[Perform-talk] NY Times Magazine features blind broker speaking outagainst Braille

Sarah alawami marrie12 at gmail.com
Wed Jan 13 04:21:44 UTC 2010

I thint that will tur off more people when t comes to braille. Yes I use a
screen reader but I do read braille music if I can get it in time and that
helps me a great deal. I say boo to that article!

-----Original Message-----
From: perform-talk-bounces at nfbnet.org
[mailto:perform-talk-bounces at nfbnet.org] On Behalf Of Donna Hill
Sent: Tuesday, January 12, 2010 1:33 PM
To: nfbp-talk at yahoogroups.com; NFBnet Writer's Division Mailing List;
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Subject: [Perform-talk] NY Times Magazine features blind broker speaking
outagainst Braille

The following article was in the NY Times Magazine, Jan. 3, 2010. I'm
interested in your opinions.
Donna Hill

January 3, 2010

  Listening to Braille


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,
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 1950s, 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

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 1400s, 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 19TH 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

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 argument that sensory deprivation restructures the mind. In
the 1990s, 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

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 1820s,
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 'dissent,' to disagree, is different than
'descent,' to lower something," he told me. "I'm functionally illiterate.
People say, 'Oh, no, you're not.' 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. 
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

When deaf people began getting cochlear implants
in the late 1980s, 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.

Read my articles on American Chronicle:

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Performing Arts Division of the National Federation of the Blind

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