October 25, 2016

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Braille’s New Age

Sile O’Modhrain (opposite center) tests braille tablet tech in  development at the Univeristy of Michigan with Alex Russomanno (right) and Brent Gillespie (left).  Photos by Joseph Xu, Michigan Engineering Communications & Marketing

Sile O’Modhrain (center) tests braille tablet tech in
development at the University of Michigan with Alex Russomanno (right) and Brent Gillespie (left).
Photo by Joseph Xu, Michigan Engineering Communications & Marketing

Even though Chloe Darlington (below) can read large print, her parents always wanted their daughter, who has low vision, to be a dual reader—using braille and print. But when Chloe entered kindergarten in New Jersey, her school didn’t make efforts to teach her braille, the universally recognized literacy system for the blind and visually impaired. “They consistently told us, ‘She has vision; she needs to use it,’” says Amy Darlington, Chloe’s mother. The problem is that Chloe, eight, has to hold even enlarged print materials close to her face, which can make reading unpleasant and becomes less practical as students get older.

Chloe Darlington Photo courtesy of Amy Darlington

Chloe Darlington
Photo courtesy of Amy Darlington

Then the Darlingtons found Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning (BELL) Academy, a National Federation of the Blind (NFB) summer program that not only teaches braille, but gives children opportunities to spend time with blind peers or adults and learn “blindness skills,” such as using a cane, nonvisual pouring or measuring, and reading tactile graphics, such as pictures.

Now, Chloe, who is homeschooled, is reading sight words in braille and using a Perkins Brailler—similar to a manual typewriter, with keys corresponding to braille code—that her father bought on eBay. Her mother also uses a braille labeler to put braille over words in simple children’s books.

“I think her confidence has gone up,” Darlington says. “We believe in the toolbox option—give her everything she might need.”

A new toolbox

Chloe’s educational toolbox may expand dramatically with new tech in development, including braille tablets that will improve access to e-materials. While the manual braille writer can be life-changing for children like Chloe, it has limitations. For one, “physically, it’s really hard to push the keys down,” says Diane Brauner, an educational assistive technology consultant in North Carolina who trains educators to use the iPad’s accessibility features.

Because teachers and students often depend on audio tech, including text-to-speech programs, vision-impaired children aren’t learning the conventions of written language. “He or she might be getting information, but the child isn’t reading,” says Chris Danielsen, director of public relations at the NFB, which provides many resources for braille literacy (learning braille). In the 1970s, more than 50 percent of vision impaired people in the Unites States knew braille. More recently, among the nearly 60,000 U.S. children who are legally blind, only nine percent were registered braille users, according to a 2010 report. Other estimates put the figure at 10 to 12 percent.

Brauner hopes to change that. She points to apps such as Exploring Braille with Madilyn and Ruff, which works with an iPad connected to an electronic braille-writing device. IPads, because of their many built-in features related to braille, are “instantly accessible to any of my students,” Brauner says. Devices with iOS systems are compatible with over 50 refreshable braille displays (RBD), including wireless ones that use Bluetooth, allowing blind people to read what is on the screen. IOS also features a braille keyboard.

“We build accessibility into the core of our operating systems,” said Sarah Herrlinger, senior manager for global accessibility policy and initiatives at Apple. “We want to support as many user needs as we can. We take into account customer feedback and work to expand accessibility features with each new version of our products.”

Another challenge is that children with visual impairments often don’t have equal access to digital material related to math, spreadsheets, and graphs. Currently, Brauner is consulting with the North Carolina analytics and statistical group SAS to “look at how to make visual graphs and charts accessible on the iPad for visually impaired folks,” she says. She recently consulted on an e-learning website, Paths to Technology, developed by the Perkins School for the Blind, that went live this month.

Braille tablet technology in development at the University of Michigan (UM) and a North Carolina company called Polymer Braille would also be an educational game changer, creating a page-sized braille display, as opposed to the one line that RBDs provide. “Any codes that require spatial layout, like math or music, need a dimensional array on a page,” explains Sile O’Modhrain, UM associate professor of music, theater, and dance, and associate professor of information, who is visually impaired. Currently, blind students often must rely on lengthy voice descriptions of digital graphs and math. Those taking standardized tests electronically “can’t do dynamic tests that change in response to their performance,” O’Modhrain adds.

Polymer Braille was started by Peichun Yang, who lost his vision in an accident while a Ph.D. student at North Carolina State University (NCSU), and NCSU researchers. Their project “is motivated by the potential impact this tool will have on education,” says spokesperson Nathaniel Evans. “We’re targeting education and math.” For instance, with the braille tablet, a tactile graph representing standard deviation could potentially change as a user alters its variables, Evans says. Both developers hope for prototypes within a year and a final cost of under $1,000. But O’Modhrain estimates it will be five to seven years before the tech turns up in products; Evan speculates one to three.

