The Value of Braille

Literacy for Blind People

Anyone who cannot read is clearly at a disadvantage in our modern society, even though they may have many other skills. Consequently, braille is of inestimable value to visually impaired people.

Literacy is one of the most essential and basic skills for anyone to acquire. Without it many of the other activities of life are made very much more difficult. Everyone should have the opportunity to read for themselves the great works of literature, and to enjoy the artistic use of language. Furthermore, learning any subject is made easier by being able to read teaching texts or instructional material. The dissemination of information also relies heavily on the basic skill of being able to read.

A reading skill, however small, can be put to so many uses, whatever the range of other abilities a person may have. Not being able to read cuts off a person from a great deal of what is going on around them, greatly limiting their ability to achieve their full potential. This applies especially to those who have a visual impairment.

There are many reasons why a blind person needs to be able to read:

  • To gain a better understanding of language
  • For information
  • To gain employment
  • To facilitate communication between people
  • For pleasure and entertainment and
  • For daily living.

Braille is a system of representing characters and words by patterns of dots. A six dot ‘cell’ is used giving 63 possible braille symbols, plus space, which is no dots present.

Braille is relatively simple to learn. Such difficulty as may exist relates to sensing the dots by touch. All too often when a person loses their sight no serious attempt is made to introduce them to braille. To the trauma of loss of sight is thus added the further and equally serious handicap of loss of literacy.

The Talking Book service and talking newspapers – both local and national – are a great help, and may also be used by experienced braille readers. But these facilities must never be regarded as a substitute for teaching braille to all who have the capability of learning it.

The ability to read braille offers a visually impaired person the opportunity to participate in many different situations, enhancing their quality of life and their contribution to family and work situations alike. This could range from the ability to read a child a bedtime story, to following the agenda at a meeting (whether on paper or the braille display of a portable computer).

Most alarmingly, there is an increasing tendency not to teach braille to children in school. A computer with synthetic speech output is sometimes deemed to be a replacement for braille. Once again, while synthetic speech is invaluable to blind people in enabling them to use a computer effectively, no sighted person would ever choose to use this type of output to the exclusion of the print character output on the screen, so why deprive a visually impaired child the opportunity to read what is readily available to their sighted peers.

Even where a blind person can only gain a limited capability with braille, it is still of great benefit to them in their daily life. For example:

  • The ability to make short notes of messages or telephone numbers
  • Labelling tinned food, so you don’t open baked beans when you wanted to have some fruit salad

can add much to the quality of life and independence for a visually impaired person. I have a modest collection of CDs, but if I had not stuck a short braille label on the outside of each CD case, I would not be able to access this effectively without sighted assistance. Help is needed just once for each CD, not every time I want to listen to it.

When braille was introduced it greatly enhanced the lives of visually impaired people. Braille remains of vital importance to such people. It is therefore essential that those responsible for teaching visually impaired children and those who assist with the rehabilitation of people who loose their sight later in life, fully recognise the unique value of braille and make every effort to teach it to all who do not have sufficient sight to read standard or large print.

Braille is one of the most precious things available to a visually impaired person, so it must be readily available to all who need it.

Richard West

United Kingdom Association for Alternative Formats