[Nfbmo] Listening to Braille???

fred olver goodfolks at charter.net
Mon Jan 4 19:52:34 UTC 2010

Listening to Braille

New York Times
January 3, 2010
  AT 4 O'CLOCK each morning, Laura J.  Sloate begins her
daily reading.  She calls a phone service that reads
newspapers aloud in a synthetic voice, and she listens
to The Wall Street Journal at 300 words a minute, which
is nearly twice the average pace of speech.  Later, an
assistant reads The Financial Times to her while she
uses her computer's text-to-speech system to play The
Economist aloud.  She devotes one ear to the paper and
the other to the magazine.  The managing director of a
Wall Street investment management firm, Sloate has been
blind since age 6, and although she reads constantly,
poring over the news and the economic reports for
several hours every morning, she does not use Braille.
"Knowledge goes from my ears to my brain, not from my
finger to my brain," she says.  As a child she learned
how the letters of the alphabet sounded, not how they
appeared or felt on the page.  She doesn't think of a
comma in terms of its written form but rather as "a stop
on the way before continuing." This, she says, is the
future of reading for the blind.  "Literacy evolves," she
told me.  "When Braille was invented, in the 19th
century, we had nothing else.  We didn't even have radio.
At that time, blindness was a disability.  Now it's just
a minor, minor impairment."
  A few decades ago, commentators predicted that the
electronic age would create a postliterate generation as
new forms of media eclipsed the written word.  Marshall
McLuhan claimed that Western culture would return to the
"tribal and oral pattern." But the decline of written
language has become a reality for only the blind.
Although Sloate does regret not spending more time
learning to spell in her youth -- she writes by dictation
- she says she thinks that using Braille would have only
isolated her from her sighted peers.  "It's an arcane
means of communication, which for the most part should
be abolished," she told me.  "It's just not needed
  Braille books are expensive and cumbersome, requiring
reams of thick, oversize paper.  The National Braille
Press, an 83-year-old publishing house in Boston,
printed the Harry Potter series on its Heidelberg
cylinder; the final product was 56 volumes, each nearly
a foot tall.  Because a single textbook can cost more
than $1,000 and there's a shortage of Braille teachers
in public schools, visually impaired students often read
using MP3 players, audiobooks and computer-screen-
reading software.
  A report released last year by the National Federation
of the Blind, an advocacy group with 50,000 members,
said that less than 10 percent of the 1.3 million
legally blind Americans read Braille.  Whereas roughly
half of all blind children learned Braille in the 1950's,
today that number is as low as 1 in 10, according to the
report.  The figures are controversial because there is
debate about when a child with residual vision has "too
much sight" for Braille and because the causes of
blindness have changed over the decades -- in recent
years more blind children have multiple disabilities,
because of premature births.  It is clear, though, that
Braille literacy has been waning for some time, even
among the most intellectually capable, and the report
has inspired a fervent movement to change the way blind
people read.  "What we're finding are students who are
very smart, very verbally able -- and illiterate," Jim
Marks, a board member for the past five years of the
Association on Higher Education and Disability, told me.
"We stopped teaching our nation's blind children how to
read and write.  We put a tape player, then a computer,
on their desks.  Now their writing is phonetic and
butchered.  They never got to learn the beauty and shape
and structure of language."
  For much of the past century, blind children attended
residential institutions where they learned to read by
touching the words.  Today, visually impaired children
can be well versed in literature without knowing how to
read; computer-screen-reading software will even break
down each word and read the individual letters aloud.
Literacy has become much harder to define, even for
  "If all you have in the world is what you hear people
say, then your mind is limited," Darrell Shandrow, who
runs a blog called Blind Access Journal, told me.  "You
need written symbols to organize your mind.  If you can't
feel or see the word, what does it mean? The substance
is gone." Like many Braille readers, Shandrow says that
new computers, which form a single line of Braille cells
at a time, will revive the code of bumps, but these
devices are still extremely costly and not yet widely
used.  Shandrow views the decline in Braille literacy as
a sign of regression, not progress: "This is like going
back to the 1400's, before Gutenberg's printing press
came on the scene," he said.  "Only the scholars and
monks knew how to read and write.  And then there were
the illiterate masses, the peasants."
  UNTIL THE 19;TH CENTURY, blind people were confined to an
oral culture.  Some tried to read letters carved in wood
or wax, formed by wire or outlined in felt with pins.
