Braille and Libraries

I can only imagine how difficult it would be in this digital age for people with vision impairments, and how they would be at a huge risk of getting ‘left behind’. I recently read an article by CNet on an ‘Instant Braille translator [that] can fit in your hand‘. This little invention is pretty amazing:

The device has an internal camera that takes photos of the printed text, which is then converted into digital text using optical character recognition software. Next, the text is translated into Braille, and a mechanical system raises and lowers pins on the surface of the Tactile that form the characters to be read by one’s fingertips.

With this invention, suddenly an entire library of books would open up to those with low or impaired vision! (As well as all the regular everyday text we take for granted like restaurant menus, receipts and class handouts). Not only is this a great example of women in STEM pioneering an incredible invention, it also got me thinking about how little I know about braille and how it fits within library collections.

The first thing I wondered was; is braille a universal language? Originally braille was created in French, then adapted to other languages. An international braille standard was later proposed and “has been applied to the languages of India and Africa, Arabic, Vietnamese, Hebrew, Russian, and Armenian, as well as nearly all Latin-script languages” (Wikipedia). However various Chinese, Korean and Japanese systems differ.

Braille books and technologies are apparently incredibly expensive, so there are limits to availability and access (as Worstall writes in Forbes). A quick call to my local library informs me there are a total of three books in their immediate collection, all of which are for junior readers. Looking around the internet, it seems this is a trend, with adult braille books even harder to find than children’s ones. Interestingly IFLA’s guidelines state that:

Public libraries have a fundamental responsibility to braille users and providing access to braille books and services is an integral part of the purpose and missions of libraries as supported by both IFLA and UNESCO.

But its unclear how many public libraries have the funds and capacity to succeed in this. While there are many audio books, it is argued that “audio systems don’t provide the same understanding of language” as braille does, because things such as spelling, grammar and formatting aren’t explicit (Smithsonian Magazine). So  it is very important for people to be able to actually read, whether it be with their eyes or in a tactile way.

It seems like quite a difficult task to get good reading material if you have a vision impairment. Rao (Tech in Asia) writes that a regular Harry Potter book of 1,000 pages would be 11 volumes (and eight times the price!) in braille. Enter another amazing female in STEM – Surabhi Srivastava. Due to a massive decrease in literacy rates among blind people (particularly in her native India, with rates of less than two to three percent) her startup company invented the BrailleMe:

It’s a machine that plugs into mobile phones and computers to help the visually impaired access the internet and other digital content. It’s equipped with a tool to let people write in braille and have it appear in digital text, as well as one that converts digital text into raised bumps for readable braille. Every time a person finishes reading a line, they can press a handy little “next” button to move to the next one. (Tech in Asia)

While existing technology for text to braille costs in the thousands, this device costs a few hundred. The capacity for these types of devices to provide access to previously closed-off knowledge is astounding. Perhaps libraries could lend out these devices with regular texts, rather than stocking a large braille collection?

  • Does your library have any braille books in their collection?
  • How does your library cater for patrons with vision impairments?
  • How can we support people with vision impairments? What do you think is the best way forward?

Michelle De Aizpurua, ILN Content Officer.

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  1. This is great innovation! It is very unfortunate that people with vision impairments are in the first place struggling to make ends meet. Getting materials for them is expensive and as a result they are just left out. As community libraries are concerned, they do not have money. When there is no money in any country the library is the first to experience the cuts. Such innovation is a real welcome development only if the the community / public library can afford to buy it.

  2. Brilliant stuff. I think we’re in such a rich vein of creativity right now.
    Not saying this is the case here, but I believe the mix of large volumes of reliable data, coupled with an attitude that things are only impossible when you stop trying, means that we’re seeing some awesome examples of innovation in the wider social healthcare market.

    Young innovators these days seem to see no reason to stop trying until they find solutions.
    It’s a really exciting time for inventions.

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