AT 4 O’CLOCK each morning, Laura J. Sloate begins her daily reading. She calls a phone service that reads newspapers aloud in a synthetic voice, and she
listens to The Wall Street Journal at 300 words a minute, which is nearly twice the average pace of speech. Later, an assistant reads The Financial Times
to her while she uses her computer’s text-to-speech system to play The Economist aloud. She devotes one ear to the paper and the other to the magazine.
The managing director of a Wall Street investment management firm, Sloate has been blind since age 6, and although she reads constantly, poring over the
news and the economic reports for several hours every morning, she does not use Braille. “Knowledge goes from my ears to my brain, not from my finger to
my brain,” she says. As a child she learned how the letters of the alphabet sounded, not how they appeared or felt on the page. She doesn’t think of a
comma in terms of its written form but rather as “a stop on the way before continuing.” This, she says, is the future of reading for the blind. “Literacy
evolves,” she told me. “When Braille was invented, in the 19th century, we had nothing else. We didn’t even have radio. At that time, blindness was a disability.
Now it’s just a minor, minor impairment.”

The above is taken from a New York Times article, documenting the decline of Braille literacy in the blind community. I find the viewpoint expressed to be particularly distressing, especially as a Braille reader. I have been reading Braille to some extent or another almost ever since I can remember, and I find it shocking that someone would willingly go through life without it. I’m not discounting the convenience of screen readers, mp3 players and other, more modern ways of accessing printed information. In fact, I use all of these to some extent or other myself. If it weren’t for these alternative methods of information-grabbing, going to college would be a lot more difficult. I remember the last time I attended college, when there weren’t widely-available mp3 players yet, and a big, bulky four-track tape recorder was considered portable, and upon comparing the two vastly different situations, I will definitely take this second go-round, with all of its new technology, over the first, hands down. But I would never dream of giving up Braille. I use a Braille Siddur (prayerbook) and Tanach (Bible), provided by JBI, and cherish the large, even cumbersome volumes lining the shelves in my office. I like the smell associated with books. It’s comforting in a way. Of course, I have some of these volumes, (by “volume” I’m referring to a complete book, not necessarily a Braille volue), on my Pac Mate. After all, having to carry, in some cases, multiple big, heavy volumes to synagogue is a huge inconvenience. But I don’t think I’ll ever get rid of the books, short of very pressing need. but back to my original train of thought. I don’t understand how anyone could choose to be illiterate, and that’s exactly what non-Braille literacy is for the blind community. Braille is our way of reading, and to not teach blind children how to read Braille is doing them a huge disservice. Being illiterate in Braille creates all kinds of problems in the blind community. The worst of these, in my oppinion, is the horrible spelling that often plagues said community. I’m not suggesting that everyone must perfectly spell every word. I don’t do that myself. But having a rudimentary understanding of grammar and spelling is a must, especially if one plans to work in a professional environment. In my mind, neglecting spelling and grammar is laziness, plain and simple. And for anyone to suggest that this is a good thing to do, or even just OK, is worse than even this. Unfortunately, I don’t see this trend changing for the better. I see Braille, despite the efforts of the National Federation of the National Federation of the Blind, becoming a dead language. But I commend the NFB for their efforts to keep this from happening, and that’s saying something, because most of the time, I disagree with them on everything. So I suppose I can always hope that their current Braille literacy campaign is successful, but I don’t expect it to be.
Hat tip: Darrell Shandrow, who is quoted in the article linked above.


  • This subject has sparked some fiery arguments over the past couple days, including one with a gentleman who states that because he is able to use a computer he is far from being illiterate. I am guessing that means struggling through with speech to check for punctuation and spelling, which means more keystrokes to do that with, rather than just moving fingers across a page or a line of display. What people are refusing to understand is that portable players, computers, phones, and anything of an electronic nature can go at anytime. Yes, even radios.
    With a braille or print book, you don’t need batteries or electricity. Just the knowledge for reading such material, and the ability.
    I can understand that some disabilities, such as neuropathy through diabetes can hinder a person’s ability to read braille. But, in my humble opinion if such disabilities, whether they be mental or physical do not exist, there is no excuse for refusing one’s self the access that’s out there for helping us, except for chosen ignorance.
    It’s bad enough that we, in the US, have to cater to those who refuse to learn the language of our country. Must we as blind who have options add to the inconvenience with our supposed inconvenience by throwing away such important access as being able to read on paper just as the sighted still do, but in a format that’s been around for us since the 1800’s, simply because we’re spoiled by technology?

  • Joy,

    All of this is very true. Chris Nestrid left a comment on my FaceBook page, saying that as long as a person acquires the necessary grammar skills, then their not being able to read Braille isn’t necessarily an obstacle to literacy. But I don’t know very many people who do this without reading Braille, and for me, that’s the rub. I agree that, barring a disability that prevents one from reading properly, like dislexia or a physical disability, people who refuse to learn Braille and insist they get everything from their computers and such are at best functionally illiterate, and I think this is sad.

  • The following article was published by Suite 101 in response to Aviv’s piece. I also wrote an in depth series on the Braille literacy crisis for American Chronicle in 2009.
    Braille Literacy Crisis – Fact or Fiction
    Jan 16, 2010
    Not blind? Don’t know anyone who is? The CDC predicts exploding diabetes-related blindness. Will declining Braille literacy affect taxpayers? Or, is Braille obsolete?


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