The ﬁrst ﬁght over Braille took place 181 years ago, not long after 20-year-old Louis Braille unveiled his revolutionary code—the system of raised dots that would soon be the blind child’s equivalent of the printed word in much of the world. Students, on the one hand, were euphoric. Once condemned to illiteracy, they could ﬁnally read and write. But the Royal Institute for the Young Blind in Paris, accustomed to making money off crafts produced by its boarders, wasn’t pleased. Hoping to stamp out the student body’s new independence, the institute’s director had all of Braille’s handcrafted books gathered together and burned.
Another kind of battle is on as Braille once again faces extinction—this time as a result of overstretched school budgets and the ever-evolving portable audio book. In the 1950s about half of all blind children learned Braille, says the U.S. National Federation of the Blind. Today, that number has fallen to 10 per cent—and it’s about the same in Canada. For some, like NFB director Mark Riccobono, that means we’re letting blind children grow up as illiterate as Braille’s 19th-century contemporaries. “If only 10 per cent of sighted children were being taught [to read],” he told Maclean’s, “that would be considered a crisis.”
The issue bubbled up to the surface in Canada when the Canadian National Institute for the Blind threatened, in January, to close the doors of its library, claiming it could not afford its $10-million annual operating cost. The library circulates two million items each year to the 836,000 Canadians with signiﬁcant vision loss. And it holds the country’s largest stock of Braille books, which are printed in its basement, on large, stiff paper. It even has hard-to-come-by items like a complete Braille dictionary that it jokingly refers to as “the pocket edition.” It is 72 volumes.
Myra Rodrigues, a frequent user of that library who is now nearing 70, began learning Braille when she was ﬁve and a student at what was then the Ontario School for the Blind. Infantile glaucoma was slowly eating away at her vision, but in 1948, Rodrigues could see fairly well. And that made things tricky. “Because I could see it—if I sat near a window with the sun coming in, reﬂecting off the dots,” the stately sexagenarian laughs. “Teachers used to put a mask on me. I’d sit there and try to feel these dots.”
There’s a good chance that if Rodrigues was born today, she would never learn Braille. Thanks to devices like text-to-speech recorders, many blind people can get by without the raised dot code—especially those who lose sight later in life. “So that whole demographic of people doesn’t use Braille anymore,” says CNIB president John Rafferty. Rafferty actually thinks that’s ﬁne. As he notes, children who are born entirely blind are still taught Braille from the start. The problem, he says, concerns those who began life like Myra: the 85 per cent of legally blind children who can, to varying degrees, see. Many read, provided there’s lots of light, and the type is big enough. Is it still worth teaching them Braille?
When the question comes up, typically during the kindergarten years, the answer isn’t clear-cut. At age ﬁve or so, explains Ruby Ryles, coordinator of the Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University, all children are reading large-font texts. So blind children with limited vision usually fare fairly well. The trouble comes later. For one, children’s eyesight can deteriorate. So it may be that they can read print until they can’t—and then they either learn Braille as adults (which is difﬁcult), or make do without. But it’s also that reading print, when your vision is bad, is hard, and discouraging. The NFB’s Riccobono himself was one of those in-between children. He was not taught Braille. “I started reading large print in third grade,” he explains. “By ﬁfth grade, I was reading large print with magniﬁcation.” By university, he was scrambling to get by. “I should have learned Braille earlier,” he insists. “I struggled mightily.”
As Ryles puts it, “At the age when we should be teaching Braille, we think: our limited-vision kids are doing very well. But then they start falling further behind.” Riccobono says that’s the story across North America. At public schools, he insists that “Braille is considered the last resort”—a tool teachers pull out when the strained eyes of their somewhat-sighted pupil can no longer keep up.
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