SEATTLE, Washington — Braille is a tactile script for reading and writing used by visually impaired people around the world. It is not a language but instead a code that can be used for every language. It can also be used for scientific and musical notation, mathematics and computer code. Despite advances in assistive technology, like text-to-speech, braille remains irreplaceable as a way for blind and visually impaired people to become literate. Braille education is an important step to empower the visually impaired.
Braille literacy is low around the globe. In the United Kingdom, a more developed nation than India, the literacy rate for blind people is only 4%. The low number correlates with low employment rates for blind people. Existing methods of teaching are part of the reason the number is so low; it takes one student one full year to learn the basics of braille with constant teacher supervision, outdated teaching methods and unmotivating content. Combined with a shortage of teachers who can provide the necessary education to blind students, braille literacy can seem out of reach for many people living in developing countries.
Blindness in India
Of the world’s 37 million blind people, an estimated 90% live in developing countries. About 15 million of them live in India, a number that has doubled since 2007 to make it the highest number in any country. However, the braille literacy rate there is only 1%, far lower than the regular literacy rate of 77.7%. This presents a significant problem; without braille education, the quality of life for visually impaired people is significantly decreased. Without braille literacy, blind people are often unable to understand or use written communication. As a result, they require an interpreter to read and write for them, which can limit their employability.
Blindness and Poverty
Those in poverty bear the brunt of the negative effects of blindness. It was estimated that the loss to gross national income due to blindness between 2019 and 2020, factoring in lost working years for both the blind and those who take care of them, was about $167 billion. Most of this loss comes from those in poverty, especially those in rural areas where the poverty rate is the highest. The Andhra Pradesh Eye Disease Study showed that those in the lowest socioeconomic bracket have a rate of blindness that is nine times greater than the highest socioeconomic bracket. They have limited access to healthcare due to the high cost and low accessibility. Blindness, like many disabilities, leads to unemployment, which furthers the cycle of poverty and leaves the visually impaired with a loss of income and low standards of living. Eventually, this leads to early mortality for blind people.
How Braille Education Helps
Braille education allows visually impaired people to increase their literacy, independence and employability. Instead of requiring an interpreter, they are able to both read and write on their own. Especially in rural India, where assistive technology, like text-to-speech devices or screen readers, is not that common, the independence that braille literacy gives a worker can be the difference between them being able to get a job to support themselves or being passed over for another candidate. For children, braille education allows them to receive the same quality and quantity of education as their sighted peers, leading them to have doors opened to increase their upwards economic mobility.
Thinkerbell Labs is an e-learning company for those with visual impairments that works to help improve braille literacy rates worldwide. It created the world’s first braille literacy device, called Annie, to help children learn to read and write in braille on their own. Thinkerbell Labs set up 20 “Annie Smart Classes” across India in existing schools for blind children. As a result of their efforts and the Annie devices, hundreds of blind children in India have started to learn braille in both English and their native languages. It has been so effective that the National Institute for the Empowerment of Persons with Visual Disabilities has recommended that state governments across India take advantage of this device to improve braille literacy in visually impaired children.
In many parts of India, though, blind children cannot access the special schools that have these devices. The NGO, Braille Without Borders, is working to change that by taking a converted rickshaw through Trivandrum, Kerala and bringing braille education to the children, rather than the other way around. The project called Jyothirgamaya, which means “from darkness to light”, helps to prepare blind children who cannot access special schools due to poverty or distance for mainstream education.
The Future of Braille Education
More needs to be done to bring braille education to the 15 million blind people in India. Both of these projects are small scale relative to the total need in the country but they are a promising start to the goal of giving every visually impaired person the braille education that they need to succeed.
– Brooklyn Quallen