Will the last person using braille turn the lights out

Post date: 
Friday, 11 January 2019
Child reading braille

As the world becomes more and more computerised, Connect explores whether there is still a place for braille.

With around 20,000 people using braille across the UK, is there really still a need for it?

Take a braille embosser, a machine that prints braille documents. Braille cells are larger than average printed letters, so hard copies of books are much bigger.

For instance, a sighted person can pop a paperback quite easily into a handbag, whereas a braille reader would need a suitcase. A book like Harry Potter and the Order of The Phoenix, is a 13-volume stack of paper, more than a foot high, but there is an alternative.

Expensive braille technology

A portable refreshable braille display is an electronic reading device which allows the user to carry a large number of books and documents around with them in a digital format. Some of you may already have one, but with a price tag of up to £2,700 many of you will not.

Until recently, braille technology has actually been prohibitively expensive.

Claire Maxwell is a Senior Product Developer at RNIB, managing braille, tactile and educational products. As a braille reader herself she believes that high costs have meant people have had to turn their back on braille.

“There’s a lot of people who have probably gone through school and come out the other end and looking for a job and in that interim period they haven’t got access to perhaps the braille technology that they might have had in education.”

Because of this, they opt to use audio books for example, rather than carry around volumes of hard copy braille. “I think that’s where you can get people who fall into these gaps, who aren’t able to afford that equipment for themselves, so there is a danger that people lose that skill when they don’t use it.”

She believes low cost, affordable, or more affordable braille displays need to be made more available.

One piece of tech is the Orbit Reader 20, it’s the latest display which is around the £500 mark and even cheaper if you’re a Connect member. But it still may be out of reach of many people’s price range. But could it help a braille revival?

“Had I not got my own braille display already and had that paid for by Access to Work then I would definitely have invested in the reader because I think it’s absolutely brilliant. Braille to me is so important for a multitude of reasons,” she says.

Importance of braille

Sally Clay musician, musical director, musical facilitator and a mum, has been learning braille since she was 14.

She soon realised just how vital and life changing this medium was. It took her two months to learn. “I hammered my way through the code and basically learnt English, Maths, French, German and Science braille in about three months because I was absolutely desperate to read. It just felt like a revolution was going on in my brain”.

“It was absolutely amazing and so I think I placed an enormous value on braille for a very long time and still do actually.”

Sally uses her braille reader in all aspects of her life from writing music to acting and theatre directing to teaching music, but she’s now found it’s taken on an even greater significance.

“Actually the most important use of braille for me right at this moment is to read to my two girls who are 18 months and seven years old.”

Both her children are sighted but it has opened up a wonderful range of books that they can read together.

“I could be reading the braille and she could be reading the print or looking at pictures, a really bonding experience. And then with my youngest daughter who’s 18 months, I still read braille books to her quite a lot, although she takes the books off me quite a lot, she doesn’t want me to read them, she wants to read them.”

A key tool for literacy

But with so much audio technology available, is there still a need to use braille? Claire says she hears a lot of people saying that braille isn’t as widely used or as useful as perhaps it used to be. But she adds:

Braille is a key tool for literacy and I think it’s really important to remember that. Audio skills are fantastic and they have their own role to play in being able to listen to things read to you, that’s your choice whether that’s for reading for leisure or through using a screen reader. But I also think that literacy needs to be taught at a different level and being able to read either in print or in braille is a totally different skill.

Reading in braille, she says, for example, gives you pointers on and the correct use of punctuation which is not always spoken through screen readers unless you specifically set that.

“I think we really need to see that it is so important for people to be able to have that literacy skill as well as the audio skill,” she adds.

Connect Radio presenter Steven Scott agrees. He adds: “I have felt since my sight has got worse that my understanding of English has almost gone out the window, I prided myself on spelling, I prided myself on the ability to write without ever having to use a spell checker. I can’t do that now. I have to write at the bottom of my emails – sent using a screen reader, apologies for any errors – that’s not good enough.

For him, the new braille reader, although affordable, may be a little too late. He adds: “And that’s my worry about braille, not that people don’t want to use it, not that people don’t have an interest in, it but because the cost of technology has been so high for so long that it’s pushed people away from using it and now we’re in a position of those who want to, like me, can’t get the classes, can’t find the resources and that’s not good enough because braille is important.”

Steven adds: We have the technology, it’s now affordable, now we need the resources or braille doesn’t have a bright future.”

Reader offer

As a perk of being a member of RNIB Connect, you can purchase the Orbit Reader 20 at the discounted price of £399, excluding VAT. Call the Helpline on 0303 123 9999 to place your order.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2019 edition of Connect Magazine.