The Dust-up over Braille

by Suzanne Robitaille

The Poynter Institute is talking about braille and literacy, a topic jump-started by a recent New York Times Magazine article, “Listening to Braille,” by Rachel Aviv. The author writes that new technology may be undermining braille literacy as people who are blind are now “reading” via e-books, iPods, telephone news services and other text-to-speech devices.

Note to New York Times headline writers: People who are blind read braille. They don’t listen to it.

Aviv delves into scientific studies that say learning English by “visual” or “feeling” mode is far better than anything audio can provide. With new technologies, she asks, do blind people lose more than they gain?

Probably not. Most blind people would never be able to assimilate into modern society without “talking” books, computers, mp3 players and smart phones — even if they were fluent in braille. One reason is the cost of producing a braille book – about $1,000, due to the cost of labor and materials. Aviv writes:

“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.”

Alternatively, a person who is blind can read Web-braille.  Such a book is translated into digital braille and “read” via braille on a computer or PDA using a “refreshable braille display,” which is like a braille keyboard. Still, these devices cost upwards of $6,000 and one must be fluent in literary braille to use them.

That’s why digital talking books make so much more sense for today’s modern person who is blind. Books can be read aloud on “DAISY readers,” which are like the Kindle — only much more accessible, or on MP3 players like iPods. Costs start from $350 and up. That’s more favorable economics.

The bigger problem is getting the major publishers to allow their books to be translated into audio for those with visual impairments.  The New York Times and BusinessWeek have covered the recent dispute over Kindle 2’s ability to read its books aloud, which was intended for use by the blind. In a Wall Street Journal article, Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild says: “Kindle users don’t have the right to read a book out loud…that’s an audio right, which is derivative under copyright law.”

Technology has caught up with the times, but the marketplace is still mired in old-school thinking. This debate will continue. Meanwhile, people who are blind will try to get their hands on literature any which way they can.

Suzanne Robitaille is the founder and editor-in-chief of Abledbody.com, a consumer Web site that covers disability news and assistive technology. She was the assistive technology columnist for BusinessWeek.com in New York from 2001-2005.

She also worked at The Wall Street Journal Online and continues to write for print and Web publications, including The Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek.com, Disaboom and Media Post. She is the author of the book “The Illustrated Guide to Assistive Technology & Devices.”

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