New Technology Edging Out Braille for the Blind

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3min 47sec

Personal electronics are changing life for people with visual impairments. Talking computers and iPhone apps can be a big help, but as Colorado Public Radio’s Megan Verlee found when she visited the Colorado Center for the Blind, all that technology is a double edged sword.

Listen to CPR's earlier story on independent travel classes at the CCB

The following is a transcript of Megan Verlee's report:

REPORTER MEGAN VERLEE: Like a lot of iPhone users, Rolando Terrazas can seem glued to that shiny chunk of glass and metal, and mostly for the same reasons everyone’s hooked: email, text messages, finding a decent coffee shop. But Terrazas’ phone does a bit more.

ROLANDO TERRAZAS: "So we’re going to go to money reader."

REPORTER: Terrazas waves a bill under the camera’s phone.

TERRAZAS: "Let’s see what this one is."

iPHONE APP: “20 dollars.”

REPORTER: Having an app to tell money apart can be a big help for blind people like Terrazas; it means they don’t have to just trust clerks to give them correct change. Terrazas is 19 and his daily life is full of useful technology like this. But it has a downside.

TERRAZAS: "All through elementary school I used braille. But when I got a laptop, I switched over and I went away from braille. If you don’t use it, you lose it. And that’s what happened to me."

REPORTER: He uses software that reads out loud what’s on his computer screen. These days Terrazas is slowly re-learning braille, as a student at the Colorado Center for the Blind in Littleton. It’s late afternoon at the Center and one of the instructors is logging in using a braille typewriter in the lobby.


REPORTER: The Center puts a lot of effort into convincing students they still need braille to be independent and employable. Director Julie Deden says that technology is making the 200-year-old writing system more accessible than ever. Deden shows off an electronic reader, about the size of paperback.

JULIE DEDEN: "And I was reading Tuesdays With Morrie. And so I can go right into the book..."

REPORTER: Instead of having to lug around massive volumes of printed braille, she just sweeps her fingers over little plastic nubs that rise and lower with each line of text. Deden worries smartphones and such mask a serious problem: braille illiteracy.

DEDEN: "People will let it go, and they’ll say, well, you know, they aren’t really illiterate, they just don’t use braille or print very much, but it’s just because they’re blind. I think that it’s, it’s kind of an out, and technically, they really they are, mostly illiterate."

REPORTER: Blind people choosing not to learn braille is only one part of the equation. Chris Danielsen with the National Federation of the Blind says his group is increasingly butting heads with school districts trying to get out of their federal obligation to provide a braille teacher.

CHRIS DANIELSEN: "They will tend to say, ‘well we have screen magnification software, we have all these tools available, and in light of that we don’t think it’s necessary for a blind person to be taught Braille."

REPORTER: The Federation estimates that today only 1 in 10 blind people can read braille. That’s down dramatically from the early part of last century. Jackie Owellet never thought she’d never learn braille, since she lost her sight as an adult, after an operation. Standing in a café in suburban Denver, Owellet says learning to read again was the last thing on her mind.

JACKIE OWELLET: "When am I ever going to use braille? I’m never going to sit down and read a novel in braille. You know, I’d rather download an audio book from iTunes, you know?"

REPORTER: But last year Owellet was getting her yoga instructor certification and during those classes, it became apparent that having a mechanical voice reading off her teaching notes, didn’t make for a very soothing yoga experience.

OWELLET: "So I realized there is a use for braille and I think everybody uses braille in their own way. I think that everybody finds what they need to use braille for."

REPORTER: Advocates for braille are hoping blind people like Owellet will continue to find enough reasons to keep their tactile system of writing alive, even amidst the growing chorus of computer voices.