January doesn’t just mark the start of the New Year – it’s also Braille Literacy Month, commemorating the birth month of French educator Louis Braille, who first published his tactile system of reading and writing in 1829, 17 years after losing his own vision. In recognition of Braille Literacy Month, we reached out to Natalie Martiniello, President of Braille Literacy Canada (BLC), to learn more about the medium as well as the organization’s efforts to bring together and advocate on behalf of braille users, transcribers and producers.
How did you get involved with Braille Literacy Canada?
NM: I joined the board of BLC in 2013, first serving as Secretary, and now as President since May 2018. Although I had some sight when I was young, it was expected that it would decrease over time and so my parents ensured that I learned braille early on. Thank goodness they did! I can still remember running my fingers over that very first braille book. Braille has given me so much freedom, independence and opportunity in my personal and professional life. Supporting BLC just feels so natural to me.
Plus, I get to work alongside others who are equally passionate about braille literacy and the equality it brings. Research has shown that people who are blind and who know braille achieve higher levels of education, employment and income. Literacy truly is the key that opens so many doors, and the invention of braille represents a turning point in the history of the blind for this reason.
“Braille is a writing system, not a language.” Why is this an important distinction to make?
NM: One common misconception is that braille is its own language that is somehow different from, for example, English or French. In reality, braille is equivalent to print: It is a tactile system used to communicate language in writing. Braille signs exist for all letters of the alphabet, numbers and punctuation symbols. There are also special formatting symbols to tell the braille reader if a character, word or passage is italicized, underlined or bolded! Braille can therefore be used to write any language you know, just like print.
If you know how to write before sight loss, then all you need to do is learn the braille symbols for the letters, numbers and other signs you already know. It seems daunting at first because you need to develop that tactile sensitivity in your fingertips to recognize symbols by touch, but just like print: practice makes perfect!
What are some other misconceptions regarding braille that you’d like to clear up?
NM: Another common misconception is that braille is only used by people who are blind. In fact, most people with a visual impairment have some degree of usable sight. They may still have good enough vision to recognize faces or to even read print. Braille can still be a useful tool in many cases though, because it provides options and greater flexibility. There are braille playing cards and board games. You can use a braille watch to read the time – the list goes on!
Is there anything about the braille transcription process that might surprise our readers?
NM: Braille transcribers spend much more time on formatting than on the braille code itself. Braille translation software can do most of the print-to-braille conversion automatically. The Duxbury Braille Translator is probably the most widely-used braille translation software because it can produce accurate braille in over 130 languages. However, formatting has to be adjusted manually.
Most translation programs use styles (similar to Microsoft Word), and this greatly reduces transcription time. As a result, the quality of the source file is important. Let’s say there are two Word files that look identical: one that was created using styles whereas the author of the second file used tabs, spacing and font size to format the content. The file created with styles will take a fraction of the time to transcribe.
How do braille systems differ in other languages, and how do those differences affect their respective transcription processes?
NM: For languages that use the Roman alphabet, the braille symbols for each letter are the same as those used in English. However, punctuation and abbreviations vary between languages, so a symbol that represents one thing in English is likely to represent something completely different in another language. For example, dots 1-2-3-5 can represent “rather” in English and “rien” in French.
How have braille systems changed over time?
NM: Braille, like print, evolves with the times. With the advent of computers, the Internet and social media, braille needed symbols to represent things like the “at” sign and the hashtag, which were not commonly seen before that. Similarly, braille readers needed symbols to distinguish between different fonts and type forms – this would not have been an issue in Louis Braille’s day. Like print, the basic structure of braille has stayed the same, but the way it is written and read certainly differs as compared to 200 years ago.
How common are braille transcriptions in today’s publishing industry?
NM: Estimates indicate that approximately 5% of information available to readers of conventional print is available in alternate formats. Having said that, the advent of refreshable braille technology means that much more content is now available to braille readers in its original format. If a braille reader pairs a braille display with an iPhone, they can have access to eBooks from mainstream apps such as iBooks and Kindle. In other words, the quantity of actual braille produced does not necessarily reflect the quantity of braille being read.
What are some of the challenges faced by braille producers?
NM: One of the biggest challenges for braille producers is that many source files are simply not well designed. Putting information in a table when it isn’t tabular data (for example, to divide a page into multiple columns) is probably the most common instance of this. Similarly, scanned PDFs are difficult to transcribe because even after doing an OCR (Optical Character Recognition) there are usually so many errors that the content has to be entered manually.
How have audiobooks and e-books affected the public perception of braille texts?
NM: While it is true that audiobooks and screen reading technology have increased access to information for people who are blind, these solutions do not replace the need for braille – just as audio could never fully replace the need for print. Here are a few important things to keep in mind:
- Not all people are auditory learners. Braille, like print, may be a more active form of reading than listening to text.
- Not all forms of text can be understood in the same way if they are only read aloud. For example, the spacing and line breaks in poetry might impact the interpretation of what you are reading. Technical content like math and music would also be more difficult to learn without braille.
- Braille allows children to gain a better understanding of spelling, grammatical nuances and punctuation that they may otherwise lack if using audio alone.
Ironically, the reality is that thanks to technological advancements, many of us enjoy more access to braille than ever before. A braille reader can find just about any book published on the day it is released if they have access to a refreshable braille display, a device which can connect to a computer or smartphone and instantly present text in braille. Braille readers with access to braille displays often don’t need to wait months for their favourite book – a reality that was not the case even just ten years ago. These devices have traditionally been expensive and still are out of reach for many, but we’re already starting to see the introduction of lower cost displays (around $500 CAD ).
What does Braille Literacy Canada have planned in 2019?
NM: We started 2019 by commemorating World Braille Day – the birth of Louis Braille on January 4th – which was, for the first time this year, officially recognized as an international day to be celebrated each year by the United Nations! Throughout the month of January, the Bruce Hutchison Branch of the Victoria Public Library in Victoria, British Columbia has a display that we put together to commemorate World Braille Day.
We’re soon launching the Edie Mourre Scholarship to provide financial support to those interested in becoming braille transcribers or proofreaders.
Every two months or so we hold a teleconference workshop on braille-related topics. Our next workshop is on January 26th, and will focus on braille on the international stage.
We’re currently launching a project to support the production of print-braille books in French. These books would allow both sighted and blind family members to read together –an important aspect of early literacy development – and are especially needed since far fewer accessible materials are available in French.
We continue to offer our Big Brailler Bounce program, where we repair and rehome used braillers (manual braille writing machines) to braille readers who request them. A brailler is such a liberating tool, allowing people to quickly take down information that they can then carry with them (like phone numbers and grocery lists).
This is just a taste of what’s to come. If you’re interested to learn more about braille or BLC, we welcome you to contact us!
Braille Literacy Canada (BLC) was founded in 1990 and was originally known as the Canadian Braille Authority. It is a national charitable organization dedicated to the promotion of braille literacy and the right of braille users to equal access to printed information. BLC is also recognized by the International Council on English Braille as the authority for the establishment of braille standards in Canada. With a membership consisting of braille users, educators, transcribers and producers, parents of braille readers, and other individuals or organizations with an interest in braille literacy, BLC represents those working with or impacted by braille and is led by a volunteer board of directors elected by the membership each year.
Want to know more about Braille Literacy Canada’s work? Looking to get involved with the organization? Head on over to www.brailleliteracycanada.ca!