Reflections of Braille: How This Revolutionary Dot System Continues to Evolve with the Technology of Electronic Braille

By Audrey Schading

A critical event occurred on September 25, 2018, when the House of Representatives unanimously passed the Marrakesh Treaty Implementation Act, (S. 2559) which has the global potential to change the reading lives of people who are blind or have vision loss.

“The Marrakesh Treaty was the product of years of deliberations between the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), publishers, libraries, and disability rights advocates. The treaty was a response to the grave concerns over the cumbersome international copyright laws that make it difficult to gain access to published works in accessible formats like Braille or audio format.” (Braille Forum, Nov. 2018: “House Passes Marrakesh Treaty”

The tremendous impact of the signing of this act can be viewed from many perspectives. First, think about the significance of books in your life. Can this magnitude of importance even be measured?

Imagine that you are surrounded by shelves of floor-to-ceiling books — in a bustling bookstore or a more sacred, quiet library setting. You are surrounded by an innumerable amount of amazing treasured story options at your fingertips. All of these books can conjure up so much from all of your senses!

What wonderful artwork is on the cover? What words and pictures are inside those covers? You take a book off of a shelf. How does it feel in your hands? What’s the binding like? Is the book itself heavy or light—a thick, hard covered book with a well-defined binding and pages of superior quality, or a thin, soft paperback, with many inviting, delicate pages? How do those pages feel when you turn them? Can you hear the crisp sounds of those pages? Is this particular book something you’ll want to read now, or will you file it in your mind for a future time? Do you remember reading it long ago, and then remember reading it again much later on in your life, receiving so much more (or less) from it? Perhaps elements of the book now speak to you  differently.

You take a deep breath amidst all of this literary splendor, and continue your journey. How are you feeling? Are new titles enticing you? Are you checking the book jacket? Do reviews or what others have been saying about this book have any bearing on whether or not you want to read it?

Notice the scents around you! Did you ever think about how books in a library have a different smell than those in a bookstore?

Think now of how you felt when you were first introduced to books. Remember all of those wonderful books you received as gifts?

Now, just for a moment, think of yourself not being able to read any of those beautiful printed words because you cannot see them. Think for one moment of how those of us with limited vision or no vision read, and what has the potential to be available for us in the very near future.

I have friends who are blind and colleagues who lost their vision later in life, many of whom still vividly dream they are reading print books. Some worked in bookstores before they lost their sight. They passionately miss the cherished ability to read printed words.

Growing up as a child who was blind, I, too, have vivid memories of books; however, they are not the same as those which I have described above. I can only imagine this specific scenario. How often in my life I have wished to go into a bookstore or a library and “look at” the books, browsing through shelf after shelf, and then being able to choose exactly what I wanted to read!

I applaud all of my teachers who had small class libraries of wonderful Braille books, and the printing houses who put those books into Braille, as well as the National Library Service (NLS) regional libraries who loaned me Braille and talking books. As an avid reader, all of that was very precious to me. However, I could not keep these books, as they all came from libraries where hundreds of us all needed to share the coveted Braille and talking books. As Braille and recorded books were extremely expensive to prepare, the number of titles and copies was much more limited than the amount produced in print. Thus, we’d often have to wait for quite some time until the specific book we wanted was available.

The digital age has opened new doors for everyone. Most sighted people can quickly purchase and download any book they want, and read or listen to it on their preferred device. Technology has also evolved towards the same playing field for those of us who are blind or visually impaired. This occurred gradually with the NLS’s web Braille, which then evolved to BARD (Braille audio reading downloads) where thousands of books are now available for download. Imagine the joy I felt carrying around a digital copy of Harry Potter which was lighter than my daughter’s very thick hardcover copy. Also, a Braille paper copy of that book would have been approximately eight very large volumes, taking up much of a bookshelf.

Besides BARD, we had another new evolution, “Bookshare.org. It grew from a few thousand books to over 678,000 titles which I can immediately download as Braille or audio! In the past 20 years, it has been astounding to see the expansion of this library. I can now refer a college student to this resource, and he can download the latest edition of the book he needs.

Before Bookshare.org, students had to resort to earlier editions of a required book. Initially, most books added to Bookshare.org were prepared by volunteers, which often took countless hours of scanning and editing. Although many books are still submitted in this way, the process has evolved to Bookshare.org receiving the text directly from authors and publishers allowing for much greater access to many more books available  much sooner. Bookshare.org started in 2003.Currently, they have over 670,000 books!

This evolution now continues with the proposed Marrakesh Treaty.

As I’d previously referred to my U.S. experience, I’d now like to relate that the Braille magazine I’d receive was sent to schools and individuals in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and several African countries, where often one magazine would be falling apart after a dozen eager persons would devour its pages. With the wider availability of small, electronic Braille and audio computers, coupled with the Marrakesh Treaty’s potential, there will now be no limit to the quality and quantity of books worldwide.

I proudly salute all of those who have assisted with this Act’s completion. As Kim Charlson, President of the American Council of the Blind, noted “…what is most exciting is that U.S. citizens who are blind or have other print disabilities will soon be able to have access to special format materials available in other countries in English and other languages, as well as people with all types of print disabilities around the world who will soon be able to gain access to American published works for the first time in an accessible format.” (Braille Forum: Nov. 2018 “House Passes Marrakesh Treaty.”

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