Today, January 4, 2019 is World Braille Day.
Amongst the things us persons with visual impairments hold dearly, braille surely ranks first. It is the means by which we can read printed information. It is the key to independent living. Because of braille, we are literate and interrelated as a global community.
Braille is a system of writing that depends on six dots embossed on a piece of paper in different configurations to represent the print letters, numbers and any other symbols as they are known by sighted people. Braille uses bumps and indentation on a surface to represent letters, which can be recognized by touch.
One feature makes braille superior over all its predecessors and initial competitors: it can be written, and written by the individual using inexpensive technology. In the 21st century, computer technology makes braille digital and producible in ways hitherto unimaginable. For example, one can digitally transcribe a piece of print text into braille, and the same can be embossed to produce articles and books to be read by persons with visual impairments themselves.
We persons with visual impairments have immense respect for Louise Braille, the inventor of braille. Louise was born in 1809 in France and became blind after a childhood accident. But, he quickly mastered his new way of living. When Louise was only 15 years old, he created a reading and writing system based on Charles Barbier’s night writing system. We know Louise’s system today as braille. Adjusted over time, braille is now easier to read and used all over the world! Thanks to his ingenuity, today in many parts of the world persons with visual impairments have opportunities of education, employment, and full participation in society, as we gradually approach a time when persons with visual impairments will be able to be whatever they choose to be.
World Braille Day is, therefore, a reminder of the importance of accessibility and independence for people with visual impairments. Today’s reality is that many establishments such as restaurants, banks, and hospitals don’t offer braille versions of their print materials like menus, statements, and bills. Because of this, people with visual impairments often don’t have the freedom to choose a meal on their own or keep their finances private. World Braille Day seeks to spread awareness about braille and other accessible forms of communication. Everyone deserves (and is legally entitled to) the same accommodations and service, regardless of ability.
It is unfortunate that the rate of braille literacy is still hovering around 1 to 2 percent in Africa amongst persons with visual impairments, and indication that very few have meaningful access to information, and education. Persons with visual impairments are hence are isolated and have low expectations of themselves, if any at all. In countries where progress has been notable in the lives of persons with visual impairments, we can point to two contributing factors—people organizing themselves for change, and the availability of braille as a tool of independence. Nowhere, though, does the braille literacy rate exceed 10%. But what we do know is that 85% of employed persons with visual impairments today are braille users. This is a strength that must be guarded jealously.
We demand African governments to invest more resources to make braille available at all levels of the community to enable persons with visual impairments have access to an education, and employment. Schools for children with visual impairments, and mainstream schools should be equipped with brailling machines and paper; and all governments should enforce printing of all public information in braille.
Abdul Busuulwa is the Executive Director, CBR Africa Network (CAN), and former Executive Director of East Africa Center for Disability Law and Policy (EA-CDLP). He has a visual impairment and uses braille.