Braille Monitor                                                 November 2012

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Democratizing Braille: A World View

by Kevin Carey

From the Editor: Kevin Carey is the chairman of the Royal National Institute for Blind People, headquartered in London, England. He delivered a somewhat abbreviated version of the following paper on Thursday morning, July 6, to the 2012 convention of the National Federation of the Blind. His remarks were controversial if not revolutionary, but, as he points out, they arise from many years of experience, not ivory tower theorizing. We decided that what he had to say was important enough that it deserved consideration of his unexpurgated text. Here it is:


Kevin CareyMr. President, ladies and gentlemen, colleagues and friends: First of all, let me thank you for receiving me here today. I am deeply conscious of the honor and hope that you will not mind the frankness of a guest. On a more general note, I am no stranger to the United States since I was a student at Harvard after graduating from Cambridge University in England, but I am delighted to have the opportunity to visit Texas for the first time.

Before I address my theme, perhaps a few words about myself would be helpful as background. I was born nine weeks premature at three pounds two ounces in 1951, and the oxygen that kept me alive gave me retinopathy of prematurity, blinding my right eye and leaving me with a tiny degree of residual vision in my left, which I ultimately lost in my mid-twenties. I learned to read uncontracted and then contracted Braille, going through a major code revision at the end of primary school. Over the years I acquired a knowledge of Braille codes for French, German, Spanish, Italian, two music codes, two mathematics codes, and two computer Braille codes. After university I joined Sight Savers International and worked in former British colonies designing education, training, and rehabilitation programs for incurably blind people; and the achievement of which I am most proud was the development of the first major computer-driven Braille production system outside the Western World, the African Braille Centre, which started life before the Internet couriering Braille books on floppy discs to embossers in a number of countries. During that period I worked in more than fifty countries and was involved in Braille policy and production in almost all of them. Later, after leaving Sight Savers to run my own IT consultancy, I chaired the United Kingdom Association of Braille Producers, sat on the Braille Authority of the United Kingdom, and took an early interest in the Unified English Braille (UEB) code. I also edited the UK peer-reviewed journal on blindness, the British Journal of Visual Impairment, which is very similar to your Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, which brought me into contact with many teachers of blind children, and I have taken a very special personal interest in libraries. I say all of this because, although I cannot hope to convince everybody of the rightness of what I am going to say, at least I am speaking from practical experience and not as a theorist.

The Global Braille Crisis

Braille is on the verge of a global catastrophe as great as that which the music industry faced in the late 1990s and as great as that now being faced by conventional book, magazine, and newspaper publishers; and, if we do not do something radical to save it, we, the baby boomers, will be the last generation to take Braille seriously.

There are five major clusters of issues feeding into this crisis:

Audio: The appeal of analogue audio was obvious from the start, and to its many virtues we can now add the cost reduction and flexibility of interaction provided by TTS. The last two decades have also seen an explosion of factual spoken-word broadcasting. The problem here is that, as the result of sloppy thinking, some educators think that audio text is equivalent to the Braille reading experience. But there is something very particular in our culture about text before our eyes or under our fingers quite distinct from the audio experience. Facility with symbolic language is a basic literacy which access to audio cannot readily provide, but the initial cost differential between audio and hardcopy Braille production is now being further widened by the falling cost of TTS.

Epidemiology: In most developed countries the number of blind children with no additional disabilities is falling while the number of blind children with additional disabilities is rising. For the past 120 years the life force behind Braille has been congenitally blind children. Some adventitiously blind people have learned Braille, but many of the small number with the inclination have been alienated by the pressure for a contracted Braille default. Many blind children with additional disabilities will manage uncontracted Braille at best. This is a global trend which has begun in the West but will rapidly extend as a consequence of improved medical services in such countries as China, India, Brazil, and South Africa.

Mystification: I use the term “mystification” to cover a large and complex problem area, but let me try to separate this into the following four elements:

This has meant that the major focus of Braille advocates and Braille authorities, teachers, and publishers, has been on rather arcane coding issues when they might have concentrated their energies on:

Indeed, in recent months I have received enquiries from some of the poorest countries in the world asking if they should establish Braille authorities to deal with coding issues when most of their blind children have no access to any kind of Braille. This orientation means that the gateway to learning Braille has been operated by professionals instead of being an easy-access mass-market product.

