Braille Literacy

Braille = Equality

Could you imagine telling a class of 6-year-old children that they don't need to learn to read anymore because computers can do it for them? Silly idea, isn't it? But every day, that's what some children with vision loss are told.

For children with vision loss, being able to read and write braille is the key to literacy, successful employment, and independence.

All children need to be literate - to read, write, and count - in order to enjoy intellectual freedom, personal security, and equal opportunities when they grow up.

We must offer children who are blind, deafblind, and children with vision loss a real chance at equality. We must teach them braille.

Braille = Print

Braille is a code that presents written information. It is equivalent to print. The alphabet, numbers, music notation, and any other symbol that appears in print can be replicated in braille by arranging combinations of the six dots of the braille "cell." Braille is read by touch, usually using the first finger on one or both hands.

The dots of braille are also used for mathematics, scientific equations, computer notations, and foreign languages.

When children with vision loss are learning to read, braille is the best way for them to develop skills in spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Audiotapes and computers that "speak" a text through a voice synthesizer program provide access to all sorts of written materials, but they fail to give new readers the tools that they need to read and write for themselves. Although complex charts and graphs may be almost impossible to describe well orally, they can be clearly communicated in braille.

Braille = Employment

Several studies have shown that people with vision loss who know braille are far more likely to be employed than those who rely on voice synthesizers. These are the hard facts of the workplace. Although technological advances now provide people with vision loss with additional workplace tools in the same way technology has enhanced the efficiency of sighted people, computers, scanners, and voice synthesizers do not replace the need for braille.

Braille, like print, enables a person to make notes on documents, read a spreadsheet, take minutes at a meeting, file materials, label diskettes, and do a variety of other tasks efficiently and independently.

The bottom line is that a person who knows braille is statistically more likely to be employed. That is true today and is almost certainly going to be true years from now. Technology is wonderful, but it will never be a substitute for basic literacy skills.

Braille = Independence

Braille is a building block of literacy. Literacy is a building block of independence.

Learning to read and write is challenging for most children. It takes time and practice. It takes the support and encouragement of family and teachers. That's true whether a child has vision loss or not. Children who do not read and write well have trouble succeeding in school and in the workplace. For children whose eyesight prevents them from reading and writing print, braille is the route to literacy.

Braille is not that hard to learn, especially when the student is young. Children who learn braille early on usually become extremely fast and competent readers. Children have an advantage over adults - they learn more quickly, accept the tasks their teachers give them with little resistance, and expect to make mistakes as they go along. However, learning becomes more difficult when a child falls too far behind his or her classmates and feels discouraged and inferior. For these reasons, it is never too soon to teach braille to a child with vision loss. When children have eye conditions that may worsen over time, learning braille early gives them more options.

To read without braille, a person who is blind is entirely dependent on computers with voice synthesizers or audiotape recordings, neither of which is useful in every circumstance. A person with low vision can use magnifiers and other print enhancers to read labels and other written texts that cannot be scanned or read by computer or are not on audiotape, but may not be able to read this way for long periods of time without experiencing eye fatigue and strain.

To write without braille, a person who has vision loss may use keyboard skills or dictate a text and then review it using a computer voice synthesizer program. Even though technology offers people with vision loss some choices, it does not replace the benefits of braille in every situation.

Aside from using braille to read all kinds of textbooks and documents, braille is useful in a variety of other ways:

  • Braille can be used at home to label, for example, tapes, CDs, clothes, thread, spices, cans of food, and computer disks.
  • People who read braille can play card games such as bridge and board games such as Scrabble.
  • At school, a student who is visually impaired and knows braille can take notes using a slate and stylus, scan a text to find the part to study, and re-read homework assignments before handing them in.
  • Braille readers can look things up and go back and forth in the text more easily.
  • Children can write personal messages and leave notes for parents and caregivers in braille.
  • Braille can be easily read by sighted people with some braille training.
  • And, of course, there are computer programs that transcribe braille to print or vice versa.

Braille = Choice

There is a clear need to teach braille to children with vision loss at a young age. Sadly, though, discrimination and misguided ideas about what is best for children have, in the past, acted to deny many children access to braille. There are too many distressing stories of children who were told they were too physically inept to learn braille, of parents who were told that braille skills were not necessary because their child could read enhanced print, of educators who decided that braille was too difficult and too different, of policy-makers who figured that technology had replaced the need for braille and that programs to support braille were no longer necessary. Children who are denied braille are denied an equal chance to be literate.

It is better to teach braille to a person with low vision who may never need to rely solely on braille, than never to teach braille to someone who may need it in a few years. We must give every child who has vision loss the chance to learn braille.

The Confusion Over the Need for Braille

Some people who are blind and living with significant vision loss lead fulfilling, independent personal and professional lives even though they do not read or write braille. The successes of these exceptional people may confuse others about the need for braille. For most people, braille is the key to success.

Braille Resources = Success

You may have many questions about braille. Should my child be learning braille? What is an appropriate braille reading and writing level in each grade? Is our school doing what it should to ensure that its students with vision loss are literate? Do our teachers promote braille in all the circumstances in which they should? CNIB can help you answer these questions.

For over 80 years, CNIB has been providing services to people with vision loss. We believe in the importance of braille as a tool to literacy and we have a variety of services to support braille learning and braille reading. We cannot list all the available resources, but here are three important braille services that may be of interest to you:

  • The CNIB Library sends fiction and non-fiction books, magazines, music scores, and other braille materials out on loan across Canada every day. French braille is provided in co-operation with francophone service providers in Quebec. The Library publishes The Braille Courier and Braille Books Acquired in English to keep readers up to date on current events and new library acquisitions. Programs for young people such as the Creative Braille Writing Competition (English only) are offered annually.
  • The Canadian Braille Literacy Foundation provides funds to registered non-profit organizations for activities to raise public awareness of braille and support its use. Applicants can request funding for up to one year and can then ask for funding to continue for up to two more years. The Foundation also sponsors writing competitions and challenges students to demonstrate their proficiency in braille. Donations to support braille literacy are always welcome.
  • The Canadian Braille Authority is a national group of users, producers, and teachers whose mandate is to promote braille as a primary medium for people who are blind.

For more information about braille, contact CNIB in your community.

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