Changing Braille? Who Benefits?

Braille was an integral part of my childhood. Losing sight at the age of six essentially meant I learnt to read and write properly after I learnt Braille. Braille is the code that blind people use to read and write. It essentially, is our language. A group of six dots, interspersedly make up the alphabet and in Grade 2 Braille, what we call contractions. Grade 2 is often used by proficient and regular Braille users and it is what most blind children learnt when I was at school to do their school work. I can vividly remember using the capital letter sign, that wasn’t introduced to the UK Braille code until many years later as it was deemed fit I use it for part of my grammar learning at school. As sighted children learn to capitalise the beginning of sentences and names of people and places, I should learn to do the same thing. When the capital was introduced, it wasn’t a huge shock to myself and many children within the education system at the time as we’d already been using it. More and more, things are being transcribed into Braille. I can get my bank statements, letters from the blind organisations and even some of my medication has Braille on it now. It’s a skill I strongly advocate anyone who is blind or low vision, who would benefit to learn. Sure, we have computers now but I believe strongly that as sighted children learn to hand write, it is as essential, where possible to teach a blind child Braille. You can argue Braille is not always used nowadays and hard copy Braille may not be but those who are lucky enough to own Braille displays still use it in conjunction with technology. As I mentioned, grade 2 Braille uses contractions, it is similar to short hand for sighted people. Some words, like “AND” takes up one character and common endings of words, like “ATION” only take up two cells instead of five. Braille takes up a lot of room and therefore these contractions save on space. You can imagine my shock/horror when yesterday I discover the UK Authority for Accessible Formats is planning to change all of this. They want to introduce a Universal English Braille Code that will “simplify” braille for its users and for the translation software on computers. Let me explain why they think this is a good idea. At school, you’d have standard Braille, then there was the Braille code for Maths and apparently, there is a computer Braille code. I’m assuming this is how email addresses are written in braille and such. I’ve seen this code only on web addresses and email. There is also a music code but that is not mentioned in the changes. The UKAAF’s idea is to simplify the three codes into one which means stripping away the Braille we know into something somewhat different. Essentially, they are completely taking away nine of the contractions in Grade two and making it that every combination of dots only has one meaning. So no more “AND” or “ATION” signs and this admittedly will increase the length of Braille documents by 5.5 percent. Let me put this into a practical scenario. The Harry Potter book, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” weighed in in the US at a massive 13 volumes of Braille. Say, each volume has 200 pages of Braille right now, and we round the expected increase to 5%, that means each volume would increase by 10 pages. This is likely to increase the Braille version of this particular book from 13 volumes to 14 volumes. If each book increases like this, and you are an avid reader, you better start finding room for all the extra volumes. The UEB has not yet been implemented so what happens to all the books in the library systems? Will they be replaced over time, with new versions of the UEB code and therefore forcing every Braille reading book fan to relearn the code? Or will it mean, the old books will remain and new UEB Code users will struggle to read those books as the code will be confusing for them? These are questions, I and others have in regard to the new system. The cost is a huge issue also. Who is going to pay for the retraining? Who is going to be responsible for ensuring all Braille users transfer to the new system? Will it fall to the local education authority? Therefore, only introducing the new system to people within education? Or will it be the RNIB? Possibly taking away funds vital for other services? Or will it fall to the user? Do I want to pay to relearn a system that I see no issue with. And who will teach this new system? The UK is very low on Braille teachers and will they simply get an updated primer and have to relearn the code themselves? Will they have to resit their Braille exams? How will the UKAAF ensure Braille teachers are up to date and teaching their students the new code? Will it mean those of us out of education will fall by the way side? One of their arguments for the simpler code is to benefit translation programmes. But how much will it cost to redesign these programmes and who will fund the cost for that? We know assistive technology programmes notoriously cost more so will this increase the price for the end user again? So will we as the users end up paying more for technology in regard to braille use and pay for the cost of retraining ourselves? Who will actually benefit from thees changes? Will future children be grateful for the extra room braille takes up? Will the simpler system work better? Or will there be a lot of confused Braille users walking around in the future? Either because they’re confused about old Braille, confused about new Braille or will Braille users shrink even more because of the pure cost that could coincide with these changes? I’ve emailed the UKAAF and raised a few of my concerns. When I hear more I will give an update. Please let me know what you guys think about these changes that will come in in due course?

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