Is Braille Relevant in the 21st Century Workplace?

Fingers touching a braille page

Why Use Braille?

You know the saying, “If I had a dime for every time someone asked me…?” Well, this is one of those questions that would have made me rich beyond my wildest dreams. You can take out workplace and put in classroom, home, or any other setting, but the meaning behind the question is the same. Why do people who are blind or low vision still need braille? The answer is easy. In order to be literate, a person needs to be able to read and write. Literacy also presumes that one can read what they write. If you consider someone like me, a person who never had good vision and has almost no vision now, the definition of literate can get complicated and confusing.

Low Vision Student

In elementary school, I could read books by holding them close to my face. I could also write with a pencil and read what I wrote. When I learned cursive, I could write with a pen and read what I wrote even easier because the contrast was better. I learned black ink was easier to see than blue, so I always used black. However, my handwriting was always considered poor, and I could never easily read what others wrote, especially in cursive. So, was I truly literate early in my education? Maybe, maybe not.

As the print in books that I wanted or needed to read got smaller, my reading ability diminished. By fourth grade, I was listening to Talking Books for pleasure unless I could get my hands on the rare large print book. I was not always able to complete reading assignments in school because the amount I needed to read took too long and caused severe eye strain. Somewhere around eighth grade, I noticed that teachers told us the important content from the textbook during lectures so finishing my reading was less and less attractive to me. I made passing, although not stellar, grades that seemed adequate then. I wish someone had pointed out that I was selling myself short, settling for less, and not living up to my full potential. I also noticed during this time that my spelling ability was declining because I wrote the majority of written words that I read, and therefore, spelled by me. Would you agree that my literacy was suffering?

Going to College

During my freshman year of college, I had two rude awakenings. First, college professors do not lecture about what is in the textbook as a general rule. They expect you to read, and they impart other wisdom during class time. However, they test on what is covered in the textbook, and your grade suffers if you haven’t done the reading. I went from being an A/B student in high school to a C/D student in college. Needless to say, I wasn’t pleased, and neither were my parents.

My second rude awakening relates to reading my class notes. At the end of the fall semester, while preparing for comprehensive finals, I discovered I could no longer read what I wrote in cursive at the beginning of the semester. I had weeks and weeks of completely unreadable notes. In the spring, I wised up and started printing my notes, skipping lines so what I wrote wasn’t so crowded, and using wide-ruled notebooks instead of college ruled. I also made more effort to complete reading assignments but recorded textbooks and human readers (all that was available to me at the time) were not sufficient or efficient enough. Again, my literacy level had declined.

Working with Vision Loss

Where’s braille, and why is it important to this story, you might ask. Fast forward 15 years to the point when I completed my master’s degree and was employed as a vocational rehabilitation counselor. I had over 100 case files divided into a four-drawer filing cabinet. I had my assistant put large print labels on each folder during my first week of work. I could get my nose close enough to read the labels on the folders in the top drawer while standing, and I could find a file in the second and third drawers using the same tactic while sitting. The bottom drawer was a different story. I had to pull each file out of the drawer and hold it up to my face to read the name. This was not very doable when someone was on the phone and needed an answer quickly.

During that same period, I could use a video magnifier to read regular print at my desk, albeit slowly and with the pleasures of an eye strain headache to take home with me every single day. However, when attending meetings or conferences, all printed material was inaccessible to me if I didn’t have access to a video magnifier.

At a training session away from the office, a very wise man pointed out that people with low vision who use video magnification to read are probably functionally illiterate. He said braille gives a person who is blind or low vision the potential for literacy. At first, I was shocked and then incensed because I fit that description. I sat with a video magnifier and my training manual open under the camera. Stop for a moment. Do you fit that description too? Do you work with people who fit that description? Let me explain further before you get as angry as I got that day.

Reading Braille Equals Literacy

Dr. Phil Hatlin was simply saying that reading speed, which impacts comprehension, is often unattainable for those of us with low vision, impacting literacy. It’s true. Even with assistive technology, I couldn’t complete the tasks in that training as fast as my sighted counterparts. I couldn’t read anything unless I had a video magnifier. I couldn’t write anything and read it later. These were all problems of literacy.

In my 40’s, I started learning braille with a passion. I didn’t want to be at another meeting where I could not read the agenda. I wanted to put my fingers on braille labels on my case files instead of my nose on large print labels. I wanted to be able to read my phone messages instead of asking my assistant to read the pink “While You Were Out” messages. I wanted to be able to write a to-do list, a telephone number, or an address down so that I could read it anywhere, anytime. In other words, I wanted to be literate again. I hear you asking, “How did that work out for you?”

Should I Learn Braille?

Braille is one of my top three employment skills, along with orientation, mobility, and keyboarding by touch. I find it impossible to prioritize them any further than this because without one the others don’t stand alone.

I mastered the braille alphabet and some contractions with the help of a coworker who learned braille as a child and taught it to adults. I undertook a course in “Relevant Braille” from Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and I learned to write with a slate and stylus at the same time I finished learning the contractions. I asked for everything I could get in braille, and I continually strive to improve my reading and writing skills. I label everything in braille and use a refreshable braille display on my electronic notetaker. If I am giving a presentation, my outline is in braille. If I am flying, my flight numbers and times are in braille. I set three goals for myself when I started learning braille. One, I wanted to be able to read the program at the next professional conference I attended. Two, I wanted to be able to read to my grandchildren. Three, I wanted to be a lector at church. I have achieved the first two goals, but the third still eludes me.

Nevertheless, braille contributes to my daily success at work and impacts my home life positively. I’m not alone. Research shows that braille readers (and therefore writers) are employed at a much higher rate than people who are blind or low vision who do not read braille. Why do you suppose this is? It’s simple. Tasks for many jobs require literacy. Audio or electronic versions on the computer cannot always accomplish the task or are so inefficient that no employer will see an applicant as qualified without additional skills. Braille allows one to edit and consume written words more efficiently, whether on paper or a refreshable display. Braille labels may be the only way to make some aspects of a job accessible. Jotting down a note in braille and slipping it into your coat pocket to remind yourself of an event may be your best option to ensure you accurately remember the time and location.

Are You Frustrated With Vision?

If you are not a braille reader, think about a time when you wished you could have read something important all by yourself. Where were you? If you could have used braille, would it have made a difference? Was it a sign for the restroom? Were you at a restaurant where they have braille menus? Was it a printed manual at work? Was it a listing or directory you need to refer to on your job? Was it a note you wrote on a sticky for yourself, but later you couldn’t make it out? Braille could have helped in all these situations and more. So jump on in and start learning braille today!

Braille Resources

All About Braille a VisionAware Resource

Braille Institute — Free Programs, Classes, and More

Find Braille Courses from Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired