The future of Braille’s dots

Photo by Brickset via Creative Commons

This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode

Patrick Cox: Hi, it’s Patrick and you’re listening to Subtitle. We’re a production of Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America.

Here’s an episode that hasn’t been available for a while, so we’re republishing it. For this one, I dragged my former pod partner Nina Porzucki into a studio.

Hello Nina!

Nina: Hi Patrick

Patrick: Just because you now work elsewhere this building where we’re talking, it doesn’t mean to say that I can’t find you — and subject you to…well, let me play you some tape.

Audio: “The next station is Westminster”

Patrick: So I was in London not so long ago with my 12-year-old daughter. And we were doing London stuff, going places. And we had this this app, called “overThere”.

Nina: What does it do?

Patrick: It’s kind of a speaking GPS or a speaking Google maps, designed for blind people to orient themselves.

Nina: So it’s telling you places that are tagged on digital maps and it’s reading them aloud to you?

Patrick: Yeah. And there’s all kind of audio nuances that help you — like the tagged place sounds clear when you point directly at it, but more static-y if you veer away from it a bit. So this is where we ended up:

London audio: (voice of app) “Chelsea Football Club stadium. 200 feet”

Patrick on tape: “Sorry Nina, we didn’t go to Liverpool.”

Patrick’s daughter: “Chelsea rules.”

Nina: No! Liverpool rules. Very clever ruse there.

Patrick: Note to listener: Nina is a Liverpool fan. I’m a Chelsea fan.

Nina: Liverpool’s better than Chelsea.

London audio: Patrick’s daughter: “Liverpool sucks”

Patrick: I didn’t make her say that.

Patrick’s daughter: “They didn’t make it to the top five, suckers! Their players are terrible and all they do is try to look like they know it but they don’t. Oh yeah, and they’re stupid.”

Nina: The words of a 12-year-old.

Patrick: What can I say? But moving on, the point of this app, overTHERE, it can be tremendously helpful to people who cannot see names of places on a map. It’s one way in which some designers are trying to keep blind people abreast of technological advancement.

Nina: Actually, this just happened to me. There was a blind woman on the corner, and I was biking by. She says, “Hey, is this, like, Fremont St?” And I said, “Yeah, it is.” And she got going on her way. But had she had this app it would have been really interesting.

Patrick: This is something that completely sidesteps Braille.

Nina: Ah yeah, that’s right.

Patrick: No Braille is involved.

Nina: But can you use it with Braille, like if you have a Braille reader?

Patrick: You can but you don’t need to. It’s speaking to you. I mean, it begs the question, how much do blind people today really need Braille?

Nina: That’s a good question. So what did you find out, Patrick?

Patrick: In today’s pod, how should the story of Braille be told? Do we talk of its past, present and future? Or of the beginning, the middle and the end of Braille?

So I think everyone knows just a little bit about Braille.

Sheri Wells-Jensen: It has dots!

Patrick: Dots! Embossed on signs, on paper. Cute dots.

Sheri Wells-Jensen: Here they are! Look! There’s dots!

Patrick: This is Sheri Wells-Jensen doing her impression of how not to teach Braille and its history.

Sheri Wells-Jensen: We’re going to draw them on the board. There’s dots. (Giggles)

Patrick: Sheri is a linguistics professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. And blind Braille readers, they have to put up with a lot of bad Braille history usually told by sighted people.

Sheri was good enough to fill in the huge holes in my knowledge of Braille. The holes between the dots. What about before there were dots, though? Before there was Braille?

Sheri Wells-Jensen: Pretty much blind people weren’t going to school at all. The idea of literacy just wasn’t even on the radar.

Patrick: How could you possibly be literate if you couldn’t see? Right? Who in their right mind could think that blind people could ever read or write? You needed functioning eyes for that.

Sheri Wells-Jensen: The only thing that blind people could read was the things the other people wrote for them: No note-taking, no journaling, no recording your great thoughts on paper.

