World Braille Day: 6 ways to become a supportive ally to braille readers

Jan 5 2022, 12:00 am

Written for Daily Hive by Natalina Martiniello, President of Braille Literacy Canada

Did you know that January 4 has been officially recognized by the United Nations as World Braille Day?

Louis Braille, the inventor of the Braille code, was born on this day. Accidentally blinded at the age of three in his father’s workshop, by 12, Braille had developed his famous tactile code.

There were no fireworks or fanfare — but the revelation that a blind person could use their fingers to decipher meaning tactually was the beginning of a story that changed everything.

And so, each January, events are organized to celebrate the continued impact of Braille for the millions of people who use it.

This year, Braille Literacy Canada — in conjunction with several other organizations — has arranged a series of virtual events throughout the month of January to celebrate braille.

Since its invention, braille has continued to evolve alongside print. Just like print, we can read and write braille on paper or using electronic devices. Electronic braille displays connect to smartphones and computers and instantly translate what others visually see on the screen into braille, using a series of pins that rise and fall to form braille symbols.

Refreshable braille display showing the words “braille is literacy for the blind

Dr. Natalia Martiniello

Like countless other Canadians, I am a lifelong braille reader. When my sighted classmates began learning to read with their eyes, I began learning to read through touch. 

In honour of the six dots that make up the braille code, here are six actions you can take to become a supportive ally to braille readers everywhere on this World Braille Day.

Become a braille myth buster

  • “Braille must be hard to learn: How do you make sense of all those dots?”
    The irony is that braille is actually much more logical than print. After all, we could ask the same of print – how do you make sense of all those loops and lines? Braille follows a very logical pattern. Once you learn the first ten letters of the alphabet, you have all you need to crack the code for the rest of the letters too. The rest is like anything else: practice makes perfect. Can you recognize the pattern in the below image?
Image of the braille alphabet showing the logic of the braille system

Dr. Natalia Martiniello

  • “Braille is only for people who are totally blind.”
    Here’s the thing: Not all blind people use white canes and guide dogs, and not all blind people are totally blind. Some people with low vision might prefer braille for labelling household products (like different cans of soup), especially if the print is small or contrast is poor. Braille doesn’t mean that you can’t use the other tools around you – but it gives you far greater choice.
  • “Braille is less relevant now that blind people have access to audio.” Audiobooks and screen-reading technologies help to level the playing field, but they don’t replace the need for braille. Just like print, braille provides access to spelling and punctuation that is often much harder for many people to grasp through audio alone. Like many others, I use braille when I want to edit a text, learn how to read a foreign language, or read a math problem. I also prefer braille when I want to get away from all those noisy gadgets. It’s all about choice. 

Now that you’re in on the secret, pass it along. Myths about braille are powerful because they might prevent someone you know from learning braille when it might actually help them or lead a teacher or employer from wrongly assuming that braille is no longer relevant.

Be aware of unconscious bias

The thing about unconscious bias is just that: it’s usually unconscious. A good tip is to replace the word “braille” with the word “print” to self-check the statement you’re about to make. For example, you probably wouldn’t hear someone suggest that all sighted children should stop learning print in school, now that they have so much access to technology. Check out this great article to learn more about how you can replace the word “braille” with “print” to educate others about braille.

Learn more about braille

Educate yourself about braille, the laws that protect access to braille, and initiatives that support braille literacy.

  • Braille is all around you
    Some restaurants provide access to menus in braille, though we need to advocate for this more. Trains and planes in Canada provide passenger safety information, seat/row numbers, and other information in braille. Banks and credit card companies can provide monthly statements in braille.
  • Daily living tools with braille
    Everyday-use tools like measuring cups and spoons, board games, and card decks can be purchased with braille markings. If you like to read, the Centre for Equitable Library Access (CELA) and the National Network for Equitable Library Services (NNELS) provide access to leisure reading materials in braille. Braille users who have access to refreshable braille displays can also read accessible books on smartphone applications, like iBooks and Kindle.
  • Want to increase the availability of braille?
    Professional transcribers are available to help with this task, and will know all about the standards that exist to help guide the production of braille signage, diagrams, account statements, and other documents.
  • Need more information?
    Braille Literacy Canada is a nation-wide organization in Canada for braille users, teachers, transcribers, producers, parents and anyone else who supports accessibility and inclusion through braille.

Elevate first-hand voices

The best way to be a supportive ally is to stand beside us in solidarity. Listen to and elevate the first-hand voices of braille readers who use their platforms to educate others. You can search for the hashtag #braille and #a11y on twitter or follow @brllitcan. If you’re a developer or researcher, collaborate with braille users as experts and partners so that you are asking the right questions. 

You can also amplify companies that are making braille access a priority. For example, Purdy’s Chocolate recently sold braille holiday boxes so that blind people could choose their chocolates independently. Tell the companies you support that braille access is important to you, even if it doesn’t effect you personally.

Take positive action

Attach meaningful actions to your words. There is a lot you can do to support braille access every day.

  • Did you know you can get business cards produced with both print and braille? In this way, whenever you give your business card to someone, it is inherently accessible and becomes a positive teachable moment.
  • Learn about blindness professions, including how to become a teacher of students with visual impairments (to teach braille literacy to children), a vision rehabilitation therapist (to teach braille to adults), or a braille transcriber.
  • Advocate alongside braille readers for lower cost technologies, including affordable refreshable braille displays, so that they are available to everyone, regardless of financial ability.
  • Add alt text descriptions to images you post on Twitter, so that they’re accessible to blind users, including those who use braille. Here’s how.
  • Consider a small donation to support Braille Literacy Canada on World Braille Day.

Above all else, braille is literacy

Recognize that access to braille is access to literacy for those who use it.

“In the world of vision loss, the invention of braille must be compared to the invention of the printing press – its birth was nothing short of a revolution.”

Thank you, Louis Braille, and happy World Braille Day!

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