Approximately 87% of the 314 million people with vision impairments worldwide live in developing countries, making this the most prevalent impairment worldwide. Less than 10% of those with visual impairments have access to formal education, and only 3% are literate (WHO). The provision of information in alternative formats (i.e. audio, Braille) is essential to accessing education, employment and all forms of social participation, and the lack of this provision is a violation of international human rights (Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – CRPD).
Braille is mandated throughout the CRPD, most specifically in Articles 2, 9, 21 and 24 that address information, communication, and education rights; and is strongly supported by NGOs (e.g., World Blind Union, Perkins School for the Blind, Christofel Blinden Mission, Sight Savers International).
Braille is often recognized as the only system for the blind to learn to read and write and strongly linked to securing employment (National Federation of the Blind). However, Braille literacy is dismally low and possibly declining worldwide due to the lack of trained Braille educators, unavailable and unaffordable Braille technologies and resources, and the advancements in alternative accessible information technologies for those with visual impairments (i.e. screen readers).
Some of the Braille technologies found in developing countries include the traditional slate and stylus, Braille typewriters, and Braille embossers (printers). The slate and stylus, the most affordable option, is inefficient and conceptually challenging – requiring the user to write mirror images of letters from right to left, and then remove the paper and flip it over for reading.
More efficient and effective technologies such as Braille typewriters and embossers are prohibitively expensive, costing over $600 and $3000 respectively for even the low-cost options. A recent study in Ghana reported teachers’ sentiments regarding the high cost of these technologies.
“…the expenditure for just one visually impaired student may well serve the educational needs of tens of sighted children…”
Braille typewriters (i.e., Perkins Brailler), embossers as well as Braille books, are often donated by NGOs and other international donors. For the few students who are able to access these donated Braille technologies, without ongoing resources available for maintenance and repair the benefits are short lived. In a study in Nigeria, researchers found that only one in ten of the identified Braille typewriters across 43 institutions functioned properly (Atinmo, 2007).
Innovative Braille Technologies
Innovative Braille technologies show potential for addressing barriers to accessing and effectively using Braille in developing countries, yet lack evidence of effectiveness and affordability. The Duxbury Systems Braille translation software, able to produce Braille in 130 languages, is used throughout the developing world to produce Braille educational materials, signage and labeling for consumer products. Another example is the low-cost Braille Writer Tutor (BWT) that was field tested in Qatar, India and Zambia in 2009 with positive results. The BWT is an electronic slate which provides real time audio feedback to students as they are typing.
Braille is also competing with audio-based technologies that are increasingly being adopted by people with visual impairments. The South African Library for the Blind produces and distributes over 25,000 materials in accessible formats for its 3,500 members. In 2004, the library began producing audio texts and within a few years the audio readership has exceeded Braille readership.
While audio alternatives may increase access to information, they are not proven effective in increasing literacy (defined as the ability to read and write), nor are they likely to replace daily living uses of tactile communication such as Braille found on consumer products (i.e. medication), at bus stops, in voting booths, at bank machines or in elevators.
Braille is clearly an indispensable mode of communication and will require innovative strategies to increase literacy. The World Blind Union is hosting the World Congress Braille21 in September 2011 to explore ways to advance Braille in our world of rapidly changing information and communication technologies. This is an excellent opportunity to bring together experts in the field to share information on effective approaches and barriers to increasing Braille literacy.
- Part I: Assistive Technology and Accessibility Research in the Developing World
- Part II: Assistive Technology and Accessibility Research in the Developing World
- The UNCRPD and Access to Assistive Technology in the Developing World