Braille, assistive tech, and inclusion: Connecting the dots


Although technology has offered numerous alternatives to Braille in the form of audiobooks and screen readers, Braille literacy remains of paramount importance as it offers a building block for language skills and a means to teach spelling, grammar, and punctuation. — 123rf.com

“Access to communication in the widest sense is access to knowledge.” – Louis Braille

World Braille Day is marked on Jan 4 (Louis Braille’s birthday) to raise awareness of the importance of Braille as a means of communication; 2021 marks the third global celebration of World Braille Day.

The invention of Braille is often compared to the invention of the printing press – its birth was nothing short of a revolution. In today’s digital and communications age, Braille is more relevant than ever, touching the lives of millions of blind, deaf-blind, and visually-impaired people worldwide. Available in virtually every language, Braille provides endless possibilities for education, achievement, and independence through literacy.

Braille is one of the first forms of assistive technology. Developed in 1829 by 15-year-old Louis Braille, it is a tactile representation of alphabetical and numerical symbols using raised dots to represent each letter and number. It can also depict musical, mathematical, and scientific symbols. Braille is used by blind and partially sighted people to read the same books and print materials as those published in a visual font.

While Braille allows people with low vision or visual impairment to access education, employment, information, and cultural life, the reality is that many everyday establishments – restaurants, banks, hospitals, income tax offices, etc – are not equipped with Braille menus, signs, documents, or receipts. This means that blind or visually impaired people often do not have the freedom to choose their own meal or to keep their finances private.

Vision impairment and Covid-19

There are one billion people with visible and invisible disabilities across the world. Globally, about 39 million people are blind, and another 253 million have some form of vision impairment. Ageing and illnesses such as glaucoma and diabetes can also impact eye health. In Malaysia, approximately 1.2% of the population experience blindness.

For the visually impaired, life during the pandemic has highlighted various issues around independence and isolation, especially for people who rely on the use of touch to communicate their needs and access information.

The pandemic has revealed how crucial it is to produce essential information in accessible formats such as Braille, sign language, and audible formats. Persons with disabilities face a higher risk of infection due to a lack of access to guidelines and precautions.

Education, employment, and skills development

Up to 95% of blind children do not attend school. This is primarily due to the lack of skilled teachers and limited access to Braille materials or equipment. For adults, Braille skills dramatically increase opportunities for entrepreneurship and employment, but employers are often unaware of the need for basics such as Braille paper or keyboards.

Imagine a blind child trying to navigate online lessons, a newly-hired blind employee familiarising herself with online materials, or a blind business owner applying for government assistance during the pandemic. Inclusion by design must be infused into private and public institutions and workspaces. For example, is there alternative descriptive text for images, and are documents and websites compatible with screen readers?

While there continues to be stigma and lack of awareness, we must realise that technology has changed the way we live, work, and play, especially for people with disabilities. People with vision impairment can do just as much as, if not more than, people with sight. There are now blind engineers, blind chefs, and even blind footballers. In fact, Malaysia’s national blind football team ranks in the top five in Asia, and top 20 globally.

Technology must complement the full spectrum of being human, and assistive technologies can and should play a role in increasing access and accelerating inclusion. Covid-19 has emphasised the need to intensify all activities related to digital accessibility and assistive technology to ensure social and economic inclusion of people of all abilities.

Is Braille still relevant?

Although technology has offered numerous alternatives to Braille in the form of audiobooks and screen readers, Braille literacy remains of paramount importance as it offers a building block for language skills and a means to teach spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Learning Braille from a young age helps with literacy as Braille is a much better way to understand syntax and the rules of language compared with audio content.

While technology continues to provide new solutions, Braille will persist as an important means of reading and writing, as well as content consumption and creation. Technology is an enabler for greater inclusion and should be seen as complementary to Braille; it plays an important role in amplifying human ability. However, we must remember it is not a substitute for Braille, enabling and empowering policies, or purposeful vision, action, and inclusion.

“The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.” – Helen Keller

NABILA HUSSAIN

Tech Policy Fellow, Social & Economic Research Initiative (Seri)

Note: The Social & Economic Research Initiative is a nonprofit Penang-based think tank.

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