In this age of digital communications, Braille is more relevant than ever as it is vital to the lives of tens of millions of blind, deafblind and visually-impaired people worldwide. Available in virtually every language, Braille provides endless possibilities for education, achievement and independence through literacy.
Braille is one of the first forms of assistive technology, developed in 1829 by 15-year-old Louis Braille, a tactile representation of alphabetical and numerical symbols using raised dots to represent each letter and number. It can also depict musical, mathematical and scientific symbols.
Braille is used by blind and partially-sighted people to read the same books and print materials as those published in a visual font. Braille allows people with low vision or visual impairments to have access to education, employment, information and cultural life.
However, many establishments — restaurants, banks, hospitals and income tax offices — are not equipped with Braille menus, signs, financial statements or receipts. So people with blindness or vision impairment often do not have the freedom to choose their own meal or to keep their finances private.
There are one billion people with visible disabilities worldwide. Globally, 39 million people are blind and 253 million have some form of vision impairment. In Malaysia, approximately 1.2 per cent of the population experience blindness.
Life during the pandemic has highlighted issues of independence and isolation, especially for people who rely on the use of touch to communicate their needs and access information. People with disabilities could face a higher risk of infection due to a lack of access to guidelines and precautions.
Up to 95 per cent of blind children do not attend school. This is primarily due to the lack of skilled teachers and limited access to Braille materials or equipment. For adults, Braille skills dramatically increase opportunities for entrepreneurship and employment, but employers
are often unaware of the need for basics such as Braille paper or keyboards.
Imagine a blind child trying to navigate online lessons, a newly-hired blind employee familiarising herself with online materials, or a blind business owner applying for government assistance during the pandemic.
While there continues to be stigma and lack of awareness, we must realise that technology has changed the way we live, work and play, especially for people with disabilities.
People with vision impairments can do just as much as people with sight, and often surpass their achievements. There are now blind engineers, blind chefs and even blind footballers. In fact, Malaysia's National Blind Football Team ranks top five in Asia and top 20 globally.
Covid-19 has emphasised the need to intensify all activities related to digital accessibility and assistive technology to ensure social and economic inclusion of people of all abilities.
Although technology has offered numerous alternatives to Braille in the form of audiobooks and screen readers, Braille literacy remains of paramount importance as it offers a building block for language skills and a means to teach spelling, grammar and punctuation. Learning Braille from a young age helps with literacy as Braille is a much better way to understand syntax and the rules of language compared to audio content.
Technology should be seen as complementary to Braille; it plays an important role in amplifying human ability. However, we must remember it is not a substitute for Braille, enabling and empowering policies, or purposeful vision, action and inclusion.
World Braille Day on Jan 4 (Louis Braille's birthday) is observed to raise awareness on the importance of Braille as a means of communication in the full realisation of the human rights for blind and partially-sighted people. The year 2021 marks the third global celebration of World Braille Day.
This article was originally published in New Straits Times.