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Can braille survive in a smartphone world?

By MARY ALEX BERNARD

The Philadelphia Inquirer

September 17. 2018 5:22PM
Andrew Godwin teaches technology class in Associated Service for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Center City Philadelphia, Pa. (Scarlett Kuang/Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)



PHILADELPHIA — On a recent morning, six visually impaired people gathered in a building in Philadelphia’s Center City neighborhood, huddled over their iPhones, waiting for Andrew Godwin’s intermediate technology class to begin. The day’s lesson? Creating and finding contacts in your cellphone.

At the Associated Services for the Blind (ASB), people who are blind and visually impaired can learn the skills they need to survive and thrive in today’s digital-first society.

The nonprofit also offers classes to teach people with low vision how to read braille. For decades, ASB has been one of the largest producers of braille in the United States, creating versions of everything from books for the Library of Congress, to manuals for Comcast products such as your cable box or wireless internet router.

But the number of braille readers has decreased significantly in the last 50 years.

In 1960, half of all legally blind children in the U.S. were able to read braille, according to a report by the American Foundation for the Blind. Today, fewer than 1 in 10 blind people possesses the skill.

The number of fluent readers has plummeted for a variety of reasons: a shortage of teachers, decreased emphasis on teaching braille to low-vision individuals, and the rise of assistive technology.

“Technology offers the opportunity for those that are blind or visually impaired to live independently,” said Godwin, 46.

To demonstrate, Godwin opened an app, SeeingAI, on his iPhone 5S and turned the camera to face himself.

The phone described aloud what it saw: “56-year-old male with dark hair, looking happy.”

Godwin laughed. “56?!” he said.

The app isn’t perfect — but it is helpful. Users can program it to recognize faces — simply by holding up the camera, they can find out who is in the room without having to ask.

Godwin, who is blind due to a rare inherited eye disease that affects the retinas, began teaching at ASB two years ago. He hosts group classes on cellphone usage as well as one-on-one computer lessons. He tailors the courses to the specific needs of his students, such as a recently blinded author who wishes to continue his career using assistive technology.

Audiobooks and screen readers — programs that convert on-screen text into audible speech — make reading more rapid for individuals such as Godwin, who are used to relying on hearing and can understand speech at a speed that far exceeds a normal speaking pace.

Not embraced by all

But the new technology is not embraced by all.

For Lavera Diggins, 87, who lost her sight at 18 and says the loss was “like death,” reading braille allowed her to find independence. After learning to read braille at ASB, she became a volunteer teacher.

She creates braille labels for her clothing, cans, and cassettes at home to be able to identify the products on her own.

Without the ability to read braille, visually impaired people must take in all information by listening. But with the raised-dot braille system felt by the fingertips, they can process data at their own pace.

“It’s one thing to receive information passively as you’re listening, but when you’re bringing it in and interpreting it, it’s much more of an active way of engagement,” said Tony Stephens, director of advocacy and governmental affairs of the American Council of the Blind.

Stephens was born with low vision and became completely blind at age 15. It took him two years to learn to read braille. In recent years, he’s been using braille more.

Technology, apart from offering an alternative to braille, also makes access to braille easier.

Refreshable braille displays, tablets that can be programmed with different braille texts, are becoming more affordable and widespread. People who shied away from braille in the past because of inconvenience — a Harry Potter novel in braille would fill an entire bookshelf — can now carry a novel in one hand.

“Technology has made huge achievement in access to information, but at the core there is still the fundamental need for literacy,” Stephens said.

Forever relevant

Monica Heap, a sighted braille instructor who retired a few months ago, taught hundreds of students over her 34 years at ASB and believes the skill is crucial for visually impaired people.

“Braille is like a paper and a pencil,” said Heap, 65, of Lindenwold. “What do you do when all of a sudden you don’t have access to the internet?”

Godwin doesn’t read braille other than on short labels and notes around his house and, as a result, he “can’t spell for beans.”

But his son, Andrew, who was born with the same eye disease, is an avid braille reader and would be devastated if braille books were no longer produced. As an aspiring engineer, the 9-year-old finds it important to be able to read design plans and diagrams independently.

“Braille will never go away,” Godwin said. “It will forever be relevant, I believe, just for literary purposes.”

Still, in Godwin’s classes, a future without braille doesn’t seem impossible.

On that particular morning, cellphones spoke quiet commands to their users as they navigated them easily. Godwin sent a text to his wife using Apple’s talk-to-text feature, listened as his emails were dictated, and used an app to read aloud a printed document in front of him.

Together, Godwin and his students worked through the technological hang-ups the class encountered since they last saw each other.

“I love learning with you guys,” Godwin said. “There’s never a class of students that doesn’t make my brain work hard.”


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