Literacy crises take place when a cultural lag occurs, when literacy practices and literacy education have not quite caught up to increased expectations and heightened demand. Literacy crises result, that is, from the progressive imperatives of public policy, economic development, technological and scientific innovation.
—Trimbur, “Literacy and the Discourse of Crisis,” p. 284
The year 2009 marked the bicentennial of Louis Braille's birth. As part of the commemorative year, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) published a report titled "The Braille Literacy Crisis in America: Facing the Truth, Reversing the Trend, Empowering the Blind," and launched a campaign to “double the Braille literacy rate by 2015.” Among the statistics included in the report are a 10% braille literacy rate and a 70% unemployment rate for blind adults. (See Note 1 below for an explanation of the variable capitalization of braille 1 ).
The report articulates several causes for the braille literacy crisis, but primary among them is the “paradox of technology”: while “advances in technology have made Braille more available than it ever was in the past,” listening-based literacy practices utilizing text-to-speech and other audio technologies are often perceived to “obviate the need for Braille” (NFB 2012a, pp. 12-13). Contemporary definitions of literacy have been shaped by two cultural factors of note: the shift in dominance from the mode of writing to the mode of the image and the shift in medium from page to the screen (Kress, 2003). Within the context of the braille literacy crisis, the mode of braille is being replaced by the mode of sound/ audio in a variety of media. The NFB 2 concludes their report with a strong statement of braille's essentiality:
For over 150 years Braille has been recognized as the most effective means of reading and writing for the blind. Hundreds of thousands of blind people have found Braille an indispensable tool in their education, their work, and their daily lives, even as professionals in the field of blindness continued to debate the merits of the system. . . . In the hearts and minds of blind people, no alternative system or new technology has ever replaced Braille where the rubber meets the road—in the living of happy, successful, productive lives. (NFB, 2009a, p. 15)
The braille literacy crisis discourse represented by the NFB report crafts a narrative of both literacy's decline and anxiety over literacy's progress; by linking its critique of listening as literacy with startling statistics about "illiteracy" and unemployment, the NFB negates the alternative, multimodal literacy practices that may be utilized by the supposedly 90% of blind adults who are illiterate by the NFB's assessment. The NFB's braille literacy report illustrates how “the resonance of the two terms—‘literacy’ and ‘crisis’—[have] taken on a certain formulaic, self-explanatory quality. Just to utter the phrase is to perform the act, putting literacy in crisis by releasing diffuse but widely shared anxieties” (Trimbur, 1991, p. 277).
Trimbur emphasizes that many commentators on literacy emphasize a narrative of literacy in decline, and asserts the need to separate the discourse of literacy crisis from the “empirical evidence it has relied upon” (p. 283). The NFB's report relies on two key statistics which typify the myth that “literacy is a necessary precursor to and invariably results in economic development, democratic practice, cognitive enhancement, and upward social mobility” (Graff, 2011, p. 35). To better understand the perceived link between braille literacy and upward social mobility, it is valuable to examine the empirical evidence underlying the discourse of braille literacy crisis: the NFB's report links a 10% braille literacy rate with a 70% unemployment rate for individuals who are blind and low vision.
The 10% braille literacy statistic is based on a 1996 estimate by the American Federation of the Blind; this estimate was based on a 1970s survey of adults (17 and older) with print reading limitations conducted by the American Federation of the Blind for the National Library Service (NSL). The AFB's 1996 estimate adapts the 1970s data, “taking into account population growth and aging as of the mid-1990s. As assessed by experts at agencies that supply braille materials for national purposes (NLS and National Braille Press), AFB's estimate is considered at the high end of a plausible range” (AFB, 1996, p. 287). The braille literacy rate cited by the NFB is an estimate based on data that is decades old. More importantly, the rate negates a range of literacy skills, emphasizing only two categories: braille literate and illiterate.
