[Nfbmo] Listening to Braille???

fred olver goodfolks at charter.net
Mon Jan 4 23:30:57 UTC 2010

No, Ruby, I am not, just putting out there for folks to think about.

Fred Olver

----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Ruby Polk" <r.polk1 at sbcglobal.net>
To: "NFB of Missouri Mailing List" <nfbmo at nfbnet.org>
Sent: Monday, January 04, 2010 3:07 PM
Subject: Re: [Nfbmo] Listening to Braille???

> Fred,
> I hope that you are not endorsing this Article because it is very 
> Negative.
> Ruby
> ----- Original Message ----- 
> From: "fred olver" <goodfolks at charter.net>
> To: <nfbmi-talk at nfbnet.org>; "NFB of Missouri Mailing List" 
> <nfbmo at nfbnet.org>
> Sent: Monday, January 04, 2010 1:52 PM
> Subject: [Nfbmo] Listening to Braille???
>> Listening to Braille
>> New York Times
>> January 3, 2010
>> httpccwwwddnytimesddcom/blebjaj/jastjc/magazinest03Brl-tddhtml
>>  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
>> today."
>>  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
>> educators.
>>  "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
>> society."
>>  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
>> poor."
>>  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
>> labor.
>>  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
>> air.
>>  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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