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Can braille survive in a smartphone world?
Mary Alex Bernard
Philly.com, August 30, 2018
On a recent morning, six visually impaired people gathered in a building on
Walnut Street, huddled over
their iPhones, waiting for Andrew Godwin’s intermediate technology class to
begin. The day’s lesson?
Creating and finding contacts in your cell phone.
At the Associated Services for the Blind (ASB) in Center City, people who
are blind and visually impaired
can learn the skills they need to survive and thrive in today’s
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
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 one 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
“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
The phone described aloud what it saw: “56-year-old male with dark hair,
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 cell phone 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.
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
reading braille allowed her to find independence. After learning to read
braille at ASB, she became a
She creates braille labels for her clothing, cans, and cassettes at home to
be able to identify the products
on her own.
Diggins doesn’t expect to pick up the newest technology because of her age,
but with braille, “once you
have it, you can use it.”
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
“Technology has made huge achievement in access to information, but at the
core there is still the
fundamental need for literacy,” Stephens said.
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
“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
Still, in Godwin’s classes, a future without braille doesn’t seem
On that particular July morning, cell phones 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.”