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It was an epochal invention, akin to the wheel or fire or ether. And yet, strangely, it has fallen on hard times.
In 1821, 15-year-old Louis Braille, blind since early childhood, discovered a French Army code of raised bumps, used for silent night communication. He rewrote and shrank the code so that each letter symbol - a system of six dots arranged in a vertical rectangle called a cell - would fit under one fingertip. For the first time, the blind could read.
Braille's system was eventually used in all languages and today has versions for math (using eight dots), scientific material with charts and graphs, and music, allowing blind people to read anything, almost as fast as sighted readers can.
"It has played a vital part in my life," says Timothy Vernon, 18, of Mansfield, a member of the National Honor Society and a lector at his Catholic church who will attend Fitchburg State College in the fall. "I sometimes wonder how people without braille get through life. It's saddening that more people don't know braille."
Saddening it maybe, but the fact is that most blind people don't. Braille literacy has fallen from as high as 50 percent of all blind people 30 years ago to as low as about 12 percent today. Reversing that trend, and restoring the place of braille, has been the main mission the past 20 years of a venerable yet little-known Boston-based publisher, National Braille Press.
"In the last five years, we think we've begun to see a turnaround, but it's just begun," says William M. Raeder, the longtime president of the 75-year-old publisher on St. Stephen Street. As he sees it, much is at stake: "The only way for blind people to truly read and write is via braille."
Raeder, 66, was blinded by an explosion 42 years ago, and his limited use of his one hand prevents him from using braille, but since he took over the press in 1975, the publisher has expanded its list of books and periodicals, trying to reach the blind reader with more, and more useful, reading matter.
There are other braille publishers, but National Braille Press was the first, in 1982, to move from mere contract printing to publishing and selling its own books. Before 1982, individual braille readers could borrow books or get them free from volunteer braille transcribers, but not buy them. Today, about 20 percent of the press's 40 new books per year are original; the rest are braille versions of classics such as Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style" or J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books. Most of them focus on practical concerns of blind people: cooking, gardening, staying safe, mastering daily life, or learning about computers. The press offers two periodicals: Syndicated Columnists Weekly, a roundup of newspaper opinion pieces, and Our Special Magazine, a bimonthly for women.
One reason for the decline of braille is that blind children in the past 30 years have increasingly been "mainstreamed" - trained not in schools for the blind but in regular schools, most of which lack teachers of braille or braille literate teachers. But there's another reason: the explosion of audio technology, from simple audiotape recording to CD to voice synthesized e-mail, books, and even newspapers, which suggests to many that braille is passe. Why learn a complex system of tiny bumps, with (at a higher level) 300 shorthand contractions in addition to individual letters and numbers, when it seems every kind of subject matter can be recorded and listened to?
Teachers of braille are exasperated by that question. "I have parents of blind children ask me, 'Why does my child need to read?'" says Louise Johnson, recently retired from the Utah School for the Deaf and Blind. "When I started teaching, people said braille is obsolete - they can get everything from tapes. I would answer, 'Fine, let's do that for everybody. No sighted children need to learn to read.'"
The point, says Raeder, is that hearing is not reading. "When you truly read, as opposed to listening to a tape," he says, "the material is passive and you are active. You don't take in the information until you move your eyeball or [in braille] your finger you have total control over the material."
To encourage the teaching of braille to children - who pick it up quickly - the press offers the Children's Braille Book Club: one "print/braille" book per month, previously published in print. A transparent braille sheet is added to each page of text so that a blind child can either follow along as a sighted adult reads aloud or read alone. A recent offering was Margaret Wise Brown's "Goodnight Moon." There are also books for adolescents, including books on sexuality and relationships. In a nationwide program now in a pilot stage, the press plans to get braille books in the hands of every family in the country with a blind preschooler, so that by the time the children start school, they and their parents will already have a whetted appetite for braille.
