According to WHO facts, 285 million people worldwide are estimated to be visually impaired; of these, 39 million are completely blind and 246 million have a low level of vision. An estimated 19 million are children, of which 12 million have refractive errors, a condition that can be diagnosed and corrected. 1.4 million of these children are irreversibly blind and need visual rehabilitation for their psychological and personal development.
Braille is a form of written language for visually impaired people, in which characters are represented by patterns of raised dots that are felt with the fingertips. Braille users are mostly those who have no vision from an early age and have accepted it as a medium to communicate and learn. It has been in use for over 200 years and is now a part of our everyday life. It can be found everywhere: from libraries to restaurant menus, from signs on doors to ATMs.
Bianca Weigert, a transcriber and Braille teacher in Leipzig, Germany says, “Braille is fun when you can use it to create your own patterns and images. I rejoice every time I encounter it unexpectedly: labelling in the elevator, on food packages, even on dishes and medicinal products for our pets.” Many Braille users across the world love and support Braille, believing in the magic of the six dots created by Louis Braille.
This positive attitude has led to changes in standards and government regulations, which state that products and services must be clearly communicated to everyone. For example, with medicinal products packaging and labelling, all names must be displayed in Braille and the Patient Information Leaflet (PIL) must be available in alternative formats for visually impaired patients. Over recent years, there has been an increasing shift in the attitude of supermarkets and other key businesses: Pete Osborne, Chief Braille Officer at the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) says “Manufacturers no longer say ‘it would be really nice if we could use Braille’, they say ‘we know we should, we just need to know how’.” There are various campaigns aimed at generating awareness about rights in the blind community; WHO has a global eye health action plan for 2014–2019, which aims to reduce avoidable visual impairment as a public health problem.
The world has recently seen rapid developments in various technologies, many of which now benefit Braille users as well. There have been major achievements and advances in the world of mobile apps, such as those used to find places of interest, GPS apps for navigation, typing apps for text messages with intuitive predictive text, talking bus apps, smart glasses and the very popular Siri, which is used to give voice commands to mobile phones. There are also some specialised high-tech devices such as wearable computer gloves, which help users to learn Braille through small vibrating motors that run sequences on the wearer’s hand.
The attitude of many visually impaired people is commendable, as many live their life with zeal and zest, reaching incredible heights. The exemplary Judge Richard Bernstein, who officially joined the Michigan Supreme Court in 2014, can often be found preparing for cases by committing facts, word-for-word, to memory, thus creating history.
Braille is a great asset to mankind and can be made available to everyone with the help of new technologies, government regulations and a shared passion for teaching and learning. We must continue to provide opportunities to increase the positive changes in the world of visually impaired people, to let their reading fingers demonstrate their magic.
“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” – Helen Keller
Written by Rohini Vetal Kale