Screen readers as a motivating source to braille literacy

Innlegg av Nina Tveter ved Nordisk punktskriftmøte 2015

As the headline says, what I’m going to talk about today, is screen readers as a motivating source to braille literacy. I’m not going to deal with the technical aspects. I’ll concentrate here on the practical use. As far as I know, no research has been done yet to describe how screen readers affect the use of braille. Therefor, what I’ll present here is my own observations, experiences and thoughts. Naturally, you’re free to disagree to what I’m saying, and I hope this contribution will be a starting point for a good debate about this issue.

As we all know, the digitalisation of the world above all has been a huge knowledge revolution, and I think it has been even more important to disabled people than to anyone else, but of course, I’ll here focus on the blind. For us the digitalisation has led to development of screen readers and screen reader equipment that for the first time in history makes it possible for us to get the same knowledge at the same time and at the same arena as sighted people. This, of course, enables us to take part in education, working life and society in a more active and independent way than ever.

Let’s at first take a look at the screen reader software. Most screen readers include both synthetic voices an braille displays. It’s obvious that a synthetic voice reads through a text much quicker than you can do it yourself on a braille display. It’s easy, then, to believe that the blind nowadays skip braille reading to spare time, but I think it’s the other way around. I think the digitalisation has motivated more use of braille than ever, and I’ll use the time now to reflect a little on why and how.

From about 1960 to about 1998 the blind, either they wanted to study or to read for pleasure, mostly had to rely on audible sources, such as talking books and people who read to them. Just a little amount of books was available in braille, and reference works such as encyclopaedias and dictionaries were almost no existing. This was a big problem, because if you just listen to a text, you don’t get to know how words are spelt, the use of big and small letters and the use of signs. For that reason, I’ll claim that audible reading leads to a sort of analfabetism. Furthermore, when you just listen to a text, you don’t get in direct contact with it. The voice that reads it interferes, because it’s impossible to read without interpreting what you are reading. That means, when you listen to a voice that reads to you, you don’t only get to know the text itself. You also have to deal with the reader’s interpretation of it. That interpretation is not necessarily the one you would have given if you were able to read the text with your own fingers. This, however, is exactly what the screen reader enables you to do! Thanks to the screen readers and braille displays the blind now are free to read almost every text they want with their own fingers. This is nothing but fantastic. Finally, the blind as well as sighted people, may rely completely on the text they’re reading and quote passages from it without the risk of making mistakes. It’s marvellous, and I’m sure this is a possibility we, as blind readers, has seized greedily.

What about the synthetic voice then? Does it interpret the text in one way or another? Unfortunately, I think the answer is yes. So what shall we do with the synthetic voice? Is it a useful vehicle or not?

I think the answer to this question is yes, at times. Fortunately, the screen readers allow us to use the braille display and the synthetic voice either separately or in combination, and I think most of us change between these possibilities many times a day. If we want to read our e-mail or an Internet page quickly just to get an overview of what it contains, it’s most likely that we use the synthetic voice, but if we need to look more carefully at the details in a text, it’s most likely that we use the braille display. For instance, when we write a Word document or an e-mail, it’s much quicker to work it out with the braille display, maybe in combination with the synthetic voice, but certainly not with the synthetic voice alone. It takes time to let the voice spell and read signs even if it’s possible. The synthetic voice, however, may be of great help when you take a final check to see if everything in your text is spelt correctly. Often you can tell from the pronunciation of the voice if anything is wrong.

Also when you read e-books for pleasure, it may be convenient to listen to the text and use the braille display only on occasion when you want to know more about the details. If the e-books are of a more scientific kind such as textbooks, however, it may be wiser to read them on your braille display at first, and then use the synthetic voice to read quickly through it for repetition, for instance before an exam. I myself have gained a lot from working in that way as a student. When I knew the text well, I could repeat it very quickly by reading through it with the synthetic voice. We all, however, have individual preferences, and fortunately each of us may decide when to use the braille display, and when not; when to use the synthetic voice, and when not. The good thing is that we now are free to choose and may develop our own habits.

The access to Internet has also motivated the use of braille. Finally, the blind as well as sighted people can turn up in an encyclopaedia or a dictionary, and use Mr. Google as well. I think this search activity not only motivates the use of a braille display. It even requires it. Accuracy is needed both when you write the term you are searching for, and when you read the results. You’d get enormously tired if you only were to listen to a synthetic voice to reach that accuracy even if the voice can spell and read signs. Everyone who has used an iPhone only with Voiceover as vehicle, knows what I’m talking about. I’ll claim that you may do your searches many times as fast by use of your braille display.

What even more requires the use of the braille display is all the applications you have to utilize when you apply for a job, fil in a tax form, pay your bills, book your flights or order products on the Internet. In all these cases, you have to fil in a digital form, and it must be done correctly. Furthermore, you need to know exactly where you are in the form at any time. This is easily done by the braille display, and it even allows you to move the cursor to the right place by the buttons on it. All this makes it ten times as easy to fil in digital forms by use of a braille display, whether or not in combination with the synthetic voice, as by the synthetic voice alone. Of course, this not only motivates braille literacy. It enforces it!

Until now, I’ve talked about the necessities of life. Let’s now take a look at the social aspects. On the Internet there is lots of networks, groups and societies you may take part in such as LinkedIn and Facebook to mention some of them. The communication in these networks is done by writing. Everyone write about what they’re doing either they are chatting or posting events on their Facebook site. This above all enforces utilization of the braille display. Chatting is an activity young people practice every awake hour of the day, and I think young blind people are no exception to the rule. That’s, at least, good for the recruitment of braille users.

The braille display has also the advantage of silence, so that you can work together with others without disturbing them. This makes you belong to your class or your team as an equal member of it, and I think this social fact motivates the literacy of braille as much as anything else does.

At last, I’ll say something about the braille display as vehicle for educational purposes. Some years ago, I had an adult braille beginner student who all his life had had heavy manual work. When I met him, he had learned some braille at Huseby resource centre, and when I was contacted, he wanted to learn more. He asked if it was OK to continue the braille training on a braille display. His motivation for doing so was to be able to read newspapers and other things online. After some time he claimed that it was much easier to read braille on the braille display than to read it on a paper. He argued like this:

For me as a braille beginner, it’s a challenge to follow the line I’m reading and move rightly to the next. I think it’s much easier to follow a line on a braille display than it is to follow it on a paper, because the braille display has got only one line, while the paper has got many lines. It’s also easier to move rightly to the next line by pressing a button on the braille display than to search for it on a paper full of lines. Furthermore, the dots on a braille display are much sharper and more robust than those on a paper are, and therefor much easier to read.

I think we should listen to his arguments. Maybe it’s easier for some adult beginner students to read braille on a braille display, and maybe that should be taken into consideration in the braille teaching of blind adults.

I think the braille display is a marvellous device. It has lifted blind people, adults as well as children, out of the listening-to-books-slumber into an active use of braille.