Patrick: So literally if you wanted to write something back you would have to get a sighted person to write it down for you?

Sheri Wells-Jensen: Right, you’d have to get them to be the scribe and then they would have to decide to go ahead and emboss that for you. So writing anything down for yourself was probably a two- or three-step process.

Patrick: And that embossing? That would be letters in the Roman alphabet. Can you imagine how long it would take to prepare it, let alone to read it? Totally impractical. So this was the world that Louis Braille grew up in. Let’s do his name in French, at least once. He was French after all: [French pronunciation] Louis Braille

CLIP from French-language TV drama

Patrick: This is from a TV show about Louis Braille. It’s actually dubbed into French from English. It’s a Canadian production, so you have English-speaking actors depicting French people, then dubbed into French. Which kind of reminds me of that two- or three-step pre-Braille reading process.

So Louis Braille was born in 1809. He was actually born sighted and was blinded in an accident in his early childhood. He went to a school for the blind in Paris — and that’s where he learned his ABCs, with the help of those clunky embossed letters.

So what what was it about him that made him reject his lot in life and seek something more? Figuring this out isn’t that straightforward.

Sheri Wells-Jensen: It’s really hard to find a realistic biography of Louis Braille. “He’s just descended from angels!” “He was this amazing, special…” I don’t know. A lot of them are really sappy, so it’s hard to get a handle on who the fellow was. But there’s something about his parents and the way he was raised, and their insistence or willingness to let him bang about the house and come and go as he wanted to. It seemed that they didn’t spend a lot of times trying to control his motions. A lot of times blind kids are raised with a lot of “Don’t touch! Sit still! Be careful!” But he was gifted with the freedom to fall down stairs, climb trees, and run around and just be a kid. And I think that makes such a crucial difference as a young age for kids.

Patrick: OK, so here’s this fearless boy with all this build-in freedom. And France: At the time it was a huge power, politically, intellectually and especially militarily. Napoleon Bonaparte had been waging war all over Europe. And it was a French battlefield innovation that gave Louis Braille, the school kid, his idea.

Sheri Wells-Jensen: People were always coming to the school with the latest whacky new thing that was going was going to get blind people literacy. And one of the things that came through was a system of “night-writing,” it was called, that was used for military purposes. Because if you’re on the front line and the guy at the rear sends you a note, you don’t want to light your lantern in the middle of the night to read it because, Boom! There you are.

Patrick: Night-writing served a need. And it used code. It was lines and dashes that represented sounds. It was fast to read, and handy under the fingertips. It was the inspiration that 15-year-old Louis Braille needed. Of course, he also needed to improve it, to compress it — over the objections of the French army captain who invented night- writing.

CLIP from French-language TV drama

Patrick: OK, let’s flip to the English version of this show. Here’s the army captain.

CLIP from English-language version

Army captain: “I have spent years perfecting this.”

Louis Braille: “Yes, but eight or ten dots to one letter, that far too many to remember. And far too many to feel out with one finger.”

Army captain: “So you would like to change my system?”

Louis Braille: “Well, now I’ve thought about this. I think with just a few alterations. Perhaps, for one thing, there’s no punctuation or numbers. And then there’s the spelling. You don’t have a spelling system. We need to spell so that we can write correctly, just like sighted people.”

Sheri Wells-Jensen: So the blind people themselves thought, “This is genius! We love this. Suddenly we are reading and writing on our own. We can be rotten little 14-year-olds and pass notes in class, we can do what we want to do!”

So the blind people loved it. The sighted people running the school hated it…They didn’t like it partly because they didn’t learn it. And so they didn’t know what the kids were writing and that’s trouble. That’s kids taking power away from the teachers. That’s people assuming their own agency and becoming themselves. So the sighted administrators of the school, they could have learned Braille — anyone can learn it, there’s no rule, go ahead, learn it — but they didn’t want to. They liked it the way it was. And at one point they actually went through the school, found all the kids’ notes, found all the books that they had transcribed in Braille — and they had themselves a book burning.