For the blind, the liberty of reading is not taken for granted. "It was away of uniting myself to a book," recalls Paul Parravano, codirector of government and community relations at MIT and a braille reader since age 4. When he was a child, he says, family members would read aloud to him on a regular schedule, "but when I read a book like The Black Stallion' in braille, it was a way to get to the book without a third party reading it to me." Beyond pleasure reading, Parravano says braille was essential to academic success in high school, college, and law school; he could not have mastered math or science without it. Studies by Ruby Ryles, director of the Orientation and Mobility master's program at Louisiana Tech University, found a much higher income and employment rate for braille-literate adults compared with blind nonreaders.
"We look at things as sighted people," says Anne Spitz of Roslindale, a teacher of the visually impaired for the Rockland-based North River Collaborative. "Braille looks like a lot of dots, and we think how difficult that must be, to read with the fingers. But some readers are very efficient, some read a line with one hand while the other hand moves to the next line. It's amazing." Parravano says he reads 200 words a minute. The average for blind adults, according to National Braille Press, is 150 to 300 words. (In an informal self-test, using a newspaper article, this sighted writer read 335 words a minute at normal speed.)
There are indications that braille may be closely related to sight. A 2001 study by Ford F. Ebner, professor of psychology and cell biology at Vanderbilt University, found that when people who have been blind from early childhood read braille, the region of the brain that normally processes vision becomes more active. Though it's not entirely clear what is going on, Ebner says, "we can show that areas of the visual cortex are active when blind people read braille with their fingertips."
With its own editing, platemaking, proofreading, printing, and mailing operation, National Braille Press feels more like a newspaper than a book publisher. The old building, near the corner of Gainsborough Street, has windows that open on the alley behind and offices with 1950s-vintage frosted-glass partitions. During the interview in Raeder's second-floor office, the three 40 year-old Heidelberg presses - converted for braille - can be heard thrumming away on the basement floor.
With an operating budget of $2.6 million, the press is a nonprofit in every sense. Despite high production costs, it sells books at the same list price as the same books in print. "We lose money on every book," says Tanya Holton, chief of development, and the press is continuously seeking philanthropic support. Recent large grantors include the Mellon Financial Corp. and the Reader's Digest Partners for Sight Foundation.
There's no question that technology has irreversibly shrunk the role of braille. All of Parravano's email messages at MIT are converted to sound with a synthesized voice. And when he wants to read; the newspaper, he calls News line, sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind, and gets any story in digitized voice form.
Still, the dream for many braille readers is not better ways to replace reading with listening but better ways to convert print to braille. Parravano has a laptop sized notetaking device with a mechanical braille panel that uses tiny pins in place of the embossed dots of braille printing. It has a keyboard, allowing him to save phone numbers, take notes or draft speeches or letters, and read his words back in the braille panel. It also has a speech synthesizer, should he want to hear what he has written. National Braille Press offers PortaBooks [now called eBraille] on disk that can be read on a braille reader. And new devices can even convert text from the World Wide Web into braille.
Braille may be making a comeback, since 32 states in the past few years - including Massachusetts in 1996 - have passed laws mandating the availability of braille training in schools. But qualified teachers are in short supply; there is no college program for teachers of the visually impaired in Massachusetts, though the University of Massachusetts at Boston plans to create one this year.
No one flatly predicts a strong revival of braille literacy. But Raeder insists that "braille is not going away for the foreseeable future." The power of braille, says Vernon, "is just in the availability of a book, and being able to know you can read at your leisure. If someone is going to read to you, you have to do it when they can. With a book, you can read wherever you want, even in the middle of the night. And with braille, you don't have to turn on the light."David Mehegan can be reached at email@example.com.
In the mid-'60s, as many as half of all blind people could read using the braille method, in which words are printed as raised bumps on paper. About 12 percent can today. Kim Charlson, head librarian at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown gives a couple of reasons for the change:
The Library of Congress's service for the blind and physically handicapped
National Braille Association
Braille books for children
The Braille Authority of North America, which standardizes braille code
American Council of the Blind
American Foundation for the Blind
Features a kids' Braille site called "the Braille Bug"
Carroll Center for the Blind, Newton
Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown
National Braille Press