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Communication and Culture professor Doug Brent is wary about the impact that the rise of audio readers and the decline of braille will have on the blind.
The Gauntlet

U of C prof researches decline of braille

New audio reader technology has potential to negatively affect blind literacy

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New adaptive technology and the decline of braille education in public schools could result in a shift from a literate society to a new oral culture among blind people.

Last year, the National Federation of the Blind reported that less than 10 per cent of 1.3 million visually impaired Americans read braille. According to the New York Times, the report pointed out that only one in 10 blind children learn braille today, compared to half of all blind children in 1950.

University of Calgary Communication and Culture professor Doug Brent is gloomy about how audio readers, like the Kindle, would change blind students' literacy for the worse.

Brent decided to investigate the effects of audio readers and the lack of braille education on blind students after his wife, Diana Brent, noticed an unusual pattern in her classes with visually impaired students.

The couple compared stories written by students who used audio readers to those who read braille. The preliminary results suggested that students who never learned braille would not master writing habits later.

"The preliminary results from this extremely small sample suggested that students who did not learn to use braille as a regular communication medium did not learn fully literate habits of mind."

Brent said their writing tended to be disorganized. However, their stories also bore characteristics of oral stories, such as fantastic characters, larger than life plots and non-logical events.

"This would not apply to people who lost their sight later -- they seldom become proficient at braille, and arguably don't need to. But some kind of linear alphabetic literacy seems important to early development."

Brent referred to literary scholar Walter Ong to explain the differences between oral and written cultures. Ong argues that members of literate societies tend to think in a sequential and linear nature based on writing, compared to people who share an oral culture.

Brent explained the lack of a linear alphabet could hold students back in their writing. Without it, students may struggle with concepts such as abstract logic, linear thinking, logical classification and coherently organized paragraphs.

"Oral cultures developed elaborate systems of poetic forms to organize thinking, but these students don't have access to them either," said Brent. "We worry that they could be caught in an in-between world, living in a literate culture without the full resources of literacy. Blind children are routinely taught braille but it is not always heavily reinforced, and some claim that it is obsolete."

Braille textbooks are expensive and bulky -- a single one can cost more than $1,000. The New York Times noted a braille press printed the Harry Potter series in 56 volumes, each nearly a foot tall.

"Publishers are so terrified that their products will go like music that it is often hard to get rights to the digital files, even when they already exist," explained Brent. "It's such a waste of time."

He warned more studies with larger sample sizes are necessary for conclusive data.

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