1603-Braille-AssistiveTechWhy braille matters

While researchers refine this new tech, programs such as BELL Academy (which Chloe attended), offered at 37 sites in 26 states this past summer, aim to make up for limited efforts in school districts to teach braille, according to the NFB. Carlton Walker, manager of braille educational programs for the NFB Jernigan Institute, dedicated to integrating blind people into mainstream society, says that schools sometimes discourage braille, saying that learning it will make a child seem different. Plus, many teachers don’t know braille very well themselves, says Walker. Even if children are learning braille, they might only get it once or twice a week—not enough for their skills to develop.

Most children with blindness or low vision attend regular classrooms in public schools, in keeping with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act’s provision that students with disabilities be educated in the “least restrictive environment.” Studies using an instrument called the National Reading Media Assessment—which determines the most appropriate reading medium for students who are blind or have low vision—have showed that more than a third of students who needed braille instruction were not getting it. They can be as much as a year and a half behind in reading, but ones who used braille as their primary means of reading are on grade level.

As adults, those who did not learn braille never master skills such as spelling, grammar, and punctuation, says Danielsen. He mentions an NFB employee with a doctoral degree, for example, who didn’t know the difference between “dissent” and “descent.” A student of Walker’s never knew that “once upon a time” consisted of four words until she learned braille. Being literate in braille also greatly increases the odds of employment and the likelihood of living independently.

Children with some vision often use magnification devices, but if words have to be enlarged so much that only one or two can fit on a screen, “you get a diminishing return,” says Danielsen—especially as students get older and the print in books gets smaller.

If children hold a book two inches away from their nose, Walker says, they tend to read for only a few minutes at a time. “The child doesn’t have the stamina to continue that kind of reading.” She adds that when they begin to learn braille, reading is no longer painful.

The costs associated with reading braille, as opposed to using audio tech, are steep. The expense of printing books in braille is high—textbooks can cost several thousand dollars, and an encyclopedia in braille can fill an entire room of bookshelves.

RBD readers, operated by pins that raise and lower to produce scrolling braille characters, can also be prohibitive in price for families and schools—as much as several thousand dollars. Walker says that while some schools provide them, many officials are hesitant to put such a costly device in the hands of a six-year-old. Some libraries lend out RBDs, but most have patrons use them on site.

Efforts to make these devices more affordable are expanding. “It may never be something that you can pick up at the Rite-Aid, but let’s get this down into the hundreds of dollars instead of thousands,” says Danielsen. There are also individual innovators. A California teen, for example, recently used a LEGO Mindstorms kit to invent a low-cost braille printer he calls Braigo. His work caught the attention of the Smithsonian Institution as well as investors and other scientists.

Meanwhile, the ebook retail giants are still getting up to speed with electronic accessibility. While many RBD devices can read Kindle or Amazon ebooks, accessibility “depends on how the original file was created,” says Jennifer Dunnam, chair of the Braille Authority of North America. Dunnam, who is vision impaired, recently purchased a Kindle version of B.J. Novak’s children’s title The Book with No Pictures (Dial, 2014), a humorous title in picture-book format that lacks illustrations. She planned to read it to her niece. But it turned out that the ebook version was created with image files, so she couldn’t read it at all. “It was basically a picture of the pages,” says Dunnam. “No text was coming through in the braille displays.” On March 2, the NFB announced that it is joining forces with Amazon to improve accessible reading experiences for blind and low-vision students.

The role of libraries

Libraries are also working to increase access to braille, with RBDs and other accessible technologies. Patrons can download free ebooks through the Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) program offered by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), which partners with public libraries across the country to provide accessible materials. E-materials can be read on devices including the Talking Book Machine or an RBD.

Bookshare, a provider of ebooks to people with print disabilities, also works with NLS partner libraries to make accessible ebooks available. These can be magnified or read aloud by a computer or mobile device.

Elizabeth Burns, youth services librarian for the New Jersey State Library Talking Book and Braille Center, has watched teenagers become more engaged in reading when they have an RBD at home. “Once teens get that braille display, I hear from them less often, even if they are reading more, because they have the independence and autonomy—and privacy—to select and download braille books,” she says.

Braille displays and an entire library of print braille books are available at the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library, part of the New York Public Library (NYPL). The staff also visits schools with braille books and provides summer reading lists. This past summer, Heiskell hosted teens participating in a college prep program through Visions, a nonprofit organization serving New York City and Long Island. The library is also offering beginner braille books to anyone with a library card, which library manager Jill Rothstein says teachers can use to improve their skills and share with students.

