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17 February 2012

Is a Blind Person Illiterate If He Can't Read Braille?

NPR's "All Things Considered recently reported on the decline in the number of blind people who can read.  That's right.  They don't read in Braille, maybe out of practice or maybe never learned, so in essence, they can't read.  Does that make a blind person illiterate if he can't read in Braille?  With voice-activation, voice-recognition, voice-command and voice-converting technology as well as audiobooks, RSS feeds, and apps with GPS to tell people -- sighted and blind -- where to go and what's going on, what's to read?  Sigh!  Yet another example of printed bound books (and magazines and other reading material) going into the antiquity category.

There are apps that will convert text messages into read messages (someone's reading them, but not the recipient of the text message).  There are apps that will convert voiced words into text messages to be sent.  I think there was a joke about that on another program.  One person spoke in awe about this new technology.  His companion said, "Isn't that called a telephone?"  (It is and it isn't, as text messages are more popular than ever, enabling people to keep in touch while one or the other is sitting in a meeting, at the dinner table or even in a church service.  I think this blog post might morph into a question of whether a texter is rude if he can't devote full attention to his physical presence.)

In any case, I am sure the first reaction that one has to the notion that a blind person who cannot read Braille cannot read and therefore, is, by definition, illiterate, would be denial, repulsion and horror.  Illiteracy through the ages has come to infer low intelligence, akin to saying a person is stupid to his face.  That's too rude for our politically correct society.

I have tutored adults who have wanted to learn to read.  A question one always asks is why.  This is to find the motivation within, the reason for beginning and continuing on a big challenge.  One man, who had a slight disability, had wanted to become independent and move out of his home -- open a checking account, sign a lease on an apartment, do many of the things that most of us take for granted.  During the time I tutored him, he came once to a session empty-handed, without the dozens of index cards we had made as flashcards for his home study.  He said his brother had thrown them out, saying that he was getting too uppity and didn't have to learn how to read.  Now, that's a way to keep a man down.  Another person I had tutored -- an elderly Filipina -- had wanted to read to her grandchildren, wanted to read when everyone else was reading after dinner or on a Sunday morning, and wanted to be able to shop in a big American grocery store without her son out to accompany her.  It was truly a struggle for her and I felt that I was too often impatient with her and not at all a good teacher.  I still felt bad even when her son and daughter-in-law thanked me, telling me she had learned a lot and that they would continue to help her learn as they moved the family out of Chicago to the suburbs.

So on one hand, we have adults desperately seeking redress for illiteracy, either because of English being a second language or childhood learning disabilities or family circumstances.  On the other, we have adults going blind and saying, why learn to read when there are all these other options, as if learning to read -- whether in written English or in Braille -- is an exercise for children.  We are not faced with lower i.q.; we're faced with laziness. Sorry to say, I think the answer is yes, if you can't read, you are illiterate.


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