Friday, February 17, 2012

Braille under siege as blind people turn to smartphones

Like a lot of smartphone users, Rolando Terrazas, 19, uses his iPhone for email, text messages and finding a decent coffee shop. But Terrazas' phone also sometimes serves as his eyes: When he waves a bill under its camera, for instance, the phone tells him how much it's worth.
Terrazas is blind, and having an app to tell bills apart can be a big help. For one thing, it means he doesn't have to trust clerks to give him correct change. Terrazas' daily life is full of useful technology like this, but it also has a downside: The more he uses technology, the less he uses Braille, the alphabet of raised dots that the blind read with their fingers.
"All through elementary school I used Braille," Terrazas says. "But when I got a laptop, I switched over and I went away from Braille. If you don't use it, you lose it. And that's what happened to me."
Terrazas uses software that reads out loud what's on his computer screen. These days, he's slowly re-learning Braille as a student at the Colorado Center for the Blind, south of Denver.
The center puts a lot of effort into convincing students they still need Braille to be independent and employable. Director Julie Deden says technology is making the nearly 200-year-old writing system more accessible than ever. She shows off an electronic reader that's about the size of a paperback. Instead of having to lug around massive volumes of printed braille, this reader allows Deden to just sweep her fingers over little plastic nubs that rise and fall with each line of text.
Still, Deden worries that technologies like smartphones are also masking a serious problem — Braille illiteracy.
"People will let it go and they'll say: 'Well, you know, they're not really illiterate. They just don't really use Braille or print very much, but that's just because they're blind,' " she says. "I think that it's kind of an out, and technically they really are mostly illiterate."
Blind people choosing not to learn Braille is only one part of the equation. Chris Danielsen with the National Federation of the Blind says his group is increasingly butting heads with school districts trying to get out of federal obligations to provide a Braille teacher.
"They will tend to say, 'Well we have screen magnification software, we have all these tools available, and in light of that we don't think it's necessary for a blind person to be taught Braille,' " Danielsen says.
The federation estimates that today only one in 10 blind people can read Braille. That's down dramatically from the early 1900s. Jackie Owellet lost her sight as an adult, after an operation. Standing in a cafe in a Denver suburb, Owellet says learning to read Braille was the last thing on her mind.
"When am I ever going to use Braille? I'm never going to sit down and read a novel in Braille. You know, I'd rather download an audio book from iTunes," she says.
But last year, while taking classes for her yoga instructor certification, it became clear that having a mechanical voice reading off teaching notes didn't make for a very soothing yoga experience.
"So I realized there is a use for Braille," Owellet says. "I think everybody uses Braille in their own way. You know, I think that everybody finds what they need to use Braille for."
Advocates for Braille are hoping blind people like Owellet will continue to find enough reasons to keep their tactile system of writing alive, even amidst the growing chorus of computer voices.
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