Yeah a book burning. You can feel them going, “No no no no. Back off. You cannot take this power from us. You belong to us, you blind people. You are our philanthropy, we get a lot of prestige from taking care of you all. And your role is to sit quietly and do what we tell you to do, and not invent a writing system and claim literacy and start doing your own thing.”

Patrick: Wow, that’s staggering. So how on earth did they manage to convince these schools that this was a good thing?

Sheri Wells-Jensen: I think like all power structures there are some people who are in it to feed their egos and to have the power, but there were also educators of blind people at the time who were in it for blind people, who understood that these people with human rights. So eventually, the sighted people on behalf of blind people convinced each other that, “Yeah we should go ahead and do this thing.”

Patrick: It took a few more years, but Braille became established in France. And then it spread to other countries. Not always with ease. In the US, conflicting writing systems held it back for decades. And even after that was settled, there was then battle with the Brits over standardizing Braille for the English-speaking world. That ended with an agreement in 1932. And even after that, many American books for children used an older form of Braille. It wasn’t really until the 1950s that everyone was on the same page.

So several generations of blind Americans really lost out there. I’m sure all the publishing houses and directors of schools for the blind thought they were doing the right thing. But they weren’t. They were being stubborn. Good personal reminder: Stubbornness gets you nowhere.

Sheri Wells-Jensen was luckier, she was born after all this. Not only that. She had a great family support.

Sheri Wells-Jensen: My mother learned to read Braille before I did because she figured that I was going to have to read it so she learned it too. So I had the advantage of — my mom could write me a letter when I went to camp.

Patrick: When she was a little kid she used to wait on summer mornings for the mail guy to come.

Sheri Wells-Jensen: He’d pull into the driveway and he had a book for me from the lending library. And I’d go tearing down the stairs and fling myself down the front porch steps and crash into his car and say, “Give it to me!” And it was this big moment that there was going to be a book. And you bet that I read every word of that book. I didn’t skip a page because it was the book that there was to read for that week. But now if I wasn’t something, anything that’s online, I can read in Braille. And that’s amazing to me. Like I can get a book and say, “I don’t want to finish this.” It’s sort of a weird kind of freedom, to be able to skip things, to know that there’s another book that you can just change to if you don’t like what you’re reading. I could even start in the middle if I want to. But that’s not what most kids get. So they get a little bit of Braille during the day. They come home to a largely Braille-less environment. Whereas for sighted kids, there’s just reading everywhere. Probably if you look around you right now, there’s all kinds of words. Words on signs, words on books.

Patrick: You’re right, they’re everywhere.

Sheri Wells-Jensen: I think the nearest Braille to me right now is probably out in the hallway. There might be a number on the door. I’m betting it’s the only thing I can read in this whole building. Maybe it says “Exit.” Maybe it says “Restroom” on the restroom. But there’s this absence of the written word that, crucially, little kids experience when they are Braille readers. Whereas you are bombarded with print everywhere: words, words, words. And that has a marvelous, beneficial effect for little kids learning to read.

Patrick: Of course — and for adults once they’ve left school, continuing to be fully literate.

Sheri Wells-Jensen: And it’s so easy. There’s a whole library of hundreds of thousands of books. And you don’t even have to have a plan. You can just walk up and say, “Oh there’s a blue one, I’ll look at that. It’s got words in it!” And the unconscious ease of words everywhere is something you don’t experience if you’re a Braille reader.

Patrick: What about the numbers for Braille literacy? Is it in decline? Or is it not? I can’t get a handle for where we are at.

Sheri Wells-Jensen: Well, I think that’s accurate. The lack of handle is the accurate state. There are numbers that we like to use and people will say, “Only 10% of people who could benefit from Braille are reading Braille. But if you try to track that number back, and say, “Who did that survey? What year was this anyway? Where is the documentation of that?” You can’t find it.

