January 07, 2010

braille vs. mp3

On the one hand, Braille is hip. There are hundreds of websites, for example, that sell "Braille jewelry", and judging from their appearance, they don't seem to be geared to blind customers only. On the other hand, the iPod is also hip. Fewer and fewer blind people learn to read and write in Braille. Instead, they listen to text recordings on mp3 players and use dictating software.
For much of the past century, blind children attended residential institutions where they learned to read by touching the words. Today, visually impaired children can be well versed in literature without knowing how to read; computer-screen-reading software will even break down each word and read the individual letters aloud. Literacy has become much harder to define, even for educators. “If all you have in the world is what you hear people say, then your mind is limited,” Darrell Shandrow, who runs a blog called Blind Access Journal, told me. “You need written symbols to organize your mind. If you can’t feel or see the word, what does it mean? The substance is gone.”
Shandrow's words can be taken quite literally. Reading Braille is one way for the brain to develop the visual cortex. Listening to recordings cannot have the same effect.
In the 1990s, a series of brain-imaging studies revealed that the visual cortices of the blind are not rendered useless, as previously assumed. When test subjects swept their fingers over a line of Braille, they showed intense activation in the parts of the brain that typically process visual input. These imaging studies have been cited by some educators as proof that Braille is essential for blind children’s cognitive development, as the visual cortex takes more than 20 percent of the brain. Given the brain’s plasticity, it is difficult to make the argument that one kind of reading — whether the information is absorbed by ear, finger or retina — is inherently better than another, at least with regard to cognitive function. The architecture of the brain is not fixed, and without images to process, the visual cortex can reorganize for new functions. ... The activity of reading itself alters the anatomy of the brain.

As a result of the development towards the use of recordings instead of Braille, blind schoolchildren in the US now have lower Braille literacy than schoolchildren in less developed countries, such as Botswana.

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