How Braille Is Providing Accessibility and Independence
*This post was originally published on January 4, 2022. It was slightly updated for World Braille Day on 01/04/2023.
How many people reading this article are still using a nearly 200-year-old reading and writing system — Braille — to access this blog post?
Other than me, I’m guessing not many.
In the UK, there are at least 60,000 people using Braille on a regular basis. Named after its creator, Louis Braille, this tactile way for visually impaired people to read and write uses a series of raised dots to spell out words.
Can you imagine creating a technology that will still be used 200 years from now? I guess the old saying “If it works then don’t fix it” really applies here.
It is the simplest of solutions that opens up a world of possibility for those, like me, who are visually impaired and rely on Braille to read and write effectively. Thanks to a combination of six dots, people with visual impairments are able to translate a whole language with their fingertips.
Though Braille has endured for more than 200 years, in an increasingly digital landscape with emerging technologies that can easily replace the need for Braille, the use of this tried and true medium has been on the decline — by some estimates, only one in 10 blind people are now able to read Braille. However, Braille offers something that technology can’t easily replace: spelling. Braille literacy — and the ability to spell and write that comes with it — is important for everything from employability to not having to rely on technology.
Right now, there are 7 million people in the UK with a disability, which by my calculations works out to around 10% of the population. All these people need to access technology, buildings, and their environments on a day-to-day basis, which makes it important to consider the ease of accessibility for every person with a disability.
So when designing your school, office, or next generation of software, be aware that people with disabilities might access your product in ways you may not have considered. Here are a few questions to ask yourself and some focus areas to keep top of mind as you think through how you can ensure your facility or technology is accessible to everyone:
- Have you considered how a blind person uses a touchscreen telephone that they cannot see?
- How do those with visual impairments set their central heating?
- What are the different ways someone with a disability might do their shopping or read their mail?
- How do those people navigate the world around them, like getting to work, finding their office desk, or buying their lunch?
- How might someone with a disability access software on a computer or tablet?
All of the above problems have solutions and many of them are based on Braille, like signs on bus stops or elevator panels, labels to organise items, and refreshable Braille displays for computers. Accessibility means independence, and although I imagine better solutions are still to come, it’s imperative that those without disabilities increasingly consider those with them in a rapidly evolving world.
The pinnacle of design in any environment should be that everybody can access it — from software on a PC to the layout and design of a school, a hospital, or an entertainment hub. Solutions could be as simple as the texture of the flooring, like hard surfaces for walkways and carpets for desk areas. Things like including Braille signage in your buildings, using standard tactile flooring to indicate doorways, or providing adjustable lighting levels for those who don’t like bright light may seem like small design differences, but they undoubtedly have a large impact on users with disabilities.
In most cases, if you make something accessible for people with disabilities, the chances are high that you’re making it more usable for everybody else. And ultimately, if it is impactful enough, then maybe, like Braille, your design will last 200 years.
Learn more about an accessibility-focused approach to technology implementation.
About the Author
Assistive Technology Architect at Guide Dogs
Phil is a Guide Dog owner with over 20 years of experience in supporting assistive technology users across the charitable sector, currently working at Guide Dogs as an Assistive Technology Architect. He’s passionate about making the workplace and home accessible for all.
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