What counts knowing Braille? Do you have to know the whole 180 set of word contractions? Do you have to be able to read at a certain number of words per minute? What counts as knowing? What counts as using? Every day? I don’t know. We need a census. We don’t have good numbers.

Patrick: Even so, Sheri adds this. After a long pause.

Sheri Wells-Jensen: It’s probably lower than it ought to be.

Patrick: It’s an undeniable anxiety, not knowing how many people use Braille. And on top of that, suspecting it may not be that widespread. Another anxiety: Will it soon become outdated? On that front, the Braille Authority of North America and its sister organizations around the world — they’re trying to keep up with how people communicate, not just with contractions that make it quicker to read and write, so you can use special characters to represent more than one letter at a time, like “a-n-d” or “i-n-g,” but also with things like ALL CAPS, hashtags, etc. So there’s now a new standard, Unified English Braille,. which addresses a bunch of the issues.

OK, So Braille can modernize every once in a while. Fine. But there’s technology too. There are different ways to read and write. Many blind people read and write emails by listening and speaking. It’s quicker and more efficient to use text-to-speech technology. And if you want to read a book, well, there’s plenty of choice. You can also, of course, talk to your smartphone. It’ll talk back to you. And there are apps like overTHERE, the one my daughter and I messed around with in London, making navigation a bit easier But maybe also, they’re chipping away — app by app — at the belief that blind people need Braille. I mean, is it becoming redundant? If not now, then quite soon in the future?

Joshua Miele: I’m blind and have been since I was four. And I’m now 50 or so.

Patrick: This is Josh Miele. He’s a scientist. And he designed the interface for the overTHERE app.

Joshua Miele: And while I am a huge Braille advocate — I use Braille everyday myself — Braille is not the one solution to our accessibility challenges.

Patrick: I spent some time with Josh recently at his office at the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute in San Francisco. And that thing he just mentioned — accessibility challenges — that’s what gets him up every morning. Pretty much all his research — all his work — is geared to improving blind people’s access to the world.

Joshua Miele: There’s usually more problems than solutions.

Patrick: Like, how do you read a web page, including the graphics? How do you make Google Maps work for you? How can you prioritize what you hear so you can filter out the unimportant stuff? And increasingly, the problems and the solutions — they don’t involve Braille. Or if they do, Braille is only one of many solutions.

Joshua Miele: Whenever you design a system, you have to think in as many ways as possible about who’s going to be interacting with it and how they’re going to get the info they need. The more ways they can get the info, the better.

Patrick: Josh’s latest project is a series of streets signs he’s working on for San Francisco and New York City.

He shows me some prototypes. The signs are rectangular and about the size of small notebook. The idea is for them to be posted at intersections next to crosswalks. They’d contain a ton of information — more than currently is the case. He shows me an example, full of embossed shapes.

Joshua Miele with a prototype for a pedestrian street-crossing sign (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Joshua Miele: The first symbol is a car, it’s an oval-shaped with a dot at the front of it.

Patrick: That dot — because it’s at the front — tells you the traffic direction. In the next lane is a larger symbol representing a bus or streetcar, also going in the same direction.

Joshua Miele: The next symbol, as I move across, is another bus going in the opposite direction. Then we have a little transit island. Then on the other side — and you got textured areas on both sides of the street which represents the sidewalk — and then the double dotted line which goes off the street to represent the safety zone of the crosswalk.

Patrick: You can read the name of the street on the sign, in embossed letters and in Braille. These signs will also have Radio Frequency Identification Tags, so if you have your phone with you you can get all the information that way too.

Joshua Miele: In order to produce them we used the latest in UV tactile printing technology. So the thing that we used to produce these signs is really high tech and really cool. But the signs themselves are fairly low tech…

Patrick: …but crammed with info that currently doesn’t exist. This is classic Josh Miele, this high tech/low tech combo. And just in case you think he’s down on Braille, he really isn’t. In fact, he thinks we may be on the cusp of a Braille renaissance, because electronic Braille readers — big clunky, expensive things that’ve been around for decades — they are now being made from components that are coming down in price and size.

