Who Wants Change and Why
Changing a system used for reading and writing is fraught with
contention and peril for those advocating such change. Such is
the case with changes that have been advocated for braille
Some Overall Thoughts About Change
Stepping back for a moment, perhaps it is instructive to look at
such change in a broader perspective. Consider for example
George Bernard Shaw’s society to revise the spelling and
alphabet of the
English language. His proposed alphabet is called the “Shavian
alphabet”. I bet most readers have never heard of or seen it.
In 1989, the National Education Association (a U.S.-based
organization) recommended use of the following spellings: “tho
altho thru thruout thoro thoroly thorofare program prolog catalog
pedagog decalog”. Really successful, eh? There are many similar
examples which date at least back to the late 1700s.
In a similar vein is the longstanding attempt to replace the
myriad western languages of the world with Esperanto. This
effort began in 1887, but use of Esperanto can hardly be
Considering Change to Braille
It is no surprise then that changes in braille, even minimal
changes, are slow to be either understood or accepted. Very
minor changes made to the current BANA-approved literary code in
the 1990s are still a matter for complaint and protest by many
braille readers. The changes contemplated in UEB are far more in
number and more far reaching in scope.
Who Is Most Interested in Changes to Braille
Perhaps the first group interested in changing braille that
should be mentioned are those involved with braille code
development. After all, we spend great amounts of time working
on current codes to make them fit into new situations that
constantly arise. We see deficiencies and we see how it could be
possible to bridge gaps between various codes to create a less
complex world for all readers.
Another group with a vested interest in improving/changing
braille codes are those who transcribe braille texts. Perhaps
more than any other group, transcribers are faced on an almost
daily basis with the need to create methods for presenting
material from print which is becoming more graphical over time
and whose ability to change is governed only by less imaginative
publishers and minds.
Often, teachers have advocated for change because they want
braille to be as easy to teach and read as possible. This desire
is driven particularly by the singular lack of braille education
provided to the teachers of the visually impaired today. Because
teachers barely know braille at all, it is difficult for them as
a group to understand the more complex aspects of braille.
Readers Have Demanded and Received Changes to Braille in the Past
From time to time, specific groups of readers have come forward
and requested change. The most recent and best example of this
in the current era is the adoption by BANA of the Computer
Braille code in the mid 1980s. Blind users of adaptive
technology were required by that technology to use a code
radically different than computer transcriptions of that time.
Readers demanded a far stronger 1-to-1 representation between
print and braille texts. They also wanted to be able to write
braille as they read it on braille displays or from the text
output of braille printers. The Computer Braille Code largely
met these requirements and was applauded by the braille reading
and writing community affected by it. In the 1059s, students and
teachers of technical material requested and received braille
changes we know today as the Nemeth Code. It met a need to allow
blind people to achieve and excel in technical subjects.
Who Least Wants Change
Unquestionably, the group of people who least want change and who
will least accept it are the older, generalist braille readers.
The majority of this group insists on holding a position that no
change be made to the literary braille on which they were trained
as children and use 50-75 years later in a largely unmodified
form. Unrealistic as such a position may be, it is theirs and it
is held steadfastly and vocally.
This poses a tremendous challenge to any effort to unify braille
codes. The question has had to be asked: Can small enough
changes be made and braille codes unified and still keep readers
satisfied with braille?
Unquestionably, the answer is “yes”. We see the proof of this
most directly in the Nemeth Uniform Braille System (NUBS), a code
which has been fully developed but is largely ignored thus far by
BANA. In NUBS, one can write braille precisely as it exists
today, with no changes made, in general literary text. Thus,
those readers most opposed to change don’t have to countenance
change at all unless they choose to read technical material. Of
course, we have to recognize the increasing amount of such
material in all texts today, and it may be inevitable that even
general readers will experience some change over time.
The way that NUBS manages technical material is through the
creation of two modes: a nontechnical mode i.e. current literary
braille; and a technical mode, braille not unlike both Nemeth and
the Computer Braille Code in use today. Though a side point,
perhaps this is a good time to mention that the very idea of
modes and their effective use in braille came through the
development of the Computer Braille Code, a currently official
BANA code. Modes have proven a very powerful means of separating
technical and nontechnical material due to CBC. I believe we
would do well to concentrate more efforts in examining the use of
this mode in the larger context of unifying braille codes.
UEB could make far fewer changes to literary braille than it
does. However, it has been tightly, some would say inexorably,
bound to certain strictures that disallow this to occur. At the
very same time, UEB attempts to preserve what for technical
material is the Achiles heel of literary text, the use of the
numeric indicator along with letters representing numbers
throughout the code.
Because of these two factors, UEB has continued to gain no
traction in the United States. First, it enacts far-reaching
changes to braille that affect the most average reader of the
most average, simple literary text. At the very same time, it
retains the single greatest reason that braille has become
disunified in the United States and why technical code creation
became necessary in the first place.
Until BANA comes to view braille code unification with these key
factors in mind, their work will remain unaccepted by braille
readers, teachers and transcribers. With UEB, nobody gets enough
to make its adoption acceptable. Clear losers are the students
who must attempt to grapple with a symbol set for technical codes
that greatly increases a requirement to decipher dots rather than
learn technically oriented disciplines they need to achieve
success in life.
At the present time, it seems fair to say that the only group who
really wants change, assuming that change is their chosen UEB, is
BANA. This leaves braille readers in a position where little
code development in technical areas has been undertaken by BANA
for the past decade and longer and where the voices of
transcribers and educators is being completely ignored. One can
only hope for an improved situation over time.
The Role of BANA Regarding Change
With regard to the consideration of change, one has to be at
least somewhat sympathetic with the predicament in which BANA
finds itself. With limited resources and significantly competing
needs, BANA has tended to wish to focus on only one methodology
for achieving change. Early in the process, it was believed that
the committee working on the basic philosophy of change could
come to some consensus about how that change would be achieved.
Alas, that was not to occur. Further complicating matters was
the internationalization of decisions regarding change. This
decision has proven to be the final nail in the coffin with
regard to any possibility of effecting positive and far-reaching
change to date in the United States.
Are There Other Relevant Questions
With this post nearly prepared for publication, I am wondering if
perhaps a different question should also be posed. Who wants
change is certainly an important issue. But, who needs change is
of equal and perhaps greater importance. Depending on the
commentary people bring to this post, perhaps I’ll work on a
category with that name as well.