Cost. Nobody contemplating the budgetary tribulations of California and, at the other extreme, the decision of South Korea to phase out all paper books in its education system by 2015 can doubt that the cost of Braille is going to put it under pressure with a public sector preference for text-to-speech and, exceptionally, for the use of refreshable Braille displays. Put bluntly, Braille--and particularly hardcopy contracted Braille--will be perceived to be the province of a dying elite.


My broad, conceptual proposal for saving Braille is to democratize it, to take Braille out of the hands of professionals and put it into the hands of the people, and to this end I have six proposals:

In turning to the two major contemporary issues of Braille coding, it is, sadly, necessary for me to begin with an emphatic warning. When I made a similar speech to this one in Leipzig last September, those who disagreed with me quite deliberately misunderstood what I was saying. The key words in my two proposals are, “default" and “choice.” At this point I am tempted to say, "Read my lips," but instead I will simply say as slowly and clearly as I can that I am not proposing to abolish contracted Braille or to prevent anybody who wants to learn and use it from being taught and having access to text in it! I am saying:

Code Choices: In discussing code choices, I want to use Unified English Braille (UEB) as an example. The single major virtue of UEB is that it provides a transparent, reversible relationship between print and Braille symbols. The advantages of this are easy to explain:

Braille Market: Frankly, on both sides of the Atlantic we have made fools of ourselves over these issues. We have made the mistake of the visual impairment sector down the ages, the same mistake we made over residential education and mainstreaming, the same mistake we made over sheltered and open employment, the same mistake we made over the relative merits of Braille and large print. The mistake is that advocates on both sides of the arguments have wanted a universal adherence to their point of view, so opponents have fought each other to a standstill. In spite of this, both sides have continued to behave as if an overwhelming victory and the power of imposition are possible.

How can it be in the United Kingdom and the United States, with our belief in markets and choice, that we haven't allowed the market to show us customer preference? The hand-to-hand fighting over mathematics coding in a top-down hierarchical structure makes nonsense of what technology can offer and what we all believe about choice and markets. I realize that unchecked market theory is as damaging as unchecked autocracy, so we need to achieve a balance and opt for practical, perhaps less elegant, less clear-cut solutions to our problems. In the case of UEB, for example, it might be somewhat inelegant to propose its use in the English-speaking world for all literary Braille but to allow some latitude in mathematics as a temporary measure; this will disentangle majority use from a perfectly understandable concern with an important but nonetheless minority concern. It is time for the experts to put their own concerns into the context of a broad and diverse educational and cultural ecology; it is time for the consumer voice to be heard in support of decisions which will broaden and simplify access and cut costs.

So where does this leave Braille authorities? Well, you have probably gathered by now that I am not very keen on self-appointed bodies with self-appointed powers telling me or anyone else what I can and cannot do or have. But there are still jobs to be done which Braille authorities might do better than individual organizations of or for the blind:

Underlying these proposals, I believe that all Braille authorities should be radically democratized so that consumers and those speaking on behalf of potential consumers--those who are alienated from Braille reading because of current barriers and constraints--should have strong representation. Self-appointed oligarchies of experts are not generally sensitive to either their existing or potential markets but are wrapped up in their own concerns. In a parallel proposal I believe that we should create a market in Braille products that reflects cost and quality, approximately in ascending order of price, as follows:

For half a century most alternative-format publishers in the world have offered their customers or beneficiaries a choice between very expensive and subsidized hardcopy, contracted Braille, and real audio. Digital alternatives are now possible, and the issue for most publishers is whether they are able to disentangle their book sales from their free lending model. There may still be some latitude in lending, but my own experience is that it will steadily decline in richer countries, and in poorer countries the cost of hardcopy publishing and lending has to be balanced against the Internet transmission of digital files. The fly in this lovely pot of ointment is of course copyright, but I suspect that publishers would be less hostile if the global blindness community was more sympathetic to paying publishers than paying lobbyists to get free product.

Another dimension in quality and time, again in ascending price, is:

In England, a quarter of a century after the first Braille translation software, RNIB was still offering only real audio books and proofread hardcopy Braille, delivered up to two years after print publication. Is that true here? And is it, as I suspect, true almost everywhere? Customers should be allowed to purchase on the basis of quality, price, and timeliness. We at the RNIB are also considering issuing unproofread fiction simultaneously with print publication, giving our readers product vouchers for logging errors.

