Imagine if only 10 percent of our population were literate. For the blind community, this is a problem they face every day.
“I would have thought it was a lot higher than that,” said Alex Coleman, a blind computer programmer with Gainesville Regional Utilities. “Braille equates out to a sighted person being able to read. You wouldn’t expect a sighted child to grow up and not know how to read a book.”
Technologies, such as screen readers, allow the blind to use computer programs to listen to text being read by an automated voice. That’s one of the reasons for the decline in braille literacy, according to the Florida Division of Blind Services. But that has created challenges for the blind who are not literate.
Coleman started learning braille at the age of five, before there were many of the resources there are today. Although he uses the screen reader 80 percent of the time, he wouldn’t encourage the blind community to use that as an excuse not to learn braille.
“If I’m out somewhere and I get a text, I’ll have to hold it up to my ear so that no one can hear what my text says… I look like a dork,” Coleman said. “But since I have the knowledge of braille, I can read it like anyone else.”
“With the knowledge of braille, it opens so many doors for those who are blind in terms of access to higher paying and higher skilled jobs,” said Mary Ann Hastings, Senior Rehabilitation Specialist in the Florida Division of Blind Services.
At GRU, Coleman is able to type with a standard keyboard. He then uses computer software to change the text to braille and then print it off with a braille embosser so he can take his notes to meetings. The Division of Blind Services provided Coleman with an 80-character braille keyboard to use at work as well.
“When I have my screen reader reading code to me, it’s a good overview,” Coleman said. “But to get down to the nitty gritty details, I need braille. A misplaced comma can throw off an entire program,”
According to Hastings and research on the topic, the number of people learning braille is continuing to fall.
According to the National Braille Press, the braille literacy rate for school-age blind children was 50 percent just 40 years ago. Now, it is down to only 12 percent.
There are some national initiatives that are aiming to improve the literacy rate among the blind, including the Braille Olympics. January is also Braille Literacy Awareness month.
“I couldn’t tell you where the future is headed,” Hastings said. “I wish that bringing awareness would help, but I fear it may continue to decline.”
“It’s a shame,” said Madeline Davidson , rehabilitation supervisor with DBS. “I’d say the people I’ve worked with that know braille have a higher level of independence, because technology fails sometimes.”