On June 27th, 1880, a baby girl was born. At nineteen months old, the little girl contracted a severe fever, and once the fever dissipated, she woke up to a world of darkness and silence. This little girl was Helen Keller. By the age of two, Helen Keller had completely lost her sense of sight and hearing.
Over a century later, it is estimated that 285 million people are visually impaired worldwide, of which 39 million are blind.1 Blindness is defined as the complete inability to see with a corrected vision of 20/200 or worse.2 For Keller to absorb the information around her, she relied on the sensation of touch. The invention of the braille alphabet by Frenchman Louis Braille in the early 1800s allowed Keller to learn about the world and to communicate with others. Like Keller, the majority of the visually impaired today rely on braille as their main method of reading.
The technological advances of smartphones, artificial intelligence, and synthetic speech dictations have opened a whole new world for blind readers. With the advent of the electronic information age, it’s easy to think that blind people don’t need to rely on braille anymore to access information. In fact, braille literacy rates for school-age blind children have already declined from 50 percent 40 years ago to only 12 percent today.3 While current low literacy rates may be in part due to the inclusion of students with multiple disabilities that inhibit language acquisition, these statistics still reveal a major concern about literacy amongst the visually impaired. To substitute synthetic speech for reading and writing devalues the importance of learning braille.
“There are many misunderstandings and stereotypes of braille readers,” says Dr. Robert Englebretson, Professor of Linguistics at Rice University. “When a person reads, they learn about spelling and punctuation, and it’s the exact same for tactile readers. Humans better process information when they actively process it through reading instead of passively listening.”
Dr. Englebretson is also blind, and one part of his research agenda is a collaborative project with Dr. Simon Fischer-Baum in Psychology and pertains to understanding the cognitive and linguistic importance of braille to braille readers. He explores the questions surrounding the nature of perception and reading and explores the ways the mind groups the input of touch into larger pieces to form words.
In order to understand how written language is processed by tactile readers compared to visual readers, Dr. Englebretson conducted experiments to find out if braille readers exhibit an understanding of sublexical structures, or parts of words, similar to that of visual readers. An understanding of sublexical structures is crucial in recognizing letter groupings and acquiring reading fluency. Visual readers recognize sublexical structures automatically as the eye scans over words, whereas tactile readers rely on serially scanning fingers across a line of text.
To explore whether the blind have an understanding of sublexical structures, Dr. Englebretson studied the reaction time of braille readers in order to judge their understanding of word structures. The subjects were given tasks to determine whether the words were real or pseudowords, and the time taken to determine the real words from the pseudowords were recorded. The first experiment tested the ability for braille readers to identify diagraphs or parts of words, and the second experiment test the ability for braille readers to identify morphemes, or the smallest unit of meaning or grammatical function of a word. For braille readers, Dr. Englebretson and his team developed a foot pedal system that enabled braille readers to indicate their answer without pausing to click a screen as the visual readers did. This enabled the braille readers to continuously use their hands while reading. From the reaction times of the braille readers when presented with a morphologically complex word, the findings show evidence of braille readers processing the meaning of words and recognizing these diagraphs and morphemes.4
“What we discovered was that tactile readers do rely on sublexical structures and have similar cognitive processes to print readers,” says Dr. Englebretson. “The belief that braille is old-fashioned and not needed anymore is far from the truth. Tactile reading provides an advantage in learning just as visual reading does.”
Dr. Englebretson also gathered a large sample of braille readers and videotaped them reading using a finger tracking system. Similar to an eye tracking system that follows eye movements, the finger tracking system used LED lights on the backs of fingernails to track the LED movements over time using a camera. The movements of the LED lights on the x-y coordinates are then plotted on a graph. This system can track where each finger is, how fast they are moving, and the movements that are made during regressions, or the right-to-left re-reading movement of the finger.5 While this test was independent from the experiment about understanding sublexical structures, the data collected offers a paradigm for researchers about braille reading.
The outcome of these studies has not only scientific and academic implications, but also important social implications. “At the scientific level, we now better understand how perception [of written language] works, how the brain organizes and processes written language, and how reading works for tactile and visual readers,” says Dr. Englebretson. “Through understanding how tactile readers read, we will hopefully be able to implement policy on how teachers of blind and visually impaired students teach, and on how to guide the people who are working on updating and maintaining braille.”
With decreasing literacy rates among braille readers, an evidence-base approach to the teaching of braille is as critical as continuing to implement braille literacy programs. With an understanding of braille, someone who is blind can not only access almost infinite pages of literature, but also make better sense of their language and world.
- World Health Organization. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs282/en/ (accessed Jan. 9, 2017).
- National Federation of the Blind. https://nfb.org/blindness-statistics (accessed Jan. 9, 2017).
- National Braille Press. https://www.nbp.org/ic/nbp/braille/needforbraille.html (accessed Jan. 10, 2017).
- Fischer-Baum,S.; Englebretson, R. Science Direct. 2016, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0010027716300762 (accessed Jan. 10, 2017)
- Ulusoy, M.; Sipahi, R. PLoS ONE. 2016, 11. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0148356 (accessed Jan. 10, 2017)