I talk a lot about Braille literacy. Many of you have probably heard this before—multiple times—and I’m sorry for repeating myself, but I’m going to anyway. Actually, I’m not sorry at all, because it just keeps coming up. This is the area of disability rights that I am most passionate about (at least right now), and for obvious reasons: I love to read. Books have always been my best friends.
So like any bookworm, I measure time by when books I want to read are coming out. In the last two weeks, two books I’m excited about have been released: The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home by Catherynne Valente and Lady Midnight by Cassandra Clare. Just today, I found out about another book I want to read that was released today—Seven Ways We Lie by Riley Redgate (a current Kenyon student). Later this month, the third Colours of Madeleine book—A Tangle of Gold by Jaclyn Moriarty—will be coming out. But I don’t know when I’m going to be able to actually read these books. Not because I’m super busy (I always make time for books), but because they aren’t available in Braille yet. They will be, I’m sure, but I have no idea when.
This has been an issue my whole life. I had every single Harry Potter book spoiled for me except the last one, because the publishers gave an advance copy to the National Braille Press so they could translate it into Braille and ship the books to arrive on the release day. And that was a big deal. It shouldn’t be a big deal anymore. Technology has advanced so much since 2007, what with the proliferation of eBooks and Braille displays alike. It should just be the press of a few buttons to take a digital file of a book and translate it into electronic Braille. So why isn’t it happening like that?
The answer is that it’s probably a matter of some complicated subsidiary right that hardly anyone thinks about because the blind population is so small and the Braille reading population is even smaller. Which brings me to Braille literacy. Now, I enjoy a good audiobook as much as the next person, but I prefer to read in Braille. And the idea that the Braille-reading population is so small they don’t warrant the same attention as the general populace only perpetuates the problem.
The idea behind disability rights is inclusion in society at large, but because we can’t read a book at the same time as our peers, we are excluded. At best, we end up playing catch-up to our friends who have already read and discussed the book. But more often than not, especially with the internet and the way it tends to go crazy when long-anticipated books are suddenly available, major plot points of the book are spoiled for us, which could ruin our enjoyment of the book.
Yes, I’m blind, but I read too. And the problem of Braille literacy extends beyond fiction to education and employment issues as well.
Here’s the deal: only 10% of the blind read Braille—it’s true. It’s also true that hardcopy Braille is expensive and huge, and Braille displays and notetakers are expensive too (though considerably less huge). But none of this means Braille should be abandoned. Braille is the only viable way for blind people to read. A literacy rate of 10% is not evidence that Braille is impractical; it is evidence that 90% of the blind population is illiterate. Studies have shown that blind children who just use audio in school instead of learning to read do not develop the critical reading and thinking skills necessary for success in school and society. Denying blind children their right to be taught because it is inconvenient or expensive—as so many are—is a violation of their civil and human rights. All children who can see learn to read. It should be the same for children who are blind.
To give one analogy, the literacy rate of the blind in America is less than the total literacy rate in some of the least educated countries of the world, and it would be unacceptable to say the people of Afghanistan or Mali or Niger or South Sudan are illiterate because it is too expensive or inconvenient to teach them.
I love to read, but I am passionate about Braille literacy for reasons beyond my desire to be able to have a book in my hands the day it comes out (like everybody else, I might add). My parents had to fight for my right to learn Braille in elementary school, but many parents don’t have the knowledge or means to do that. When the school district insists that students who are blind don’t need Braille, how can they argue? But there is no substitute for reading when it comes to fostering independence.
Braille literacy is an issue all over the world. Programs like Perkins International send teachers and equipment to developing countries to teach Braille, believing that reading is fundamental to education, and education is fundamental to success. Yet Braille literacy is still a huge problem, even in the United States. Almost 70% of the adult blind population is unemployed, and this can be traced back to inappropriate or absent services in school, including lack of training in Braille.
On my first day at the New Hampshire Disability Rights Center, one of the attorneys told me about a decision involving a child who was not being taught Braille. The judge gave the decision to the school district in Braille and told them to read it without accommodations. This is the kind of thinking and action that makes a difference. It’s also just plain awesome! But there still needs to be a shift in the overall discussion towards how Braille can be extended to those who need it so the blind can have the same advantages as the sighted and reach their full potential as contributing members of society.