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Connecting the dots
With communication technologies exploding exponentially, can Braille ó invented in 1829 and largely unchanged since ó still be relevant?

IN 1960, William Raeder was a young geologist, not long out of Boston University. One day, he and his colleagues were floating in frigid waters above the Arctic Ocean floor, using explosives to set off small earthquakes for underwater seismic-refraction studies. A stick of TNT detonated prematurely in his grasp, and everything went black. Raederís right hand was obliterated. On his left, only the pinky and ring fingers remained. His hearing was severely damaged. And, after seven weeks of surgeries that only barely saved his life, he was told "to start thinking that I was going to spend the rest of my life as a blind person."

Forty-five years later, in his Spartan corner office at the National Braille Press, in the Fenway, Raeder sits behind a desk that holds just a few dictaphones, a handful of microcassettes, and an outdated speaker-equipped computer, and folds his arms across his chest. His right eye concealed behind a large black patch, his gaze points past me, as if conjuring memories from some distant spot on the horizon. Almost sheepishly, he recounts his immediate reaction to those paralyzing words. "Tears started rolling down my face. And I will have to confess that the first vision that came to my mind was sitting on the sidewalk in front of Fileneís, on Washington Street, with a tin cup, begging."

But, he says, "no sooner had that vision come into my mind than I thought, ĎOh, thatís ridiculous.í " Within 20 minutes of the diagnosis, Raeder had resolved to live a full and normal life. (His first thought, he says, was that he was going to be senator from Alaska.) So he checked into the Catholic Guild for the Blind ó now known as the Carroll Center for the Blind ó in Newton. Over the next 16 weeks, he learned how to navigate with a cane. How to sweep a floor. How to make himself a sandwich.

And he started to learn Braille. But, after three arduous attempts over the ensuing years, Raeder realized heíd reached an impasse. He just couldnít discern those tiny dots. "I only have a little finger and a ring finger on my non-dominant hand, and it turns out that those two fingers are the least sensitive," he explains. "So, my ironic situation is that, although I am the president of the National Braille Press, and I am totally blind, I cannot read Braille."

That hasnít stopped Raeder from helping build NBP ó which was founded in 1927 as a Braille newspaper ó into one of the foremost Braille publishing houses in the country. In this refurbished piano factory, about 50 employees ó roughly a third of whom are blind or otherwise disabled ó churn out a staggering 15 million pages of Braille each year. Itís all done using just a small stable of antediluvian machines, sturdy and simple; a striking amount of the work is still done by hand. Impressive, too, is the sheer range of material NBP puts out: toddler-friendly titles like Goodnight Moon and books older kids can dig; music books and cookbooks; guides to everything from puberty to menopause to Windows XP; The 9/11 Commission Report, footnotes and all; Dr. Atkinsí New Carbohydrate Gram Counter; high-school algebra and biology textbooks; volumes of poetry; a weekly roundup of syndicated columnists like George Will and Paul Krugman; microwave-oven manuals; restaurant menus; airline-safety instructions.

But in the 21st century, with communication technologies exploding exponentially, can this uncomplicated system of raised paper dots ó invented way back in 1829 and largely unchanged since ó really still be relevant? We live in an age when computers can speak and listen. When long hours of audio can be stored on chip the size of a thumbnail. Who needs to read with their fingers?

Hereís a better question: who wants to go through life not knowing how to read?

IF YOUíRE LIKE most sighted people, you have cursory knowledge of what Braille is. Youíre dimly aware that itís a tactile technique for reading, writing, and printing that was invented almost two centuries ago by Louis Braille, a Frenchman who was blinded in a childhood accident. You might know that itís a binary system, where the presence or absence of a bump on a grid of six raised dots determines letters, numbers, and punctuation. You may not know that Braille can relate to any language, even ones with pictographic alphabets like Chinese, and that there are separate Braille systems for presenting mathematics, shorthand, and musical notation. Some Braille books ó a childís picture book, a computer manual ó also use tactile diagrams to represent images, albeit crudely.

What might surprise you most is that many people who should know these things donít. There are more than 56,000 legally blind school-aged children in the United States. Only 10 percent of them use Braille as their primary source of reading. Granted, perhaps 40 percent of that 56,000 have other disabilities that leave them cognitively unable to read. But itís the contention of National Braille Press that children who rely on readers or listening devices or magnifying glasses are being done a grave disservice. Tanya Holton, NBPís vice-president of development, puts it plainly. "Braille is the only way for blind people to be literate."

Unfortunately, says Holton, thereís been a "significant decline in Braille literacy. Itís primarily due to the mainstreaming of blind children into public schools. Mainstreaming is a great educational concept, and itís fabulous for a lot of reasons. Itís important for kids to be together with other kids, for social reasons, to learn from the kids around them. But, from the point of view of strict literacy, it was a bad thing. The school administrators didnít necessarily see the value of Braille. ĎWell, a blind kid can have a book on tape! Isnít that easier, in fact?í Teaching Braille was considered to be expensive, and not always embraced as financially feasible. Letís say you have one kid in a school district, and itís going to cost you $30,000 to have a Braille instructor specifically for that child. Thatís obviously something an administrator is going to work really hard not to have to do, unless they fully embrace how important Braille is."

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Issue Date: February 4 - 10, 2005
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