Dissatisfied with such makeshift methods, Louis Braille,
a student at the Royal Institute for Blind Youth in
Paris, began studying a cipher language of bumps, called
night writing, developed by a French Army officer so
soldiers could send messages in the dark.  Braille
modified the code so that it could be read more
efficiently -- each letter or punctuation symbol is
represented by a pattern of one to six dots on a matrix
of three rows and two columns -- and added abbreviations
for commonly used words like "knowledge," "people" and
"Lord." Endowed with a reliable method of written
communication for the first time in history, blind
people had a significant rise in social status, and
Louis Braille was embraced as a kind of liberator and
spiritual savior.  With his "godlike courage," Helen
Keller wrote, Braille built a "firm stairway for
millions of sense-crippled human beings to climb from
hopeless darkness to the Mind Eternal."
  At the time, blindness was viewed not just as the
absence of sight but also as a condition that created a
separate kind of species, more innocent and malleable,
not fully formed.  Some scholars said that blind people
spoke a different sort of language, disconnected from
visual experience.  In his 1933 book, "The Blind in
School and Society," the psychologist Thomas Cutsforth,
who lost his sight at age 11, warned that students who
were too rapidly assimilated into the sighted world
would become lost in "verbal unreality." At some
residential schools, teachers avoided words that
referenced color or light because, they said, students
might stretch the meanings beyond sense.  These theories
have since been discredited, and studies have shown that
blind children as young as 4 understand the difference
in meaning between words like "look," "touch" and "see."
And yet Cutsforth was not entirely misguided in his
>gument that sensory deprivation restructures the mind.
In the 1990's, a series of brain-imaging studies revealed
that the visual cortices of the blind are not rendered
useless, as previously assumed.  When test subjects swept
their fingers over a line of Braille, they showed
intense activation in the parts of the brain that
typically process visual input.
  These imaging studies have been cited by some educators
as proof that Braille is essential for blind children's
cognitive development, as the visual cortex takes more
than 20 percent of the brain.  Given the brain's
plasticity, it is difficult to make the argument that
one kind of reading -- whether the information is
absorbed by ear, finger or retina -- is inherently better
than another, at least with regard to cognitive
function.  The architecture of the brain is not fixed,
and without images to process, the visual cortex can
reorganize for new functions.  A 2003 study in Nature
Neuroscience found that blind subjects consistently
surpassed sighted ones on tests of verbal memory, and
their superior performance was caused, the authors
suggested, by the extra processing that took place in
the visual regions of their brains.
  Learning to read is so entwined in the normal course of
child development that it is easy to assume that our
brains are naturally wired for print literacy.  But
humans have been reading for fewer than 6,000 years (and
literacy has been widespread for no more than a century
and a half).  The activity of reading itself alters the
anatomy of the brain.  In a report released in 2009 in
the journal Nature, the neuroscientist Manuel Carreiras
studies illiterate former guerrillas in Colombia who,
after years of combat, had abandoned their weapons, left
the jungle and rejoined civilization.  Carreiras compares
20 adults who had recently completed a literacy program
with 22 people who had not yet begun it.  In M.R.I.  scans
of their brains, the newly literate subjects showed more
gray matter in their angular gyri, an area crucial for
language processing, and more white matter in part of
the corpus callosum, which links the two hemispheres.
Deficiencies in these regions were previously observed
in dyslexics, and the study suggests that those brain
patterns weren't the cause of their illiteracy, as had
been hypothesized, but a result.
  There is no doubt that literacy changes brain circuitry,
but how this reorganization affects our capacity for
language is still a matter of debate.  In moving from
written to spoken language, the greatest consequences
for blind people may not be cognitive but cultural -- a
loss much harder to avoid.  In one of the few studies of
blind people's prose, Doug Brent, a professor of
communication at the University of Calgary, and his
wife, Diana Brent, a teacher of visually impaired
students, analyzed stories by students who didn't use
Braille but rather composed on a regular keyboard and
edited by listening to their words played aloud.  One 16-
year-old wrote a fictional story about a character named
Mark who had "sleep bombs":
  He looked in the house windo that was his da windo his
dad was walking around with a mask on he took it off he
opend the windo and fell on his bed sleeping mark took
two bombs and tosed them in the windo the popt his dad
lept up but before he could grab the mask it explodedhe
fell down asleep.
  In describing this story and others like it, the Brents
invoked the literary scholar Walter Ong, who argued that
members of literate societies think differently than
members of oral societies.  The act of writing, Ong said
- the ability to revisit your ideas and, in the process,
refine them -- transformed the shape of thought.  The
Brents characterized the writing of many audio-only
readers as disorganized, "as if all of their ideas are
crammed into a container, shaken and thrown randomly
onto a sheet of paper like dice onto a table." The
beginnings and endings of sentences seem arbitrary, one
thought emerging in the midst of another with a kind of
breathless energy.  The authors concluded, "It just
doesn't seem to reflect the qualities of organized
sequence and complex thought that we value in a literate
  OUR DEFINITION of a literate society inevitably shifts
as our tools for reading and writing evolve, but the
brief history of literacy for blind people makes the
prospect of change particularly fraught.  Since the
1820's, when Louis Braille invented his writing system -
so that blind people would no longer be "despised or
patronized by condescending sighted people," as he put
it -- there has always been, among blind people, a
political and even moral dimension to learning to read.
