Even with growing technologies to assist those who are blind or vision impaired, braille is still practical
ALEXANDRIA, Va.—National Industries for the Blind, the nation’s largest employment resource for people who are blind, is celebrating National Braille Literacy Month. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2017 approximately six million Americans reported vision loss and at least one million were identified as being blind.
Braille, invented in 1824 by Louis Braille, is a tactile language code formed of braille cells, which consist of six raised dots arranged in parallel rows. Louis Braille, who was blind, created it to serve as an efficient means of communication for people who are blind. By the 2000s, teaching braille in schools declined as technology advanced, so many visually impaired students did not learn it. The number of Americans who can read and/or write braille is unknown. While there are reports of a decline in the teaching and use of braille, a group of researchers recently published a study in the Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness that demonstrated that there are not any current valid statistics on its use.
Despite today’s advanced technology – smart phones can recognize currency and facial expressions and read texts and emails, while smart devices assist people who are blind in accessing the world around them – there is still a need for braille.
Braille is found on everyday products, from credit cards to Legos to prescriptions. Advanced braille technology will transcribe meeting notes so that the person who is blind can access and read the notes and file them for future use. In offices, it allows files to be easily identified, and the same is true for work or gym lockers. It’s extremely helpful for signage, and there are braille street signs at many crosswalks in U.S. cities. And for those who don’t want to wake everyone up at night with talking devices, there are braille watches and clocks.
The Library of Congress National Library Services (NLS) for the Blind and Print Disabled recently rolled out a refreshable braille display loaner program, through which blind users across the U.S. can receive reading materials using refreshable braille displays at little or no cost. Refreshable braille displays are complex devices requiring very specialized precision manufacturing and advanced processes that involve using Piezoelectronic actuators and small microcontrollers that use electrical fields to raise and lower pins using onto the users’ fingertips to form braille letters.
“After 200 years, braille is being paired with new, emerging technologies and finding a resurgence,” said Doug Goist, program manager, workforce development for NSITE, NIB’s talent management enterprise. Goist, who is blind, is a recognized leader in the field of technology accessibility.
“Braille will always play a key role for people who are blind – especially as the costs of creating new braille devices continue to go down. It is not so much a matter of braille becoming a less desirable solution for accessing information; it is more a matter of increased options for those who have print disabilities. And braille will always be a critical tool for people who are deaf-blind.”
As technologies advance and artificial intelligence becomes more mainstream, it provides greater access for those who are blind or visually impaired. It also provides a greater opportunity for expanding the teaching of and access to braille.
“If Louis Braille were alive today, he would be amazed by the incredible array of choices people who are blind have for creating and retrieving information thanks to technological advancement,” Goist said. “He would also be pleased to see that his 200-year-old invention is still enhancing the lives of millions of people who are blind around the world and pairing with 21st century technology.”
About National Industries for the Blind
Incorporated in 1938, NIB is the nation’s largest employment resource for people who are blind, and through its network of associated nonprofit agencies, the largest employer of people who are blind in the U.S. NIB creates opportunities for people who are blind to become wage earners and taxpayers, reducing their reliance on government support and increasing engagement in their communities. The organization offers career training and assists employers and employees in developing mutually beneficial workplaces. NIB’s vision is that blindness is not a barrier to employment. In 2021, NIB launched a national talent management enterprise known as NSITE. NSITE provides a continuum of employment services that connect employers with talented, dedicated people who are blind or visually impaired, including veterans. For more information, visit www.nib.org or www.nsite.org.