iPhones, iPads make Braille still relevant

A new year has begun and the world is stepping into the future with greater hope and optimism. In the light of newer technology and the myriads of possibilities, it is still difficult to say with conviction if certain older methods have been brushed aside by the rapid emergence of technology.

Every year, ahead of the Louis Braille birthday celebrations (Jan 4), email groups and the blogosphere are abuzz with debates on the relevance of Braille in what many claim as the ‘technologically advanced’ 21st century.

But for the ability to read and write, albeit in a different format than what is seen normal, it would not have been possible for the blind to access a large volume of information captured and preserved for posterity by the printing press.

Indeed, the blind had to wait several centuries (after the invention of printing) before actually laying their fingers, quite literally, on written information. And that proved to be a touchstone for excellence, though it didn’t exactly become the Midas touch.

The inventor

The deliverance arrived to them in the form of raised dots on thick sheets of paper, brought to them by a man whose curiosity to experiment with the awl in his father’s workshop had cost him the good eye to go totally blind. He then spent an entire summer vacation in the 1820s to create his own version of writing code that bears his name to date.

The only resemblance the Braille code has with its cruder version used in French military to pass on instructions to the soldiers without drawing the attention of the enemies on the battlefield was that its users were also left sightless in the dark night and were required to sharpen their tactile sense to read.

Throughout the 20th century, Braille, or the standardised version that came into popular use in the middle of the century, became the only method of written communication for the blind, which ensured they attended school and qualified themselves in the process.

Soon, blind men and women started knocking the doors of the government for jobs and probably our socialist system made an attempt to address their calls for allocation of ‘suitable’ positions like teaching, stenography and telephone operation.

The Braille did not offer the magic wand to a majority of blind persons to alleviate themselves from economic backwardness and poverty, but it certainly enabled them to take the crucial first step towards emerging out of the knowledge darkness. What turned out to be the magic wand though was the rapid advancement in technology, which enabled them to be a part of the knowledge economy without letting their impairment come in the way.

Personal computers, which now work with screen reader, infinitely increased the amount of information the blind can access, putting them almost on equal footing with their able-bodied peers. Access to the internet through 3G mobile phones has further simplified the process. This means that Braille either plays a less significant role in a blind person’s life or plays no role at all.

So debates that the quickness and versatility of digital media is making Braille, a system  that depends on a stack of paper with raised dots that runs the risk of being flattened out with each running finger, have been raging on.

Tech apologists are even right in arguing that the idea of information as merely textual is changing with the advent of multi-media applications that present much of what we require in audio/video.

So, despite holding Braille and its inventor with the reverence usually allotted to saints and miracle workers, it would seem that the blind are also gradually beginning to accept the ‘brave new world’ of science in which the coding system is moving to the back seat. While this notion may seem correct viewed from the surface, deeper examination would reveal Braille is as adoptive as any printing technology to the changing knowledge environment.

Refreshable brailler, through which a blind person can read the content of a computer screen as it refreshes with change in the screen content, has ensured that Braille will survive into the 21st century. Support to refreshable brailler devices by iPhones and iPads are the best indication of its usability in modern times.

While Braille still remains the simplest and the best means to read books and magazines for a majority of blind persons who may not have the luxury of working with computers and mobile phones, those with the dual disability of deafness and blindness almost exclusively use refreshable brailler to access information on the virtual space.

Organisations like the Helen Keller Institute in Mumbai allow the deaf-blind to work extensively on the technology.

So calling Braille an ancient writing method is premature and at least on available evidence, it is anything but a technique fighting for its survival.

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