Braille is viewed by many as a mark of independence, a
sign that blind people have moved away from an oral
culture seen as primitive and isolating.  In recent
years, however, this narrative has been complicated.
Schoolchildren in developed countries, like the U.S.  and
Britain, are now thought to have lower Braille literacy
than those in developing ones, like Indonesia and
Botswana, where there are few alternatives to Braille.
Tim Connell, the managing director of an assistive-
technology company in Australia, told me that he has
heard this described as "one of the advantages of being
  Braille readers do not deny that new reading technology
has been transformative, but Braille looms so large in
the mythology of blindness that it has assumed a kind of
talismanic status.  Those who have residual vision and
still try to read print -- very slowly or by holding the
page an inch or two from their faces -- are generally
frowned upon by the National Federation of the Blind,
which fashions itself as the leader of a civil rights
movement for the blind.  Its president, Marc Maurer, a
voracious reader, compares Louis Braille to Abraham
Lincoln.  At the annual convention for the federation,
held at a Detroit Marriott last July, I heard the mantra
"listening is not literacy" repeated everywhere, from
panels on the Braille crisis to conversations among
middle-school girls.  Horror stories circulating around
the convention featured children who don't know what a
paragraph is or why we capitalize letters or that
"happily ever after" is made up of three separate words.
  Declaring your own illiteracy seemed to be a rite of
passage.  A vice president of the federation, Fredric
Schroeder, served as commissioner of the Rehabilitation
Services Administration under President Clinton and
relies primarily on audio technologies.  He was openly
repentant about his lack of reading skills.  "I am now
over 50 years old, and it wasn't until two months ago
that I realized that `dissent1' to disagree, is
different than `descent1' to lower something," he told
me.  "I'm functionally illiterate.  People say, `Oh, no,
you're n.' Yes, I am.  I'm sorry about it, but I'm not
embarrassed to admit it."
  While people like Laura Sloate or the governor of New
York, David A.  Paterson, who also reads by listening,
may be able to achieve without the help of Braille,
their success requires accommodations that many cannot
afford.  Like Sloate, Paterson dictates his memos, and
his staff members select pertinent newspaper articles
for him and read them aloud on his voice mail every
morning.  (He calls himself "overassimilated" and told me
that as a child he was "mainstreamed so much that I
psychologically got the message that I'm not really
supposed to be blind.") Among people with fewer
resources, Braille-readers tend to form the blind elite,
in part because it is more plausible for a blind person
to find work doing intellectual rather than manual
  A 1996 study showed that of a sample of visually
impaired adults, those who learned Braille as children
were more than twice as likely to be employed as those
who had not.  At the convention this statistic was
frequently cited with pride, so much so that those who
didn't know Braille were sometimes made to feel like
outsiders.  "There is definitely a sense of peer pressure
from the older guard," James Brown, a 35-year-old who
reads using text-to-speech software, told me.  "If we
could live in our own little Braille world, then that'd
be perfect," he added.  "But we live in a visual world."
  When deaf people began getting cochlear implants in the
late 1980's, many in the deaf community felt betrayed.
The new technology pushed people to think of the
disability in a new way -- as an identity and a culture.
Technology has changed the nature of many disabilities,
lifting the burdens but also complicating people's sense
of what is physically natural, because bodies can so
often be tweaked until "fixed." Arielle Silverman, a
graduate student at the convention who has been blind
since birth, told me that if she had the choice to have
vision, she was not sure she would take it.  Recently she
purchased a pocket-size reading machine that takes
photographs of text and then reads the words aloud, and
she said she thought of vision like that, as "just
another piece of technology."
  The modern history of blind people is in many ways a
history of reading, with the scope of the disability -
the extent to which you are viewed as ignorant or
civilized, helpless or independent -- determined largely
by your ability to access the printed word.  For 150
years, Braille books were designed to function as much
as possible like print books.  But now the computer has
essentially done away with the limits of form, because
information, once it has been digitized, can be conveyed
through sound or touch.  For sighted people, the
transition from print to digital text has been
relatively subtle, but for many blind people the shift
to computerized speech is an unwelcome and uncharted
experiment.  In grappling with what has been lost,
several federation members recited to me various takes
on the classic expression Scripta manent, verba volant:
What is written remains, what is spoken vanishes into
  Rachel Aviv is a Rosalynn Carter fellow for mental-
health journalism with the Carter Center and writes
frequently on education for The Times.

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