Literacy is vital to a successful education, career, and quality of life. The American Foundation for the Blind has estimated that fewer than 10 percent of people who are legally blind in the United States, and fewer than 40 percent of the estimated number who are functionally blind, are braille readers. Experts estimate that approximately 1.3 million blind people live in the United States, with over 20 million Americans reporting significant vision loss. For individuals that are blind or visually impaired, barriers arise surrounding employment and independence because of the inability to access information in its common forms. Braille is the only system by which individuals with total or profound vision loss can learn to read or write. For blind and visually impaired individuals, the ability to read braille and braille literacy becomes key to employment, independence, and full participation in society.
Braille Literacy and Employment
A number of barriers are factors that contribute to the national 70% unemployment rate for blind and visually impaired adults. There is a significant correlation between braille literacy and employment, with approximately 90% of blind individuals who are employed qualifying as braille literate and utilizing braille in their daily lives. Employees at the Lighthouse have a need to increase braille skills in order to meet the challenge of changing technologies used in all areas of employment. Access to information, job and upward mobility are key to the future success of the Lighthouse in manufacturing, and to the employees’ continued success. We address this by offering a comprehensive Braille Training Program as well as offering access to our Braille Reading Library (BRL).
As workplace computer programs become more complicated and visual, it is imperative that a secondary form of adaptive technology input become available for blind, visually impaired and Deaf-Blind employees. Refreshable braille displays are another available adaptive technology that can be used to supplement or serve as a replacement for audio and visual technologies. Knowledge of braille is imperative for refreshable braille displays to be utilized for computer access. Braille gives the computer user much more detailed information along with providing formatting ability not available with speech only technologies. In addition to the ability to track document formatting, using a braille display is a faster and less complicated way to read phone numbers and dollar amounts.
For adults living with degenerative eye diseases such as retinitis pigmentosa and macular degeneration, blindness develops in adulthood, making it challenging and frustrating to learn to read and write braille. Changing vision needs will cause many people who formerly used magnification to do their work to now be faced with the difficult reality of transitioning to braille.
Braille Literacy and Independence
Without braille, an individual who is blind or visually impaired is dependent on computers with voice synthesizers or audio recordings. A person with low vision can use magnification computer software or other print enhancers, but may not be able to read this way for extensive periods of time without experiencing eye fatigue. All of these adaptive devices require access to expensive and often unattainable technology, on an individual level for personal use or in the workplace. For example, a BrailleNote is a portable, personal electronic note taker that allows an individual to use braille, instead of audio technology, to record notes and store data. With the ability to read and write braille, and individual has increased choices, including technologies like the BrailleNote, which create opportunities for independence and accessibility. Without access to these technologies a blind or visually impaired individual is severely limited in their ability to communicate and engage professionally and in the community. In addition to the use of braille with adaptive technologies, braille is also useful in daily life and community recreation for blind and visually impaired individuals. Braille is used to label directional signs, literary texts are produced in braille, and many board games are available in braille. A study conducted by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) illustrates how braille users view their literacy as a fundamental component in their life and independence of blind and visually impaired adults:
For all braille readers, Braille appeared to be an essential ingredient to their attitudes about how they function on a daily basis as legally blind adults. All Braille readers described the central role Braille plays in their lives at home, at school and at work. They discussed Braille as an “equalizer.” They described braille as making them competitive with their sighted peers, and they all expressed the belief that without Braille they would not be able to operate as effectively.