The importance of Braille literacy

In 2010, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind almost closed its library because of funding issues. Yet some argue that those who can’t read Braille are akin to illiterates, writes Katie Engelhart.

The case

In January 2010, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind threatened to close the doors of its library. CNIB reported that its facility, which holds the country’s largest stock of Braille books, had been starved of federal funds and could no longer afford to circulate material to the 836,000 Canadians with significant vision loss. The library holds hard-to-come-by material, including a 72-volume Braille dictionary, which CNIB staff fondly refer to as “the pocket edition”.

Some argue that technological innovations – digital “talking players”, audio books, and large-print computer settings – have rendered Braille, that centuries-old system of raised dots, obsolete. Braille texts, in comparison, are expensive to produce and distribute.

Yet others, like the US National Federation of the Blind’s director Mark Riccobono, charge that those who cannot read Braille are akin to illiterates. One study, conducted by Dr Ruby Ryles of Louisiana Tech University, found that children who do not learn Braille score significantly lower than sighted students on standardised tests. They are also less likely to be employed than Braille readers. For others, like CNIB library user Myra Rodrigues, it is more a question of magic. “Braille makes everything come alive,” she told me in 2010; audio books do not.

In 2011, the government of Canada announced a grant of over $7m to keep the CNIB library afloat. The grant was a one-time offer.

If depriving the visually-impaired of access to Braille makes them less literate – and thus, conceivably, less expressive – can this dispute over library funding be cast as a free speech issue?

Author opinion

Free Speech Debates first principle states:

We - all human beings - must be free and able to express ourselves, and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas, regardless of frontiers. (Emphasis mine.)

We have, admittedly, not given adequate thought to this particular addendum: “and able". In many of our case studies, we use the “frontiers” to signify national or digital boundaries. In the case of Braille, “able” can be defined narrowly - and the “frontiers” of access are decidedly physical.

Broadly speaking, access to Braille education is a free speech issue. Many who use Braille insist that the reading code is integral to their literacy and, by extension, their expressiveness. Canada has a responsibility to provide its visually-impaired citizens with the particular resources they need to communicate effectively.

This is not a new issue. As early as 1957, the US National Federation of the Blind was writing of the need to mobilise blind Americans to agitate for “free speech” rights. In 1985, a public debate kicked off in the US when Congress banned the publication of a Braille edition of Playboy.

On the other hand, critics may ask: won’t audio books do? This is where the issue gets complicated - and not just for the visually-impaired. Technology has increased the ways in which we can receive and impart information. Each individual is apt to find some methods more useful than others. This begs the question: to preserve free expression, must we safeguard each of these communication means? Might cutting of funding for traditional book-sharing facilities, for instance, be considered a strike against those who are not digitally-savvy?

A consideration of this word “able” is particularly pressing as it pertains to those with disabilities. In this case, the issue of “able” thrusts arguments about educational pedagogy into the more politicised realm of “free speech.”

- Katie Engelhart

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford.

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