is a BRF?
Why would you use BRF files over more mainstream file formats?
What are the limitations of BRF?
How do you read BRF files?
How do you navigate through them?
How do you create them?
Matthew Horspool answered all these questions and more on Tuesday 4 May.
We were delighted to be joined by renowned braille display expert Jackie Brown. Jackie is a freelance writer, regular reviewer of braille technology, and author of “Braille ON Display” (published by Mosen Consulting), a comprehensive comparison of braile displays and guide to choosing the right one.
On Tuesday 20 April 2021, Jackie talked us through the process of choosing a braille display. She outlined which factors to consider and why, and the key features of the braille displays which are currently on the market. If you’ve ever wondered “Which braille display is the best one?” you are sure to have the answer at the end of this session.
Led by Holly Scott-Gardner, this session covered using a braille display with Microsoft PowerPoint and Google Slides. We guided you through how braille output works with these applications and the ways in which braille output can enable you to deliver more effective presentations.
An Introduction to Unified English Braille (Extra 10)
Led by James Bowden, Braille Technical Officer at RNIB, this session answered questions such as: How does UEB differ from Standard English Braille? Where can you learn about the changes? What tips and tricks are there for switching to UEB?
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)
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)