Today, audiobooks and the products that play them, like Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s iPhone, are more popular than ever. This has raised an important question: In the age of audio-recorded literature and accessible technology, is braille still necessary?
At Perkins, we believe in harnessing technology to promote learning by any means. Students here use assistive technologies like screen readers and common home devices to access literary information for both academic and leisurely pursuits.
At the same time, we still teach and believe in the relevance and power of braille, nearly 200 years after the tactile reading and writing system of raised dots was first introduced to the world.
“Literacy” means different things to different people.
For instance, braille might not work for someone who is both sight and mobility impaired. If someone has difficulty steadying a hand to read braille, something else, like an audiobook, might be a better option for accessing the written word in all its forms and formats.
For those with hearing loss in addition to a visual impairment, however, audiobooks or magnified text might not fit the bill. Braille then might be the perfect answer for a book lover who is deafblind.
No one mode of learning and communicating can entirely replace another without leaving some people behind.
We use every tool at our disposal, new and old, to ensure all people have equal access to the written word in all its forms.
Listening to the written word is notably different than reading it, however. Alexa or an audiobook won’t enable a listener to know how every word is spelled, or how sentences are punctuated, how words are made possessive with apostrophes, or when two sentences are properly joined with a semicolon, to name just a few grammar elements lost to audio.
So for those who do have the mobility for it, braille may be the most effective way to learn grammar and syntax. Braille is an effective way to teach the rules of grammar, which are necessary for both reading comprehension and writing.
Technology, like audiobooks and the home computer, hasn’t just changed the way the sighted read and write.
Things like refreshable braille displays—electro-mechanic devices that connect to computers and tablets to deliver braille outputs—have made it so the braille readers can go paperless as well.
These work as writing tools, too, enabling the user to write and have their words appear on the screen. And they even connect to devices like Alexa, which can then speak their words.
Similarly, devices like the Orbit reader work like a Kindle, in that they can hold books on a memory card and deliver their contents in the form of refreshable braille.
Technology hasn’t signaled the end of traditional print for the sighted. Why should it for the blind?
Just as sighted readers have their preferences between paperback, digital and, yes, audiobooks, so too do sight impaired readers, and many of them simply prefer braille.
We encourage people to read in the manner that best fits their individual needs and wants. After all, it was Helen Keller who said the blind are as indebted to Louis Braille, the eponymous inventor of the tactile reading system, as mankind is to Gutenberg and his printing press.