10:47am

Mon February 13, 2012
All Tech Considered

Braille Under Siege As Blind Turn To Smartphones

Originally published on Tue February 14, 2012 11:15 am

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.

Copyright 2013 Colorado Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.cpr.org.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Talking electronics, such as computers and iPhone apps, have dramatically changed day-to-day life for people who are blind. But some advocates for the visually impaired are concerned that good old-fashioned reading is falling by the wayside.

More from Colorado Public Radio's Megan Verlee.

MEGAN VERLEE, BYLINE: Like a lot of iPhone users, Rolando Terrazas can seem glued to that shiny chunk of glass and metal, and mostly for the same reasons everyone's hooked - email, text messages, finding a decent coffee shop. But Terrazas' phone does a bit more.

ROLANDO TERRAZAS: So, we're going to go to Money Reader right here. Double tap.

VERLEE: Terrazas waves a bill under the phone's camera.

TERRAZAS: Let's see what this one is.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Twenty dollars.

VERLEE: Having an app to tell money apart can be a big help for blind people, like Terrazas. It means they don't have to just trust clerks to give them correct change. Terrazas is 19 and his daily life is full of useful technology like this, but it has a downside.

TERRAZAS: All through elementary school I used Braille. 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.

VERLEE: He uses software that reads out loud what's on his computer screen. These days Terrazas is slowly relearning Braille, as a student at the Colorado Center for the Blind, south of Denver.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYPING)

VERLEE: It's late afternoon at the center and one of the instructors is logging in using a Braille typewriter in the lobby.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What time is it?

VERLEE: The center puts a lot of effort into convincing students they still need Braille to be independent and employable. Director Julie Deden says that technology is making the 200-year-old writing system more accessible than ever. Deden shows off an electronic reader, about the size of a paperback.

JULIE DEDEN: And I was reading "Tuesdays With Morrie." And so, I can go right into the book.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYPING)

VERLEE: Instead of having to lug around massive volumes of printed Braille, she just sweeps her fingers over little plastic nubs that rise and lower with each line of text. Deden worries smartphones and such mask a serious problem - Braille illiteracy.

DEDEN: People will let it go and they'll say, well, you know, they're not really illiterate, they really just don't use Braille or print very much. But that's just because they're blind. I think that it's kind of an out. And technically, they really are mostly illiterate.

VERLEE: 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 their federal obligation to provide a Braille teacher.

CHRIS DANIELSEN: 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.

VERLEE: The federation estimates that today only one in ten blind people can read Braille. That's down dramatically from the early part of last century. Jackie Owellet never thought she'd learn Braille, since she lost her sight as an adult after an operation.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)

VERLEE: Standing in a cafe in a Denver suburb, Owellet says learning to read again was the last thing on her mind.

JACKIE OWELLET: 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. You know?

VERLEE: But last year, Owellet was getting her yoga instructor certification. And during those classes, it became apparent that having a mechanical voice reading off her teaching notes didn't make for a very soothing yoga experience.

OWELLET: So, I realized, you know, there is a use for Braille and I think everybody uses Braille in their own way. You know, I think that everybody finds what they need to use Braille for.

VERLEE: 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.

For NPR News, I'm Megan Verlee in Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.