A Brief Reflection on Braille Literacy

A person who is blind uses a keyboard with a refreshable braille display.

By Kristen Witucki

Many people outside the blindness community are surprised that many of us within it mark January 4 with a quick external social post or a brief internal nod as World Braille Day. Print, including Gutenberg, is in many ways taken for granted. Print is now everywhere, and it is assumed that people who can see will read print. The miracle of print for the masses will never fade, of course. But for those who find print difficult or impossible, print is also an expectation. Braille is a mere 214 years old compared to the six centuries since the establishment of the printing press. Braille is not expected or taken for granted in the same way; many blind people have to fight for it. Many more, due to the onset of visual impairment or other factors, grow up without it. 

An Uber driver even asked our student teaching intern and me, “How does it feel to be the last two people on Earth to use Braille instead of a cell phone?” Since we were on our way to teaching another student braille and since we had just used our cell phones to book the ride, how on earth does it feel to answer that kind of question? 

Louis Braille was a child inventor whose creativity I admire and envy. With clear practicality, he identified the problem, a need for a fluid method of reading. He set out to solve it using the tools of his conscious and subconscious mind and the patience of toiling deep into many sleepless nights. 

As I ponder Braille’s legacy this year, I think of Haben Girma’s tactile intelligence and how the tactile is often the last frontier of the most obvious learning senses—sight, hearing, touch—that people truly understand. Part of the reason the driver’s question led me to utter shock was that it pointed to a very widely held belief that braille, which gives blind people an understanding of the structure and beauty of language, is something people will just learn along the way before they discover audio. In fact, they can both work together. 

As we work together to foster a more inclusive web experience, I hope more and more developers consider tactile intelligence. Vision and hearing do not make a complete web experience for all of us. Now it sounds far-fetched, but in the still distant future, wouldn’t it be wonderful to feel clothing from your home before you buy it, smell a flower you choose for your significant other, or even taste the food you are about to order? Wouldn’t it be amazing if there were other sensory frontiers of understanding we could achieve by experiencing the world in ways we haven’t thought of yet? Today this seems like poorly plotted fantasy, but two centuries ago, it was thought to be impossible for more than a few blind people to read. People with disabilities often point the way to greater possibilities for understanding the world.

Kristen Witucki, is a Tamman partner and contributor. A published author and educator, she brings her lived experience and perspective to the Tamman Team

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