Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

The Decline of Braille

April 16th, 2009 · 11 Comments

braillealphabetWhenever I’m in an elevator, I take note of whether or not the button numbers are printed in Braille. Not entirely sure why, but I’ve always thought Braille was a brilliant invention—simple, intuitive, and oh-so-useful. And it’s got such a cool backstory, with its roots in 19th-century French spycraft.

But according to a recent report from the National Federation of the Blind, Braille is on its way out:

Fewer than 10 percent of the 1.3 million legally blind Americans read Braille, the system of raised dots that has represented the alphabet to the visually impaired for almost two centuries. Moreover, just 10 percent of visually impaired children are learning the system compared with more than 50 percent during its heyday in the 1950s.

There’s been a lot of handwringing over this decline, with much of the blame ascribed to a lack of trained instructors. But for all of Braille’s brilliance, perhaps its time has simply come. You have to think those million-plus blind Americans aren’t necessarily clamoring for Braille knowledge, but rather just grew up in the age of the audiobook and, perhaps, Dragon Naturally Speaking. The question is, what’s cheaper to produce—an audiobook or a Braille book? I’m guessing the former. And since audiobooks also appeal to the sighted, the choice is a no-brainer for publishers.

For all the good it’s done for millions, perhaps Braille is a technology that’s about to gently fade into that good night. Which leaves Microkhan with a question: Is there an equivalent technology that could someday dinosaur American sign language? Perhaps there’s an iPhone app out there that’s started the process.


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11 Comments so far ↓

  • Gex

    Yes, ASLs replacement is already here. Text messaging – why sign out the letters when you can type it out?

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    But how does the speed compare? And the complexity of what can be communicated via text as opposed to ASL?

    I’m genuinely curious–alas, my knowledge of ASL essentially ends at being able to sign “I love you.”

  • buskertype

    Probably not what you meant by “technology” (although it is a type of technology I suppose) but look up “Cued Speech.” I think that’s your answer.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @buskertype: Thanks for the tip. On the Cued Speech site right now, reading the FAQ. Pretty complicated–not entirely sure I grok it yet. But I’m learning.


  • Adam Rogers

    Question is, does the end of Braille induce blind people to organize protests against the death of their culture in the same way that cochlear implants rallied the ASL-using deaf? And if not…why not?

  • Jordan

    @Adam Rogers

    We might see more once retinal implants become sufficiently advanced. At this point the implants only allow the users to see fuzzy shapes. Once they’re good enough to allow for more detail, there might be a bigger response. Especially because no one knows what would happen if such an implant was put in a person who was congenitally blind.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Adam Rogers:

    A lazy data point, but a data point nonetheless: Google “deaf pride” then “blind pride” and see what comes up. For some reason–the existence of Gallaudet University?–the deaf community seems much more serious about solidarity/organization than its blind counterpart. Maybe there’s a lesson to be learned here about the different roles these senses play in the human experience.

  • John H.

    Or maybe the deaf community happened to have more politically-minded leaders. It’s too small a dataset to make such judgements.

    What do blind folk who don’t know Braille do when confronted with elevator buttons in the absence of other people?

  • Steve

    Since braille is primarily a “written” language (in the sense that things are written down and stored for later–and usually repeated–reading) and sign a “spoken” language (in the sense that is is spontaneous, in real time, usually one-on-one), it is unlikely that sign will be displaced in the same way.

    Yes, we (sometimes) label elevator buttons with braille so they can be read by passengers unkown by those who set up the elevator or installed the signage, but no one has a real-time conversation in braille.

    While many hearing people first encounter sign at a signed concert or play, that sort of “broadcast” usage is not the norm. It is mostly used for conversations.

    As for Gex’s comment. Texting and email have displaced TTY for many usages (you don’t need a specialized machine, as you did with TTY, and no intermediate person is required to pass on your messages to the hearing person equipped with texting equipment, as used to be required with TTY relay calls), but it’s unlikely to displace sign–precisely because sign speakers DON’T sign out the letters of every word most of the time. The alphabet is one of the first things you learn in a sign class (just as any alphabetical differences are discussed early when learning a new language), but among those who speak the language, the alphabet is used mostly for clarification, disambiguation, initialisms and acronyms, introducing new words, and interacting with less-experienced speakers of the language.

    Adam Rogers: Again, the death of Braille is more closely analogous to the death of TTY than to any implants.

    A decade ago, my deaf friend used his TTY and an operator relay service to call me once every few weeks (and used it on a daily basis with others). Now he texts, IMs or emails (and, his partner tells me, hardly ever touches the TTY, except to communicate with a couple of deaf friends who won’t get texting cell phones, and to have around in case of emergency).

    No more delay caused by the operator reading his text to me, or typing my words to him, but the habits from that period still cause his current texts to be more terse than those of my hearing friends, even sometimes to seem rudely abrupt.

    In person, he still signs.

    He is not alone. TTY usage among the deaf has rapidly declined.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Steve: Thanks a million for the thoughtful and informative comment. Much appreciated.

  • Matei

    So true. Honesty and eveyritnhg recognized.