Joshua Miele: Now all that shit’s much smaller and much cheaper and much more reliable. And so now we can go back to that idea and say, “Wait a second, that’s going to work now that a server motor is the size of the head of a pin rather than the size of a mason jar.” It’s really helpful to know not only what’s coming but what’s been tried and why didn’t it work.

Patrick: Josh brings it back to accessibility again. Achieve that and Braille will more than survive.

I wonder what Louis Braille would have made of all this. I’m sure he’d have hunted down ways the technology could service Braille — and Braille service technology.

Which brings me the person who first told us about him: Sheri Wells-Jensen of Bowling Green State University. She’s all about the using technology too. But Braille — reading and writing it every day — that’s still her main form of communication, her most cherished. What else would you use, she says, for your personal writing , your diary entries…

Sheri Wells-Jensen: …your love letters! Can you imagine having to do an audio letter? No! There are things that we communicate that we really want to write down. And having the freedom to choose to do that when you want to. Literacy’s a human right. It just is.

Patrick: Our thanks to Sheri Wells Jensen. It’s not the only time she’s appeared on the show. Scroll back a few episodes, and you’ll find her in an episode Kavita Pillay reported called How to communicate with aliens.

If you like what you heard today, you know what I’m going to say next: Please rate and review Subtitle wherever you listen. It takes no time, and it makes a big difference in getting the word out. We are hungry for more people to listen.

Thanks to Tina Tobey and Alyson Reed. Also to The World public radio program where every weekday you can hear what’s going on around the globe. I don’t know about you, but I need me some international in my news feed.

I also need podcasts from the Hub and Spoke audio collective. Subtitle is a part of Hub and Spoke. So is the wonderful podcast Rumble Strip. Each episode profiles people from all walks of life: People who don’t hear from in the news — they’re not “important” or ground-breaking, or have a certain axe to grind — but after speaking a few minutes in their company, you feel like you really know them. You want to meet them in person. At least I do. It is no wonder that The Atlantic magazine selected Rumble Strip as its Number One podcast of 2020. Rumble Strip with host Erica Heilman. Check it out along with all the other Hub and Spoke podcasts.

Stick around for a little postscript. It comes from Chancey Fleet. She’s the Assistive Technology Coordinator at the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library, which is a branch of the New York Public Library. We did a live show there a few years ago. This was recorded then.

Thanks for listening and we’ll be back in a couple of weeks.

Chancey Fleet: In a world where computers can translate to Braille automatically, and where the price of Braille materials — Braille displays and production equipment — is finally descending, Braille is more relevant than ever. But when people are new to it, it can feel two ways.

It can feel amazing because it’s almost like a secret code. It’s something totally different, it has this binary feel. So sighted folks who are new to it or people new to blindness tend to think it’s amazing but they also tend to think it’s awfully hard.

I’m constantly inspired by people who’ve pulled together for one another. I was inspired to stay with Braille and to make it a huge part of my life by my parents who are both sighted. My mother organized Easter egg treasure hunts for me with Braille clues, and she learned enough Braille to do that. My father, who’s not a very politically correct guy, made me a beautiful Braille cuckoo clock with a little bird who had a long cane and dark glasses. And now I’m at the library I’m inspired by people pulling together: families and professionals who support people who are transitioning into low or no vision; and patrons who have a lot of experience with Braille welcoming and encouraging and studying with new folks who don’t. This is one place where I hope we can all work together to bring down that intimidating wall that we all hit one something is new, and make sure that reading really is for everyone.

Subtitle is a production of Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America. It receives funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Follow Subtitle on Twitter here and Patrick Cox here.

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A podcast about languages and the people who speak them. Co-hosted by @patricox and @kbpillay. Twitter: @lingopod

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A podcast about languages and the people who speak them. Co-hosted by @patricox and @kbpillay. Twitter: @lingopod

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