Multi-Modal: I want to begin my remarks on multi-modal Braille learning, i.e., learning to read dots with simultaneous support from speech and on-screen magnified print, by telling two stories. In a small school for blind children in the shadow of the Himalayas, I saw blind children, like monks from the Middle Ages, copying old Braille texts with stylus and frame, replicating previous mistakes and adding their own new ones. Perhaps one in twenty of them would graduate to be the class teacher of the next generation of child monks. At the other end of the sophistication spectrum, somewhere in Scandinavia, I recently visited the most sophisticated rehabilitation center in the world. There I saw Braille learners studying alone from hardcopy sheets. Meanwhile, in the next room newly blinded adults with residual vision were learning how to use screen magnification on lovely computers which ironically were equipped with refreshable Braille displays. Without being explicit, Braille had become associated with failure and isolation, which might explain its declining popularity. We're selling it, not as a new opportunity but as a last resort. But the Scandinavian experience also gave me the worrying thought that teachers who self-identify through their Braille teaching somehow think that adopting a multi-modal approach is a form of cheating since it makes it easier to learn Braille. There is every educational reason why children and adults should learn Braille on refreshable displays with TTS and screen magnification so that Braille is acquired within a supportive environment.

If we look at Braille as a commodity, then we can say that it is:

This leads me to two economic recommendations:

End User Braille Embossing: one element of market choice that should be considered is end-user Braille embossing. Many Braille users have the expertise and the time to run files through their computers and send them to an embosser. This will require a heavy subsidy on Braille paper, but for books on demand with short runs, it would be cheaper to supply the file and the paper to the end user, supplying cheaper paper for products that end users say will be read only once and then recycled. Connected with this is the whole economic question of the advantages and disadvantages of libraries versus nonreturnable Braille-on-demand for certain genres. I have recently been studying this subject, and the real problem of reaching a conclusion is that many practices in Braille production are products of history rather than rational analysis. "Why do you do that?" I asked at a European Braille press. “Because we do,” is the answer.

Refreshable Braille: Apparently the single largest obstacle to providing a tactile alternative to hardcopy Braille production and distribution is the cost of refreshable Braille. I say "apparently" because, as I have just noted, extracting figures from Braille production houses about their real costs is difficult. I do know that the production of a single title in many cases can be as expensive as a 32-cell Braille display, but, if the cost of the display really is the barrier to Braille access, we need to tackle this subject as a matter of urgency so that Braille readers can take advantage of the ebook revolution, leaving specialist blindness agencies with the budget to handle more complex books with savings from supplying hardcopy light fiction.

I am pleased to say that your president and I are of one mind on this issue, and he and his senior officers are joining a global initiative to identify a low-cost solution which will form the basis of products from a very simple single line display with minimal controls to be used in developing countries and to be used by readers of straightforward text to multi-line or whole page displays for students.

This leads me to Braille as a global phenomenon. Our discussions over the English Braille Code and our efforts to attain a level of digital file interchange between organizations serving blind people have shown us that we need to pool expertise to advance the cause of Braille, particularly in:

What we don't want is a world body that replicates our historical mistakes by trying to develop global coding rules. Overall these proposals not only constitute a flexible strategy, they allow the rational allocation of price subsidy by suppliers.

That, if you like, is the nuts and bolts of my presentation, but I want to end on a higher note: freedom. I believe that Braille has been the prisoner of a congenitally blind, highly educated elite for too long and that, if it stays that way, it will die with us but that, if we are as passionate about its future as we are about its present and even its past, then we have a duty to do for Braille what the digital recorder did for music and what the word processor did for publishing. The mistake of both industries was to see the future in terms of the past rather than in its own terms, and they will recover fully only when they see the new situation as an opportunity. We should turn our tradition on its head and make Braille a consumer-focused entity, easy to learn, flexibly available, and responsive to market forces. We have spent far too long burying our heads in our code books, oblivious of the changing world which will not wait for us. In a manner which is repeated over and over again in history, we have adopted the classic defensive posture of the besieged, arguing over ever more arcane points as the enemy's grip tightens. It is time to break out. It is time to abandon old quarrels and let the citizen and the consumer decide; it is time to abandon old prejudices and read and respect research; it is time to recognize the new technologies for Braille production; and it is time to plan for an era when public sector expenditure will decrease and when philanthropy might falter. Above all, it is time to think of ourselves, not as the custodians of a precious past, but as the advocates for an exciting future.

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