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Braille Is Misunderstood, Says Director Of National Federation Of The Blind

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"Among children who are blind, only one in ten learns Braille anymore. That's according to the National Federation of the Blind. And there is concern that the other 9 are missing out on learning important skills when they don't learn braille. To learn more, we turned to the federation's executive director Mark Riccobono. He told me the low number goes back to low expectations," says host Barbara Lewis.

Interview Highlights 

Riccobono: Braille is misunderstood. It's seen as not normal, because print is seen as the normal thing, so because there are low expectations, there's an assumption that braille is lower than print. A child who is blind if they have any degree of vision the first thing that we should do is maximize their ability to read print, even if that print needs to be 72 font or something or even if the reading is very slow. There’s not a look at braille as equivalent to bring and that blind people can be equally effective with braille as they can with print. It’s really a misguided bias and low expectations about the capacity of blind people dealing with braille.

Lewis: So are there fewer teachers of braille? I’m just wondering if a lot of the children who are blind are attending school where braille wouldn’t even be offered

Riccobono: The majority of blind children are receiving educational services at a good local public school. Oftentimes there is a shortage of qualified teachers who know braille. Sometimes that is one of the things that prevents school districts from providing appropriate braille instruction. But the other thing that contributes to that is we need braille to be more widely promoted and understood. We need braille to be taught as an elective in schools just like sign language is being taught so that people know there is a need for braille and we need teachers of braille who have high expectations for blind children.

Lewis: It struck me when I was preparing for this interview that kids are going to tablets. We are going away from a printed page. So where would braille have a part in learning for the children of the future who are blind?

Riccobono: This is really where the digital revolution has tremendous opportunities for blind people. First of all the National Federation of the Blind has been a leader in making sure that digital content, whether it be on the internet or through mobile apps or digital books, that all of those materials are accessible to a blind person. That is to say, digital content is just ones and zeroes and if it is built correctly, it will read correctly using speech output, a voice that will read the text to you. More importantly, the devices we have today, not just PCs but mobile devices that are designed correctly can connect to what we call “refreshable braille displays.” These are, think of a row of braille cells that is technology-driven mechanically that drives pins up and down to represent the braille code. It’s refreshable because I can have one line and I can hit a key to scroll to the right and those pins refresh to show me the next line. That tech has actually been around for a long time. I have one sitting right here on my desk and it’s actually connected to my iPhone ... Today’s children using both mainstream technology, like the iPhone or iPad, along with refreshable braille displays have greater access to information in braille than ever before.