Welcome to the future of literacy

A new Perkins study explores how technology is revolutionizing the way people who are blind read, write and communicate

Steve using his iPhone with a pair of headphones.

Steve Max-Faults considers technology to be a crucial tool for people who are blind or visually impaired, especially when it comes to employment. “Technology has made many jobs available to us, but to be successful at those jobs you have to have basic computer skills,” he said. Photo Credit: Anna Miller.

A tidal wave of technological advances has left the literacy landscape permanently altered for people who are blind or visually impaired, challenging centuries-old conceptions and redefining what it means to read and write in today’s high-tech world.

Once synonymous with braille, literacy now encompasses an ever-evolving array of digital devices that play a crucial role in the lives of today’s blind population.

Today, a student with a visual impairment may not own a single braille book, but can still enjoy the latest bestseller through a pair of earbuds connected to a smartphone. A working adult can listen to business emails, instantly accessible via the click of a button. It’s a new era of literacy and there’s no turning back.

A new study conducted by Perkins School for the Blind is putting literacy under a microscope, exploring the myriad ways that people who are blind read, learn, communicate and more. The goal of the project, launched in the summer of 2014, is to develop a more accurate understanding of what literacy means in the digital age.

“Literacy is a huge subject area, and there’s really not a clear-cut definition,” said Perkins Library Director Kim Charlson. “We know it’s not just about braille anymore. People use multiple means to access their world and information.”

A study team surveyed nearly 100 Perkins Library patrons, ages 20-35, about their preferred reading medium for various tasks. Eleven of the respondents later took part in in-depth interviews, providing a snapshot of modern-day literacy in action.

“The idea was that we would go out and sit with these people, and see how they get through their day,” said Betsy McGinnity, Perkins’ director of Training and Educational Resources, who led the study with Charlson. “What does literacy mean to them? What technology do they use in order to be successful?”

Managing Information

For most study participants, technology was the common denominator. Almost everyone interviewed used multiple high-tech solutions, whether to listen to books or to identify objects on a supermarket shelf. A majority also used some form of accessible software on their computers, including screen magnifiers and audio description.

Study participant Kayla Bentas, 24, works in Secretary of State William Galvin’s office at the Massachusetts State House fielding calls from constituents and tracking requests and complaints in databases. She uses screen-reading software called Window-Eyes to navigate her computer, as well as a scanner that converts printed materials to audio.

“I really rely on my scanner a lot,” she said. “I do tons of scanning every day.”

Bentas has a knack for technology – she likes to tinker with new devices and taught herself to use an iPhone and braille notetaker. At home, Bentas switches between audio and braille for pleasure reading, depending on the length of the book or even her mood. For the Harry Potter series, she chose the talking book format for convenience – the braille version of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix weighed in at 13 volumes.

“I’ve been able to fly through all these (audio) books that I could read in braille, but it would take me so much longer,” she said.

Technological advances are giving people like Bentas new ways to access and share the increasing amount of information that threatens to swamp in-boxes and hard drives. The average person’s emails, texts and electronic documents, converted to hard-copy braille, would likely fill several reams of paper.

“It’s a different world – we’re all on the go and we don’t have countless square feet of shelving to store everything,” said Charlson.

“We’re all turning to electronic information as a way to store books and reports and letters and files.”

Teaching Technology

When Steven Max-Faults, 24, rides the commuter rail to his job as an accessible transportation coordinator at the MetroWest Regional Transit Authority, he often listens to an audio book or the news on his iPhone. Although he uses technology in many facets of his life, he said he’s generally wary of new gadgets.

“I’m not a person who is just so excited about new technology that they go out and get it and learn it in a day,” he said. “It makes me kind of nervous.”

Still, Max-Faults considers technology to be a crucial tool for people who are blind or visually impaired. Knowing how to use a screen reader or magnification device to access the Internet is a requirement of the professional world, he said.

“Being confident on the computer is really, really valuable for employment as a blind person,” he said. “Technology has made many jobs available to us, but to be successful at those jobs you have to have basic computer skills.”

