Opinion: In the smartphone era, access to Braille keeps opening doors


OPINION: Look in the right spot among the clacking of keyboards and newsroom chatter, and you'll find my desk of choice.

I'll have my earphones in, my laptop in front of me, iPhone on the right and Braille notetaker to the left.

Most of my article-reading and editing happens on my laptop, my screenreader's synthesised speech obediently babbling away in my ear.

Now and again I'll stumble across a word I have no recollection of how to spell, prompting my fingers to jump over to the line of refreshable Braille on my Braille notetaker beside me.

I'm lucky because I have access to Braille literally at my fingertips, and the means to buy a new Braille device when that seven-year-old machine bites the dust.

For now, the mini Braille computer is working nicely. It is connected via Bluetooth to my laptop, displaying in Braille the contents which are in focus on the computer screen.

I read off a line containing 32 Braille cells, where each cell is a three-down, two-across, configuration of six dots.

The ingenious system was designed by Louis Braille throughout the 1820s, and named after its Parisian inventor, after he became frustrated with the lack of efficient tactile reading methods in existence.

January 4, the 210th anniversary of his birth, has been officially deemed World Braille Day this year by the UN, in a bid to increase recognition of this key literacy tool for blind people.

Minister for Disability Issues Carmel Sepuloni has welcomed the move, noting that the medium assists around 700 New Zealanders to "gain greater independence, participation and citizenship".

There are Braille codes for many written languages, as well as maths, music, and even specialised ones, for instance to represent the International Phonetic Alphabet.

The Ministry of Education grants funding for adaptive technology including Braille notetakers and displays for school students, and soon-to-be year 12 student William Wu says Braille has been a key part of his education.

The Elim Christian College pupil says Braille is a big help in studying maths, "due to the accessible nature of Braille symbols and the resulting ability to properly comprehend and analyse equations in their logical formatting".

In literature-based subjects, "not initially relying on an electronic voice to read can help in better understanding the author's tone, expressions and allows for more detailed searching of language features".

Access to Braille music can open up opportunities too. Instead of staffs and clefs, the code uses different symbols for, say, c crotchet or d quaver, and then octave signs to position the notes.

The code gave me the means to read and memorise my pieces throughout my flute performance bachelor's degree, as well as to learn orchestral parts.

Aine Kelly-Costello using braille at school, quite young.
Aine Kelly-Costello using braille at school. Photo credit: Supplied

Wendy Richards, Braille music teacher at the Blind and Low Vision Education Network NZ, says the code "offers musical independence, equality and autonomy".

"It empowers the reader to make musical decisions and interpretative choices independently, without someone else telling them how to play it, or listening to someone else's interpretation of the score."

But not all of us have the good fortune to learn Braille codes as children. Chantelle Griffiths, Braille awareness coordinator at the Blind Foundation, says much of her role involves raising awareness about Braille within the blindness community itself.

"The impression I get from many sectors is that all people who are blind automatically know what Braille is and how it works."

That isn't always the case, especially not for many people who have lost their sight later in life from an accident, a medical condition or as part of getting older.

Ms Griffiths says many are reluctant because they've been told it would be too hard, or that they aren't 'blind enough', such misconceptions often resulting in unnecessary, long-term eyestrain.

"I work with the Blind Foundation's Braille instructors to give people the opportunity to experience Braille so they can decide for themselves."

A Braille user herself, Ms Griffiths says Braille is liberating.

"I think of it as a way to interact directly with whatever you're trying to read, without the overlay of speech, so you're able to interpret it your own way.

It can also increase independence, through being able to read the numbers on a lift or at a bus stop, by checking you have the right rest-room or through labelling household items."

Getting hold of a Braille display to facilitate on-demand Braille access to the user's choice of content, is becoming more affordable. The $650 Orbit Reader 20 and  $770 BrailleMe* both entered the market in 2018. That's nonetheless a price point well out of reach for some.

"There's a perception that you've got to be really proficient at Braille to apply for funding for Braille equipment," Ms Griffiths says. "That cuts a lot of the learning community out."

It doesn't need to be this way.

"I know of so many people who've managed to use, borrow or otherwise obtain a Braille display and are using it in their daily lives and learning, and it's helping them to learn faster because they're using content that's relevant to them.

"In future, I hope for access to any tools people need in order to learn, read or write Braille with cost not being a barrier."

That's my hope, too. I was a privileged kid who was taught Braille at four.

I've used it to note-take, give speeches, read poetry, chair meetings, label things, use the lift, debate, learn to spell in foreign languages, memorise music, and assist in my professional life.

It's a tool I want to see at the fingertips of everyone who could benefit.

*The BrailleMe does not currently appear to be available in New Zealand.

Áine Kelly-Costello is interning at Newshub as a digital news producer.

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