Joining the Dots

Reproduced by kind permission The Economist Newspaper Limited, London (1 February 2014)

New technology could save the writing system for the blind.

For Lesley Palgrave, a psychotherapist, relearning to read was slow. She took up Braille, which represents letters as embossed dots, when her sight faded 15 years ago. But telling the dots apart was a strain. Braille books are unwieldy; the final “Harry Potter” is a foot tall. Readers with refreshable text cost £3,000 ($5,000) or more. Today she makes do with audio books for leisure, and text-to-speech programs and huge computer fonts for work.

Those who master Braille can reap big benefits. Blind children struggle to learn spelling and grammar without it. Calculations and musical scores are easier to hold at the fingertips than in the head. Even so, more blind people are deciding not to bother. In the 1950s half of blind American children learned

Braille. Now 10% do, and the share globally has fallen so steeply, says Kevin Carey of the London-based Royal National Institute of Blind People, that Braille is on “life support”.

One reason is a shifting market. Since doctors learned 60 years ago that pure oxygen in incubators damaged premature babies’ sight, the number of blind children has fallen in rich countries, where Braille was most used. Changing educational norms mean more attend mainstream schools, where Braille is less likely to be taught. As the population ages, more people are losing their sight late in life, when they are less likely to invest in new skills.

Another is stiffer competition. In the 1960s schools started to use cassette tapes; by the 1980s computers could convert written words to speech, albeit clumsily, or display magnified text. Today’s phone apps read text aloud almost flawlessly.

Now technology is offering Braille a shot at reinvention. Sumit Dagar, an Indian designer, is working on a smartphone for the blind. The National Braille Press, an American charity, has developed a prototype Braille tablet. Both emboss Braille

by using an alloy that changes shape according to temperature.

In the longer term, built-in cameras could take photos to be etched on screens. And tactile touchscreens being developed by Disney’s researchers could do away with the need for embossing. These use electrical impulses to trick fingers into feeling bumps and ridges. Vibrations create friction; the level of resistance matches the on-screen pattern. Thus rebooted, Braille could live alongside audio technology instead of being replaced by it.

© The Economist Newspaper Limited, London (1 February 2014)