Why not Braille?

Continuing the topic from yesterday…

Of course all the people I know who are blind can read and write Braille. But I don’t know anybody else who writes Braille – except now for me, because I used that java applet I posted yesterday to spend the twenty minutes or so it takes to learn how to write in the Braille alphabet.

It occurs to me that there may be an odd sort of prejudice at work here. Braille, it turns out (not surprisingly) is vastly superior than anything that sighted people currently use for typing on a small portable device while looking somewhere else. For example, suppose you are in a meeting, and you don’t want to interrupt the flow of conversation to jot down a quick note or send off a text message (either to yourself or others). If you need to look down at your cellphone to write that quick note, then you will have to look away from the person you are talking with.

Why don’t we all just use Braille? Why don’t our portable electronic devices come with a small keyboard that supports this much more sensible way of typing into a PDA – one that does not need to keep our eyes always focused on the keyboard? It would be easy to make it work with just one hand (eg: by providing three keys for the thumb, rather than one).

Is our general lack of use of Braille caused by some taboo at work, a sense that it’s “only for blind people”? Or there some flaw in my reasoning or assumptions?

10 Responses to “Why not Braille?”

  1. davidmaas says:

    Took me a while (measured in minutes) to figure out that you push the keys simultaneously. As soon as I figured this out I immediately see what you mean about the advantages of braille for shorthand. Nice tool!

  2. J says:

    I think this is a brilliant idea. It doesn’t take long to learn and can be used without looking.
    However, the reason this will never be put into production, is because it takes effort to learn, and people will prefer to get a regular keyboard layout; one which they are already familiar with.
    It may be easier to indent each key with Braille, although size may be an issue.
    I’m not sure how useful this would be to the majority of blind people either, as I think only about 3% of them can read Braille.
    I suppose that integrating this system into a touch-screen may make it possible. However having no physical keys may tend to make it a bit ironic.

  3. admin says:

    David, thanks for your perseverence. I’ve added instructions to the page, so it should become easier to see what to do. Consider yourself an early adopter. :-)

    J, I would argue that a regular keyboardlayout is a terrible option in many situations – such as when you are trying to enter text while standing in the subway. Interesting point about the touch screen. With proper feedback – sound and/or vibrotactile – physical keys should not be necessary, although they are certainly preferable when available.

    Actually about 10% of blind people read Braille. But around 85% to 90% of the blind people who are gainfully employed read Braille, so it clearly is a life-changing issue.

  4. Austin says:

    I like the applet. I was wondering though, forgive my ignorance, how
    do blind people read Braille on a computer? If they read Braille only
    on paper, how could I print something for a blind person to read? Are there special Braille printers? I know an inkjet or laserjet printer wouldn’t leave much in the way of Braille that someone could touch feel. PS my 3.5 yr old son loves Where the Wild Things Are video.

  5. I think you’ve hit it right on the nail here. In our culture, assistive technologies (which includes Braille) are perceived as a last resort, something that you use only if it’s completely impossible to go about things the way “normal” people do.

    Some friends of mine have taught themselves ASL, not because they have deaf relatives, but because they love languages. On several occasions, they have used ASL to communicate through a window, or across a large, crowded, noisy hall. Why don’t everyone learn a little sign, they argue, so that people can get basic things across even in situations like this? Indeed, why not. Maybe it is because only deaf people are supposed to know how to sign?

    Another example is from a news story I read, about a young man who was expelled from a drinking establishment, because of (among other things) the bouncers thought his electric wheelchair wasn’t his.

    They saw him get out of it, and walk a couple of steps, so they concluded that obviously he didn’t need one, so he had to have borrowed it. (The actual case was that he wasn’t paralyzed, but the use of his legs was reduced to the point that an electric wheelchair was a significant help in getting around.)

    Another thing about Braille is that it’s supposed to be fiendishly difficult to read by touch. I’ve tried it myself, with a library book. I found it completely impossible to determine how many dots there were, or how they were arranged. I suspect that Braille may be operating at the very limit of human tactile resolution, and that is the reason why so many blind people can’t make it.

  6. Dagmar says:

    Nice, but your example with the PDA doesn’t work well.

    In spite most of the people in my age have still learnt to type with ten fingers without looking at the keyboard (typing blind) latest in the eighth grade, I never saw anyone using a smart phone, a cell phone or a PDA using more than two fingers. Most of the heavy users even can type blind with one or two fingers, their thumbs, depends on the mobile device they use.
    So can you find a way for your applet to take care of this?

  7. admin says:

    Yes, I also touch type without looking at the keyboard, but that’s not something I can do in social situations. Dagmar, you apparently know more talented people than I do. Whenever I see somebody thumb typing, they are always looking at the screen. There have been some recent attempts to do error correction on thumb typing so that one can use it without looking, but the best results I know of give only a 25% improvement.

    Many PDA variants of Braille are possible. I would favor one that requires only one hand (eg: a two-step chording mode), but allows the use of both hands when greater speed is desired.

  8. Dagmar says:

    LoL – maybe I have seen more younger people..:-)

    Mike came up with an idea that sounded cool, if you hold the device with both hands, but do the typing on the bottom side…

    I had a look at the Chinese version of Braille and really wasn’t sure if it is/would be more difficult to learn normal Chinese characters, or Chinese Braille for the children there.

  9. The BAT! says:

    Good on anyone who develops more software involving Braille, I say. Exactly who might use it and how would emerge over time.

    I’m blind but don’t know Braille. The reason is that I wasn’t blind as a child so didn’t learn it then. I’m in the majority there, probably. The best we can do in the UK is about 1% of blind people knowing Braille. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea to know Braille, quite the reverse. Truth is, everybody is lazy and uses audio (text-to-speech and even speech-to-text). But if you want to curl up (or sprawl) with a good book, or label your own spices or CDs, Braille is the best option by miles. That’s why at age 58 I’m trying to learn it. I don’t just mean the alphabet, I mean the whole system, and it’s more than an alphabet.

    Yes, there are Braille printers (make sure there’s an acoustic hood over the thing, though!) , and refreshable Braille computer displays for reading “live” like sighted people do, say on the Internet. You can use a Braille Dymo gun to make labels, and hand-write Braille with a stylus.

    Maybe if someone could make Braille cool, like having to crack it for a game, or have some high-profile rap star doing the album cover only in Braille, or something, we’d see a new generation of learners.

    Hopefully, you know that Braille isn’t just an alphabet. Transliterating from individual letters to and from Braille is too slow, so as you go on you very quickly start to learn contractions, which are really like shorthand. I don’t know them but I sort-of know how it works. Once you have got into those contractions, Braille is really fast and efficient, judging by some blind people I know. There are also mathematical and musical Braille, though how you read music braille and play the cello at the same time I’ll probably never know.

    On tactile issues….. touch screens ironically are not usually tactile, though some phones are starting to get tactile areas on their screens, which either move or vibrate slightly to enhance the touch sensation.

    Otherwise touch screens are a terrible idea for blind people. Secondly, with enough practice, even I’ve seen enough to know that I could eventually develop the sensitivity to read Braille, even with my old guitarist’s fingers. Part of the secret is to move your fingers very subtly. Keeping them still over the Braille hits the same nerve again and again, and that doesn’t work (ask your significant other about how they like to be touched! :) ). So I don’t really agree that Braille is at the limits, but you do need a bit of technique.

  10. […] two years ago I wrote a series of posts here about using Braille on SmartPhones. Then just today I had a conversation with a visually impaired colleague, and discovered that there […]

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