Original speech date: June 13, 2016
Project: Competent Communication #7 (Research Your Topic)
CC #7 took a while to finish, as I wanted a topic that requires proper research. I gave an updated speech at the Area K73 Speech Contest, where I focused on using the entire stage and making hand gestures. I present this updated version.
Thank you, Mr. Toastmaster, and thank you everyone for coming to the Area K73 Contest—instead of going to the ACL, which is actually a lot more fun! In all seriousness, I'm very excited and grateful to be here with you today.
My talk is titled "Braille in Modern World." I wanted to learn braille after visiting Adam this March. Adam's my best mate in Kentucky, and he had just joined Toastmasters thanks to me. So I had to see what his club is like. Linda, the club president, gave a speech that day, and the first thing you'll notice of her is that she is blind. She was reading braille to give her speech. Well, that day, she was my superhero.
After I came back to Austin, to learn braille, I read several books and articles, and interviewed two state organizations here in Austin: the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, located on 45th and Burnet, and the Talking Book Program, at the Capitol building in downtown. Surprisingly, the more I looked into braille, the more I realized its diminishing role in the modern world. I want to take this time to address the issues.
I've divided my talk into three parts. One, I will cover what braille is and how to read one particular braille—the English braille. Two, I will give two reasons for the decline of braille, and three, I will make three suggestions for how we can help.
1. How to read braille
First, let me dispel the notion that every blind person can read and write in braille. An alarming statistic comes from the National Federation of the Blind in their 2009 report. Less than 10% of blind people in the U.S. are literate in braille—that's 9 out of 10 people who are blind and cannot read and write in braille—and the rate is similar with blind children, which points to a dismal future. If we are to suggest using braille to people who are blind, we had better understand ourselves how braille works.
Braille is a 6-dot system. A set of 6 dots is called a cell, and the dots have the name 1—6, as shown in Figure 1 on your handout. Each dot can be raised or flat, so there are 64 different cells to work with. It doesn't seem like a whole lot, does it?
But braille, in fact, represents many things, including multiple languages, math, music, and programming. The trick is to allow assigning multiple roles to a cell and allow considering a group of cells as one entity. It's ingenious, but at the same time, you can imagine that trying to represent everything with just 6 dots is going to cause a lot of headaches.
With that in mind, we will consider the English braille as an example. English braille consists of two levels: Grade 1 and Grade 2. In Grade 1 braille, we turn each letter, number, and punctuation mark in a sentence into a cell, in a one-to-one fashion. Hence, if you already know how to spell words and construct sentences in English, you can read and write in Grade 1 braille.
In Grade 2 braille, we introduce contractions to read and write more efficiently. You can see from the handout that you can write the exact same sentence using much fewer cells in Grade 2 braille. Contractions occur when (1) a cell represents multiple letters, sometimes an entire word, or (2) a group of cells forms the abbreviation of a word. There are many, carefully laid down rules for when to use contractions and which contraction comes first. Because you have to account for all these rules, it can be quite difficult to learn Grade 2 braille.
2. The decline of braille
Next, let me talk about the decline of braille. Earlier, I mentioned that less than 10% of blind people are literate in braille. This is a significant drop when you consider the rate in the 1960s, which passed 50%. What happened in the last 50 years?
According to Ava Smith, the Director of the Talking Book Program, audiobooks became popular around the 1970s and a very disastrous decision took place in education: Blind children no longer need to be taught braille, since they can listen to audiobooks to learn English. As it turned out, listening by itself did not help them develop literacy skills.
When we read a sentence by sight, we observe how to spell, how to follow grammar, how to format a text, how to use punctuation marks, etc. Oftentimes, authors use these in a very deliberate manner to highlight their ideas. You can't take in these ideas and learn to create your own, when you only listen to the sentence but never see it written.
In addition, when you listen to someone speak the sentence, you very much depend on that person's interpretation of the sentence. The pronunciation, the inflection, the emotion, the pace—they are theirs, not yours. How will you give that sentence your own voice if you never learn to read?
Furthermore, alternatives to braille began to appear. This is the second reason. In addition to audiobooks, people with some sight could choose to read learge print books, which are far cheaper and easier to obtain than braille books. Electronic braille displays would encourage the daily use of braille, but these displays are expensive, can only show one line of text at a time, and are prone to mechanical failure. On the other hand, computers and cell phones are universal now, and they, by default, include accessibility options like high contrast, magnifier, and screen reader. Braille is simply lagging behind in technology.
3. What can we do?
As people with sight, how can we then help? For the most part, awareness is key. Knowing what braille is—braille allows blind people to learn various ideas and share their own ideas—is good, but knowing how to read and write in braille is even better. In my opinion, learning braille is much easier than learning a foreign language. Try it!
We can also help by encouraging braille to be displayed in public. If you work at a restaurant or a company, make sure to offer braille copies of your restaurant menu or company brochure. Blind people are just like us. They eat, they drink, and they conduct business. We should also advocate for including braille in mail, drug prescriptions, and currencies. Blind people get mail and prescribed drugs just like we do, but oftentimes, there is no indication of what they just got. To make matters worse, United States is the only country whose paper bills are of the same size, shape, color, and feel. There is no easy way for a blind person to distinguish the different denominations.
Lastly, treat people with blindness with respect and kindness, as you would any other person, and don't be afraid to say words related to sight to them. If you are not sure about whether you should help a blind person, just ask. Every one of us knows what help we want.
That's the end of my speech. I hope you enjoyed it and now see why braille is so important. There is a lot of information that I didn't cover today. If you will, there is a QR code and a web address on your handout. They will send you to my blog, where I discuss braille and how we can help in greater detail. If you can take the time to read it and share it with your friends and families, I'd much appreciate it.
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