Braille or computers? I'll have both, please

“Louis Braille invented his eponymous code nearly 200 years ago. The tactile reading and writing system has transformed the lives of many blind people. More recently, computers and the internet have introduced new opportunities for accessing precious information. If Louis Braille was alive today, he would embrace it all!”

World Braille Day marks Louis Braille’s birthday. Born in 1809, he invented the braille code. Braille is a tactile reading and writing system used by many people with severe vision impairments or blindness. A braille character is based upon a matrix of six raised dots, historically embossed on paper. Different combinations of these dots represent an individual letter, letter combination or word. Louis Braille was blind himself and first proposed the idea while still at school. The braille code has had a profound impact upon the education of people with vision impairment around the world.

In recent years the emergence of computer technology has raised questions about the future of braille. Some people wonder whether we need braille now that computers and mobile devices can provide speech output. Research from the Vision Impairment Centre for Teaching and Research (VICTAR) shows that technology and braille are allies rather than competitors. Throughout its history braille’s success has been closely linked to technological developments that have enabled braille production and writing. Most recently, refreshable braille displays have been developed which link to computers and present a line of braille characters which are refreshed as the user reads.

More braille is available today than ever before. Many products have braille embossed on their packaging (for example, visit Coop shops), and it is now a legal requirement to have braille labels on all medicine packaging (our own research underpins this international standard). The internet means that huge volumes of electronic files are now easily available at any time. These can be accessed online, easily converted into braille and embossed or read using a refreshable braille display.

As in many countries, in the UK teachers are required to have a specialist qualification to teach children with vision impairment. Birmingham University has a long established training programme for teachers, and the focus is upon developing professionals who contribute to an education system which empowers young people with vision impairment – and this includes developing young people’s independence and the teaching of mobility, technology and braille.

Our ongoing Longitudinal Transitions Study has gathered the experiences and views of young people with vision impairment as they leave school to go onto college, university and the labour market. The research highlights the hugely important role education plays in preparing young people for independent living, in the use of technology and braille, and being able to advocate for themselves. Nevertheless, the research has identified a ‘postcode lottery’ of services available for children and young people with vision impairment and a concern that these specialist teaching services are being placed under financial pressure.

Louis Braille and his code remain a potent symbol of disabled people’s independence and empowerment. If the brilliant Louis Braille was alive today he would be reading braille with skill and enthusiasm while at the same time surfing the web, marvelling at the information he would literally have at his fingertips. He would also be eloquently campaigning for education services to provide young people with the specialist support they need.

Professor Graeme Douglas
Head of the Department of Disability Inclusion and Special Needs, Co-director VICTAR, School of Education, University of Birmingham