Braille: The Doorway to Literacy

As we celebrate Louis Braille’s birthday and World Braille Day on January 4 – and Braille Literacy Month throughout January – it’s an ideal time to consider how important it is for all students who are blind or visually impaired to learn braille. 

Of course, there are plenty of ways to take in a language without sight, from audiobooks to screen readers that speak written text out loud. But nothing compares to interacting with text, whether in print, large print, or braille. 

“Why are we teaching print when students can access everything via audio? Because audio is not literacy. It doesn’t allow an individual to interact with text,” says Carlton Anne Cook Walker, BEAR-Blindness Education, and Advocacy Resources, Teacher of Students with Blindness/Low Vision, and President of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children, who also has a child who is blind. 

She says oral language – including American Sign Language (ASL) – has a role in the world. But without text, we lose sentence structure, paragraph structure, and text structure. Written text, including braille, also teaches spelling. 

“Written text allows an individual to interact, to realize the difference between words like ‘there,’ ‘they’re,’ and ‘their,’ and to move around the text independently,” Walker explains. “Interaction with the text is key, especially for math. Just try doing it all in your head.” 

Reading that’s more efficient and easier 

Even when students with low vision use optical magnifiers, it can limit their ability to read effectively. For example, when longer words are magnified, they might take up an entire line on the page, which hampers a student’s ability to learn a language fluently. 

“For a child with low vision, print is often inefficient – and I believe text needs to be efficient, effective, and sustainable,” Walker says. “When reading braille, our fingers are moving and there’s more efficiency.” 

Walker emphasizes that braille isn’t difficult to learn – “Braille isn’t hard,” she says. “It’s just different.” 

Walker admits that braille can be challenging for students who lack fine motor control or tactile sensitivity, but she is working on ways to make braille more user-friendly for these students. 

Best of both worlds 

Walker feels strongly that braille must be included in instruction for students who are blind or low vision – ideally taught by a teacher who is fully immersed in braille as a reader, too. “If we eliminated braille we’d have to eliminate print, too,” she says. That’s the only way all students in a classroom would be on equal footing.  

But she recognizes that dual media has its advantages. For example, some students might find Optical Character Recognition (OCR) or screen readers helpful. 

“Having more tools is better,” Walker says. “You’re not going to use them all at once, but although a hammer is a great tool, sometimes you need screwdrivers, pliers, wrenches, and more. Sighted students have all those tools, and if we’re only giving visually impaired audio students to learn with, we’re leaving them with nothing but a hammer.” 

She adds that braille isn’t just about learning. It’s critical to living independently. She recalls one teenage student with low vision who wanted to make sure his clothes were coordinated, so she encouraged them to learn braille so they could put braille tags inside their clothes. The same can be done for labeling kitchen tools and appliances, canned goods, and many other household items. She recommends using magnets for commonly used items, to eliminate having to re-braille the words every time.  

“Sure, someone could use a color app on their phone or other software that will read labels to them, or tell them how to spell something – and that’s fine,” she says. “That’s still independence because they’re choosing to use that technology. But the point is to have as many choices as possible.” 

Technology and Braille

Walker is a fan of APH’s Juno, a handheld video magnifier with built-in OCR. “If you have low vision, you can read the text. Or you can use speech to text,” she says. Juno is versatile enough to use for self-grooming tasks, reading, writing, distance viewing – such as a chalkboard – and even hobbies.  

What’s more, APH is in the middle of reimagining low-vision technology. APH’s long-term goal is to create a suite of magnification tools running on a unique APH low-vision platform that’s flexible and easy enough for anyone to use. But APH always has, and always will, encouraged the use of braille alongside technology. 

“I think for anyone learning braille, it’s important to be immersed in it,” Walker says. “Schools don’t tend to be a braille-rich environment, but when I’m teaching, I find the sighted students are fascinated by braille – and they should be exposed to it, even if they don’t learn it. That normalizes braille and creates inclusion that’s very meaningful down the line.”