Is braille still relevant in 2023? For Siobhan, Marie and Mel it shaped their love for reading, helped them learn new skills and remains a constant in their lives.
Why is learning braille still important?
Learning braille at a young age can be a transformative experience for people with sight loss. Despite living in an era of rapid technological change, braille continues to endure and offer unique advantages to people like Siobhan, Marie and Mel.
Siobhan's journey began during her childhood when access technology was limited and expensive. Braille became the foundation for understanding the intricacies of language and remains significant in her life despite emerging technologies like screen readers and smartphones.
“As blind and visually impaired people, we are spoilt with the vast amount of access technology out there to help live more independent lives,” Siobhan explains.
In her childhood, there wasn’t a lot of assistive technology available, and the screen readers that were on offer were expensive.
“There were many different bits of kit that would for instance have a very iffy go at telling you what colour it thought something may be. I had a great electronic organiser called a Parrot that was like something out of Star Trek, but in essence was a talking device that let you store up to 99 numbers with voice notes and you could, if you wished, hold it up to a phone and it would dial the number for you. It was about £300 in 1999 and I loved it.
“Smartphones changed it all though,” she says.
“This new technology can – for the most part – do it all, meaning you don’t need expensive individual devices to do specific tasks. Suddenly you could have sat nav, colour detector and diary all in one.”
With all this advancement in technology, Siobhan says it can leave some wondering: “Why learn braille at all when your phone can read letters, navigate emails and take voice commands?
“It’s a good question and for some, they’ll be happy throwing themselves into artificial intelligence and spell checkers, but what none of this technology has been able to do is to nail literacy.
“When I learnt braille at the age of 10, I was introduced to a braille book called Spot the Dot. It introduced braille to me at a young enough age and helped me develop sensitivity in my fingers. Be under no doubt, learning braille is like learning another language. We have a head start because it’s the language we speak, but it’s how I don’t make a mistake when writing words like ‘embarrassed’. Braille is how I understand punctuation, syntax, grammar and the construction of words, sentences and writing.
“Braille is the constant in my home, so I can quickly read a pre-prepared label without needing to keep my smartphone charged and at hand.
“My regret was that I didn’t learn braille when I was younger. I’m quite fast at reading braille and that’s something people struggle with even learning braille in teenaged years, but I did hop on my learning journey when my braille was at the optimum for learning languages.
“My advice to parents and loved ones of visually impaired children is get learning as soon as you can. It becomes harder the longer you leave it but it gave me such an advantage in the working environment and no access tech will ever replace that feeling of reading a book yourself.”
For Marie, losing her vision at the age of six meant embracing braille as a vital tool for education. Learning the braille alphabet and gradually progressing to grade II allowed her to keep pace with her sighted classmates.
“It enabled me to grow a love for reading and through activities enhanced my use of touch as a sense.
“Unlike sighted classmates, I couldn’t do long hand maths with a pencil. I could write the problems in braille but long division can get complicated if you cannot add and subtract by changing columns etc. Cubarithm arithmetic cubes, small cubes with braille symbols that can be used in maths in a grid structure to aid in mathematical calculations, were probably one of the breakthrough moments after learning braille in my maths classes. It gave me the equal opportunities to work out maths problems just like my peers.”
At nine, Marie was taught to touch type. She says that her introduction to braille had helped her gain this skill.
“Not needing to rely solely on spell checkers or listen to synthesised speech, I gained a greater understanding of perception when reading and was able to communicate effectively when writing.
“In secondary education, homework firmly a part of my life, I used the Eureka computer which was essentially a braille laptop of the times. I learnt to word-process, formatting my work as my sighted counterparts were taught to do in English, create projects alongside classmates and further my education.
“Now as an adult, I can access my medications with braille labels, and the foundation braille gave me has enabled me to do what I love, write.”
For Marie, learning braille levelled the playing field between her and her sighted peers and helped her feel confident.
“Now, I read primarily using apps like Audible or Kindle, but if I need to learn something or understand something like a course I’m taking, I still need it in braille in order for my brain to truly digest the information.
“The younger the learning can take place, the easier I feel it can be. I don’t see braille any other way than the format in which I can access information. It’s the key to the door of a world of opportunities.”
Mel's story paints a vivid picture of the transformative power of braille. She recalls the days when her mother painstakingly transcribed books into large-print formats, highlighting the impracticality and limitations of this approach. However, upon being introduced to braille at the age of eight, Mel's competitive nature propelled her to embrace this tactile system.
“I did not start life as a braille reader,” Mel confesses, “My earliest memories of literacy were of my mother dissecting Ladybird books so that she could stick the pictures into a larger book and write out the text in two-inch-high letters on the opposite page.
“Two years in a school for partially sighted children between the ages of 6 and 8 taught my teachers that this was never going to be an efficient way to read. Books just weren’t available in those size fonts and had they been, they’d have been bulky to say the least.
“At the age of 8 I transferred to a school for blind children where I was taught to read braille. I was initially very resistant to this, the books were ‘babyish’ and I just wasn’t interested.”
It all changed for Mel when she came home from school to discover her younger sister was reading the same book and her competitive spirit took over.
“By the end of that month I was reading The Borrowers and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in braille!
“I then discovered the National Braille Library which was liberating for me as a child. I was able to choose books from a catalogue and have them sent to me in the post, often in several large volumes which made carrying them back to the post office to return them a challenge!
“Technology has advanced considerably since then and I now read Kindle books with a refreshable braille display which can be held in the hands. But the concept is still the same. I feel far more empowered with braille under my fingertips. Listening to a book just isn’t the same.”
It's not just in reading for pleasure that Mel finds braille useful, it plays a big role in many areas of her life.
“For work purposes I find it invaluable to be able to listen to a caller and read braille at the same time when I am looking up and passing on information. Outside of work I’ve read braille in choirs, when running quizzes, when doing readings at weddings and funerals and countless other situations.
“I know for a fact that I wouldn’t be where I am today without the use of braille. I believe that most sighted people would be very disconcerted and disempowered if they had to take in all their information aurally without being able to see it written down and I believe it is just the same for me.”
Get support with learning braille
We can signpost you to the right services to get support with learning braille, for yourself or for your child. Call Guideline on 0800 781 1444 to speak with our specialists.
You can visit our technology pages to learn about the types of assistive technology which can help you live confidently with sight loss.