BROOKE GLADSTONE: A recent report by the National Federation of the Blind found that fewer than 10 percent of the 1.3 million legally blind Americans now read Braille. Half a century ago, half of America’s blind could run their fingers over coded bumps embossed on thick sheets of paper and understand their meaning. Rachel Aviv is a Rosalynn Carter Fellow for Mental Health Journalism with the Carter Center, whose article “Listening to Braille” appeared earlier this year in The New York Times Magazine. Rachel, welcome to the show.
RACHEL AVIV: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When Braille was created in the 19th century, it was considered a great boon to the blind. In your piece, you quoted Helen Keller. She said, “With his godlike courage, Braille built a firm stairway for millions of sense-crippled human beings to climb from hopeless darkness to the Mind Eternal.”
RACHEL AVIV: He was a student at the Royal Institute for the Blind in the 1820s. At that point, you learned how to perform menial labor. At home, he had made shapes of letters from nails, and he wanted to find a way that you could replicate. And so there was a presentation at the school by a French officer who had developed a system called “night writing,” and it was a way for soldiers to communicate in the dark. And he adapted that, and made it easier to read so each letter could fit under the pad of a fingertip.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And obviously it was such a print-driven society that the context demanded some way to join in. But now the context has changed.
RACHEL AVIV: Well, at that time, if you were blind it really also meant that you were intellectually isolated. And in the 1950s, if you didn't know Braille, you still were intellectually isolated. You had no way of accessing the print culture. But today it’s not as simple, and it’s continually evolved. First there were books on tape in the '80s, and then the '90s, audio books, and today all sorts of text-to-speech software, and even little reading machines. You can hold them up to a menu, for instance, and it will take a picture of the menu and then read the text aloud. So it just keeps evolving.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Media theorist Neil Postman wrote that written language enabled us to think more deeply and with much more complexity. Does current research bear that out?
RACHEL AVIV: Well, there was a really interesting study of two groups of blind children. One group had grown up learning Braille and the other group had grown up using audio technology. And the authors of that study said that there was a significant difference in not just the way that they wrote but the way that they seemed to think. And they referenced theorist Walter Ong, who writes that the act of seeing our own words and then tweaking them and rewriting them, and in that process, rethinking, really creates a new kind of cognitive style. So they said that the students who didn't learn Braille, it was as if they had shaken up their ideas in a container and then thrown them out on a piece of paper, and that there was really no clear organization, and it lacked the kind of complexity that they saw in the students who had learned Braille. People who don't know Braille can't really take notes, can't edit your own writing, and you can't edit your own thoughts, and that’s a really significant part of the way that people learn to think.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I wonder after you wrote your piece whether you were subject to any charges of cultural bias. Many deaf people see themselves as members of a different culture. They don't want to make accommodations to the hearing world. Is Braille seen by some people as a kind of capitulation to visual hegemony, or something like that?
RACHEL AVIV: Oh, I actually think it would be the opposite. Braille represents blind liberation, in a way, because until the 1800s, until there was Braille, they didn't have a real social function. They couldn't participate. And so Braille represents that move, that transition to participating in society in a more equal way. It’s a political symbol as well as a practical tool.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So where do things stand now? Is Braille a dying language?
RACHEL AVIV: Braille is not necessarily dying. But if you take the threats to print books and you sort of make a caricature of them, those are the threats to Braille books. Creating Braille books is extremely labor-intensive. They're incredibly bulky. For instance, the Harry Potter series comes in 59 volumes, and they're all almost a foot tall.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Well, I guess you don't have to use paper. I mean, you could use sheets of plastic.
RACHEL AVIV: Well, there are Braille computers, which look like little shoeboxes, and you run your finger along the bottom of the computer and you get one line of text at a time. But those are extremely expensive. They're 4,000 or 5,000 dollars. Going back to the question about political aspect, I think that it’s easy to think that technology will always make things easier and that blindness will become less and less of a disability. But I think there’s a lot of nostalgia for this earlier era.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
RACHEL AVIV: You’re welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Rachel Aviv is a Rosalynn Carter Fellow for Mental Health Journalism with the Carter Center, whose article, Listening to Braille, appeared earlier this year in The New York Times Magazine.