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The Harsh Economics of Learning Braille

January 12 2010 | by


The media is talking about braille and literacy, a topic jump-started by a New York Times Magazine article, “Listening to Braille,” by Rachel Aviv. The author writes that new technology may be undermining Braille literacy as people who are blind are now “reading” via e-books, iPods, telephone news services and other text-to-speech devices.

Aviv’s article centers on education: Teaching braille in order to inform language structure and help blind children read and write better. While she touches on the economics of technology, I wish she had gone deeper into this issue. The cost of reading Braille really does need to be stressed. Aviv writes:

Braille books are expensive and cumbersome, requiring reams of thick, oversize paper. The National Braille Press, an 83-year-old publishing house in Boston, printed the Harry Potter series on its Heidelberg cylinder; the final product was 56 volumes, each nearly a foot tall. Because a single textbook can cost more than $1,000 and there’s a shortage of Braille teachers in public schools, visually impaired students often read using MP3 players, audiobooks and computer-screen-reading software.

That’s one. Single. Book. For $1,000. I doubt most of us have an extra grand to plop down every time we want to read a novel. So the end result is that the government or private foundations get involved, and help subsidize the transcription of print to Braille. But not every book has a Braille counterpart. Then there’s the issue of having enough real estate on your bookshelf for these hefty volumes.

In theory, a better solution would be to read a book on a computer using a Braille access device, such as a refreshable Braille display (which is like a braille keyboard). But people who are blind won’t be able “curl up with a book” on a computer. And these devices cost upwards of $6,000.

That’s why digital talking books make so much more sense for today’s modern person who is blind. They can be read on “DAISY readers,” which are like the Kindle — only much more accessible, or on MP3 players like iPods. Costs start from $350 and up. That’s more favorable economics.

The bigger problem is getting the major publishers to allow their books to be translated into audio for those with visual impairments. works with some publishers and has a library of 60,000 digital titles, but readers must first supply proof of their disability in order to have access to the collection. Another company, Read How You Want, publishes books in alternative formats — braille, audio and large print — from small or independent publishers.

Language is beautiful, and should be taught in it’s highest form. But it’s easy to see why so many blind people are leaving braille in the dust in exchange for living in a modern society, where every book, magazine and newspaper is available to them in audio format.

Lest we forget that absorbing knowledge — in whatever form — helps cultivate intellect, perhaps braille becomes to the blind what Latin is to high-school students: a grammatical framework and homage to elite language, but one that’s confined to historical status — and the classroom.

  • Darrell Shandrow

    I think saying Braille is unnecessarily because of the currently high costs of producing hardcopy and the lack of affordable Braille display equipment is a cop out. Why not, instead of throwing literacy to the curb for blind people, work to bring down the costs of interactive Braille display technology through cheaper materials and the use of least-expensive labor, etc? It’s done in all other areas of the technology industry, so why not assistive technology? Could we get the price down by manufacturing the stuff in places like China?

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