Mark Lee, library services manager for the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh–Library For the Blind and Physically Handicapped, says that libraries can make basic technological improvements that do not need to be cost prohibitive.

“Keep browser updates current so they interact well with specialized software,” he recommends. He adds that screen- reader programs such as JAWS, which provides speech and braille output, and assistive software such as that from Kurzweil Education, need to be available to patrons. This way, they can read materials from books to personal mail at the library.

Braille in mainstream schools and school libraries

Casey Robertson, who teaches blind students and also teaches braille courses at Louisiana Tech University, says many adults in her graduate courses are public school teachers who have “been thrown into the fire”—told by a school district that they have to teach a child braille. She finds that once teachers learn braille, they are more likely to argue in favor of it. “It’s like a light bulb that comes on,” she says.

Sometimes blind children are also fortunate enough to find a school librarian like Ramona Williamson at W. Smith Elementary in Violet, LA. When a fifth grader with very limited vision entered her school, Williamson took an online class with Robertson to learn braille and attended a weekend workshop at Louisiana Tech. She played braille games with the girl, made braille flashcards, and showed her how to use a cane.

“My student picked up braille very quickly and liked using the braille writer for basic writing assignments and spelling tests,” Williamson says. She also showed all the fifth graders braille and gave each a card with a braille letter. A blind professor from Louisiana Tech visited the students as well.

Robertson says there are “pockets across the nation,” including Colorado and California, that have braille standards—essentially a document asserting that blind students should learn braille and stating how that instruction should happen. “Schools look to standards,” she says, noting that most schools are unfamiliar with how to best serve blind students, so they lean toward large-print or audio. The National Media Reading Assessment in her state is beginning to make a difference.

“I can see improvements within the last couple of years” in terms of more students getting braille, she says. “It’s all about getting the information out there.”

Find (affordable) braille resources

“The Hunger Games” retails at $74.95 at the online Braille Superstore—and that’s just for book one. “That is a 699 percent mark up for the same content of a print hard cover,” notes Joel Bangilan, public services administrator at the San Antonio (TX) Public Library.

Only about five percent of printed materials are available in braille, which make devices such as accessible braille displays all the more important for those wanting to read braille. While tech developers work to improve those devices and lower prices, nonprofit and libraries are also dedicated to offering braille books at lower costs. Chris Danielson, director of public relations for the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), notes that the estimated cost of printed braille used to be 10 cents a page; a braille Stephen King novel that interested him retailed at $250.

In addition to the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, which partners with U.S. libraries to offer materials for the vision impaired, many other unaffiliated libraries and nonprofits provide books, Danielsen says. The American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults, NFB’s sister organization, has a lending library of books containing both print and braille for very young children. It also provides free braille books to eligible children which they can keep.

Seedlings Braille Books for Children provides free and low-cost braille and print/braille books for kids—The Hunger Games retails there for $30. The National Braille Press sells braille titles nationwide for competitive prices, and the supplier Bookshare offers free materials to qualifying students, schools, and organizations. The Perkins School for the Blind provides e-learning support nationwide with its new website, Paths to Technology,

There are also dedicated libraries that fulfill specific needs or provide materials to members of a specific religion or denomination, Danielsen says, such as the Xavier Society for the Blind, a Catholic organization, and the Jewish Braille Institute. Learning Ally is a nationwide provider of textbooks in accessible formats, which are lent to its blind, dyslexic, and other print-disabled members, usually students. For more resources, check the National Federation of the Blind website.

Linda Jacobson is an education writer and editor based in the Los Angeles area. Sarah Bayliss contributed reporting to this article.

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  1. I worked in the Tennessee Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped for 6 years so I was particularly interested in this article. I was saddened to read that the number of braille users has dropped from 50% of vision impaired people in the US in 1970, to only 9-12% today. (pg. 41) At the same time, it is exciting to know that technological advances are being made to assist these readers. Thank you for a very interesting and informative article.

  2. Agree with Doreen that that is a startling difference statistically. As an AT specialist, I see the magnification technology (enlargable digital text, magnifiers, OCR) contributing largely to this. But as a parent of a blind child, I see the great value of (and increased accessibility to) Braille learning as a significant tool for literacy, function, and pleasure.

  3. Excellent article! One source for braille books that was not mentioned is the American Printing House database named Louis. It lists titles available from many organizations and groups in several formats: braille, large print and electronic files. I am a volunteer with the Braille Transcription Project of Santa Clara County and the many titles in our lending library are listed in Louis. Our books can be borrowed and returned as Free Matter for the Blind through the postal service. Computer files of our books can be sent by email free to borrowers. Braille books and some textbooks can be purchased for the cost of materials. Please visit our website at http://brailleproject.com/

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