by Jonathan Craig

Editor’s note: Jonathan Craig is a Melbourne-based policy and advocacy advisor and a former editor of Blind Citizens Australia’s quarterly magazine, Blind Citizens News. We marked World Braille Day, Louis Braille’s 215th Birthday, on January 4 this year. Jonathan’s contribution below offers an important perspective on Braille education and associated-policy-making for our younger generations.

It’s almost 5:00, but the end of the workday feels like a retreating mirage. My jaw is locked tight in concentration. My eyes are streaming with the effort of decoding the merciless robot chattering in my ears. After nearly 8 hours of this, the signal keeps turning into noise – the noise of a drill, or maybe a jackhammer.

But no, I’m still behind my ergonomically ideal desk, getting paid to sit and write, not sweat and toil in the sun. “Suck it up!” I shout at myself in the ringing echo chamber my skull has become. “You work in an office. How hard can it be?”

This isn’t a story you can tell children. When I was a kid, employment for blind adults was a distant and nebulous prospect to me. But the highhanded warnings my teachers gave me seemed equally irrelevant to my reality. “Audio books aren’t real reading!” they said. “It’s lazy! You’ll get square ears listening to that all day! Your imagination will ossify, and you’ll be a mindless zombie couch potato!”

I’m unsure why they didn’t understand that teenagers are naturally lazy. I could drag around the new Harry Potter book in 37 volumes, or I could have Stephen Fry read it to me off a pocket-sized device. Which did you think I would choose? Framing my decision as a moral failure only annoyed me and diminished their authority in my eyes. “I can imagine this massive book hitting you in the head very vividly thanks,” I thought to myself.

Refreshable Braille was supposed to solve the portability problem.Page 21 of 32

My parents, who’d also been lectured about the importance of Braille, sold some shares to buy me a $10,000 notetaker, which was invaluable for presentations, maths, proofreading and various other tasks.

But even when I first got it, connecting to the internet, or transferring files to and from the device, required antiquated cables, confusing obsolete software, and ancient arcane magic. As flash drives and Wi-Fi became commonplace, I grew increasingly dissatisfied with this difficult user experience. Around that time, the Unified English Braille code was introduced. While I now feel the changes were rational and necessary, as a teenager with a rebellious streak, I was preoccupied by a sense of injustice. Imagine what would happen if someone tried to enforce massive changes to written English! When I was told the alterations were to make Braille more like print, I became certain this was totally unreasonable and unfair.

I dragged my notetaker, kicking and screaming, through five years of uni, where it continued to be incredibly useful and incredibly frustrating. By that time, I knew what $10,000 was worth and my inability to love it more did feel like my own moral failure. I put it in a drawer, where I couldn’t stumble across it and be overwhelmed by guilt and resentment. And for several years, the only Braille I read was on pill boxes and lifts.

The reasons I stopped using Braille had nothing to do with the format itself, and everything to do with the way I saw it. But if you ask people my age, a lot of us will tell you similar stories.Page 22 of 32 Though the competing options were a factor, I believe Braille usage, for students in the early 2000s, was complicated by a perfect storm of weird politics, terrible technology and alienating messaging from its proponents. We all acknowledged that there were things Braille did better than anything else. But for many in my generation, Braille wasn’t fun. Braille wasn’t cool. Braille was work.

It was work that got me reading Braille again. At the high volume and speed my job required, the editing and proofreading I’d once enjoyed became hellish. And however much I gritted my teeth, my attention was never consistent enough to catch every mistake a sighted reader would have. If I’d wanted to convince my younger self not to abandon Braille, I might consider telling him about the embarrassment of being bad at the thing you love most. Terrified of misusing more of someone else’s money, I dreaded choosing a new device, but the market had transformed while I wasn’t watching. Though still costly, notetakers now relied on much more modern technology, and the mainstream Android operating system, meaning you could now install any app on your device. Braille displays which could connect to your computer or phone provided a much cheaper option. Every eBook, document, webpage and social media post was now at my fingertips. I started out with some of my favourite short stories, relearning the old motions. I soon realised that reading with my fingers freed up my ears for music. So I listened to records while reading reviews and liner notes. I followed the scripts of Shakespeare plays. After relying on it completely for so long, silencing my speech felt liberating. For the first time in years, I was reading Braille the way I had when I first started learning — not for work, but for fun.Page 23 of 32

If the 2000s were the storm, the 2010s were the rainbow. Many of the issues I endured growing up have now been resolved. The aforementioned advantages of Braille were always there, but it is far more attractive now that it has become as portable, simple and flexible as any other format.

And yet, new threats are emerging. I was luckier than I realised to live in a place where I could receive a quality Braille education from qualified specialist teachers. Every night I would complete my homework in Braille, and they would quickly transcribe it for my class teacher to mark. When our fellow students practised handwriting, me and my best friend would learn new contractions together. When I was in primary school, laptops were bulkier, more expensive, and generally less user friendly. Now iPads, with highly capable screen readers built in, are commonplace at home and at school. There is a growing temptation for education departments to view Braille teaching as antiquated, inefficient and redundant, now that speech to text is so accessible. Training someone in Braille and employing them for the benefit of only a few students is expensive when anyone can teach touch typing. Braille education is one of the most controversial topics covered on Jonathan Mosen’s popular Living Blindfully podcast. Many listeners were upset by his assertion that people who were blind and had never learned Braille were technically illiterate. At first this felt like the same tiresome rhetoric I heard in high school. But listening more carefully, I came to understand that Mosen was thinking about how to keep Braille in the classroom.Page 24 of 32 “The people that I’m trying to reach when we have this discussion about literacy, are not other blind people,” he said, as he sought to wrap up the fractious discussion. “They are public policymakers who are looking at every turn to short-change blind children, and those blind children aren’t able to speak up for themselves.”

Mosen is right to argue that Braille is in danger, and the blind community should work together to protect it. As he frequently points out, sighted educators were suspicious of Louis Braille’s code when he invented it, and we had to fight for its adoption. Alexander Graham Bell, most famous for inventing the telephone, spent much of his energy teaching Deaf people to speak and discouraging the use of sign language. Though mainstream understanding of disability has certainly matured since then, we still know what’s best for us better than anyone else, and it would be naive to imagine the fight is over.

In my experience, the fight is harder when children themselves aren’t convinced. Thinking back, I realised that the commandments that I must love Braille mostly came from sighted people. These were well-meaning passionate allies who nonetheless couldn’t get through to me, thanks to my previously mentioned rebellious streak.

I can’t go back in time and talk to my younger self, but it is interesting to consider what I, as a blind adult, would say to a child like me, given the choice of learning Braille, which is hard, or listening to speech, which is easy.

I don’t believe a child growing up these days has any reason not to love and enjoy Braille as much as I now do. And I think love and joy are the keys to engaging a new generation.Page 25 of 32 Though prophecies and practicalities may work for some, they didn’t for me. But the first time a child sees a refreshable Braille display, they are captivated. They can watch the pins rise and fall for hours.

There’s no one approach that can win over any kid. Even as an adult, I gradually progressed to using Braille every day as I realised how it could improve the things I already loved doing. But when we see that mix of joy and curiosity, we should remember what it looks like, and nurse it however we can. If Braille is to survive, and even thrive, as I believe it should, we need to keep that feeling going and find creative ways to inspire a love of Braille. But most importantly, we should aim never to let any kid grow up fearing it again.

Note: Blind Citizens NZ is looking into the state of Braille in New Zealand and the development of a strategy for literacy through Braille. This involves several strands that includes working with Blind Low Vision NZ. To be connected with fellow members interested in Braille advocacy, join the Braille Special Interest Network by emailing