Teachers of the blind are recognizing the critical importance of technology in building literacy skills. Whereas historically a student would need to show proficiency in braille before receiving technology instruction, the two areas are becoming more and more intertwined.

“You have to balance getting students technology at the same time as teaching them good braille skills,” McGinnity said. “You can’t wait anymore – sighted kids are getting iPads before they can read, so our kids have to also.”

The Braille Debate

Alongside the growing prevalence of technology is an impassioned debate about the continued role of braille, which has been in use for almost two centuries.

A 2009 report by the National Federation of the Blind said that less than 10 percent of Americans who are blind read braille. The raised-dot system of reading and writing has declined in popularity in recent decades – not only because of widely available technological alterna­tives, but also because it can be difficult to learn, especially for those who lose their vision later in life.

Some technology advocates say braille is obsolete, but Charlson finds that attitude puzzling.

“We’re getting input from other countries saying, ‘We’re thinking of converting to audio for our blind and visually impaired. We’re not interested in getting braille displays or notetakers because we think we’ll get iPads instead,’” she said. “And I’m wondering, how will you teach them literacy?”

For a child who is blind, braille remains the only tested method of teaching the building blocks of language, like sentence structure, spelling and punctuation. Without exposure to braille, a student may use audio to read books without ever understanding the basic components of a sentence.

“A blind child isn’t going to learn that on their own,” said Charlson. “They have to be instructed in how it all fits together.”

When Bentas lost her vision at the age of nine, she learned braille in just four months. She remains an avid braille reader and relied on it when she was a student at Suffolk University.

“I could never do audio with my textbooks,” she said. “For some reason I needed braille to be able to understand everything I was reading.”

Bentas’ preference for braille in academic reading is not uncommon, said McGinnity. Throughout the study, she found that many participants prefer braille for complex topics or in situations where they need to retain or access large volumes of information.

“Almost everybody said they prefer braille to learn something new, to learn detail,” she said. “They found the most challenging subject to be math, and that’s been very consistent. Braille is very important for that.”

Being able to read and write braille is a skill few, if any, study participants regret having. Many spoke strongly in favor of braille education, while ticking off the ways that braille, combined with technology, has allowed them to live more independently. Bentas and others type braille labels to help them identify household objects like measuring cups and select the correct setting on stoves and microwaves.

“Everybody who used braille was a strong proponent of it,” McGinnity said. “It was interesting, even for those who said they have a Perkins Brailler at home and they almost never use it, the braille skill that they learned, they use every day.”

Literacy Today

Today, a college student who is blind might use a screen reader to convert her emails to audio before reading a braille textbook to study for an upcoming exam. An adult with low vision might grab his large-print cookbook to read a recipe, while relying on a refreshable braille display to peruse longer articles online. For each of them, literacy is what works best in a particular situation.

“What our research really started to find was that literacy is taking all the skills and pulling them together – making sure our students can use every resource available,” said Charlson. “We can’t focus on one area to the exclusion of another. There’s not just one way to do it.”

For Wynter Pingel, 34, combining technology and braille has allowed her to be more productive both in her professional and personal life.

She uses a refreshable braille display in her job as a proofreader at National Braille Press, and an iPhone to keep in touch with family and friends. She uses Apple’s built-in braille screen input, which transforms her phone’s alphabet keyboard into a braille keyboard similar to the one found on the classic Perkins Brailler, to send texts to friends who are blind or sighted.

“I’m really impressed with how it works and I use it all the time,” she said. “Really for me it’s just made life a lot easier.”

Today’s generation of students and young adults is accustomed to this seamless integration of old and new literacy tools. To them, braille still has an important role – but a smartphone represents instant access to books and information and a way to connect with others. Technology has created a new form of literacy that will continue to evolve as new innovations emerge.

Charlson, for one, is excited to see what comes next.

“I couldn’t have hard-copy braille of everything I need in my world,” she said. “Technology has eliminated obstacles and enhanced our ability to use braille more effectively in the digital age. It’s the future.”