Data from Cornell University's 2011 Disability Status Report (Erickson, 2012) generally supports the NFB's claim of 70% unemployment. The Cornell Report, which draws data from the 2000 Census, the Current Population Survey, and the American Community Survey, indicates that the employment rate (ages 21-64) of individuals who have a visual disability is 37.2%. When considering full-time, full-year employment, the rate goes down to 23.8%. These statistics would suggest an unemployment rate between 63%-76%, a range that fits with the NFB's stated 70%. However, Cornell's Disability Status Report clarifies that the unemployment rate should not be defined by who is not working, but by who is actively looking for work. With this distinction in mind, the percentage of adults (21-64) who are not working and are actively looking for employment is 13%. This is stark contrast from NFB's claimed 70% unemployment rate. To review, Cornell's collected data suggests that 37.2% of blind and low vision adults are employed in some way, 13% are unemployed and actively looking for work. This leaves just under 50% who are not part of the work force in any way. The story of this data is not just those who are unemployed, but those who have left the workforce altogether. A more alarming statistic from the Disability Status Report is the 29.5% of individuals who are visually disabled living in poverty. Statistics from the Cornell Report reveal that there is a problem that needs to be addressed, but its causes demand further investigation. The NFB's report links unemployment and poverty rates primarily to braille literacy, ignoring issues such as blindness stereotypes, inaccessible environments and technology, etc.—exemplifying “the rhetorical power of the phrase ‘literacy crisis’. . . to condense a broad range of cultural, social, political, and economic tensions into one central image” (Trimbur, 1991, p. 277).
Sound vs. Print
Beyond the statistics of illiteracy, the NFB braille literacy crisis report evokes anxieties about the perceived demise of the book and a hovering post-literate culture, holding to a definition of literacy as “the reading of great books that make one a great person rather than as rhetorically effective communication” (Williams, 2007, p. 180). And for the NFB, this reading of great books is a silent endeavor: “the act of quietly holding a book in your hands and reading for the pleasure of reading is a gift. Independent reading is true independence of the mind” (NFB, 2009b, n.p.). The emphasis on a specific type of reading reflects Graff and Duffy's (2011) argument that “Where the evidence does not support a decline in literacy rates among the general population, there is a perceived crisis over the kinds of literacy that are or not practiced—for example, the crisis of declining numbers of people reading ‘good’ literature, said to represent a threat to the ideals of participatory democracy” (p. 39). Literacy crisis discourse favors certain types of media (the book over the screen, for instance) and certain modes (print/ visual over audio). With its perceived mapping to alphabetic print and its facility for silent reading, braille is perceived as being “the only thing equivalent to print for the blind” (NFB, 2009b, n.p.)
While the NFB's document creates a narrative of literacy decline, underlying its argument is anxiety over literacy's progress. The braille literacy crisis was explored publicly in a New York Times article titled “Listening to Braille” (Aviv, 2009); the article includes anecdotes of individuals who are not braille literate and rely solely on sound to read and write a range of texts. The article also includes a range of criticisms against these sound-based literacy practices; according to one interviewee, “If all you have in the world is what you hear people say, then your mind is limited. . . You need written symbols to organize your mind. If you can't feel or see the word, what does it mean?” (Shandrow, qtd. in Aviv, 2009, n.p.). The conflict captured in the article is between “a controlling literacy and a disenfranchised orality,” what Richard Lanham (1995) describes as "the class struggle of our time" (p. 71).
Writing (whether print or digital) is visual; “whether it is represented by letters or by other means, [writing] is a graphic matter, a matter of sight rather than of sound, of marks made on a surface, a kind of image in two-dimensional space rather than a sound (sequence) in time” (Kress, 2003, p. 73). Because of this visual dominance, print or digital writing is always inaccessible to individuals who are blind, unless it is recoded into another mode such as the tactile mode of braille. Braille can be conveyed through a range of media: on the page as with a slate and stylus, in an embossed book or through a refreshable braille display. Similarly, the mode of audio is conveyed through a range of media/ assistive technologies: typically, voiced and recorded by a human actor or scanned and transcoded into synthetic speech. Many blind and low vision individuals choose listening as a medium for literacy for a variety of reasons including education, cost3, and access; however, the NFB (2009a) counts these listening-based practices as something other than literacy:
Let's face it, listening does not equal literacy. Literacy is the ability to read and write and to do the two interactively. Children who learn exclusively by listening do not learn about proper spelling, punctuation, and syntax. As for technology, the irony is that technological advances have made Braille easier to produce and consequently more widely available than at any other time in the history of the code. (n.p.)
The NFB's argument asserts that the process of interpreting the braille code matrix of dots through the fingertips is the only legitimate mode for literacy. The NFB recognizes the value of various modes of representation, and they are certainly not anti-technology; they were instrumental, in collaboration with Raymond Kurzweil, for the development of optical character recognition for print-to-speech reading. However, audio reading facilitated by technologies such as Kurzweil reading machines is viewed by the NFB as a supplemental tool for gaining information, rather than as literacy itself.
The NFB report ultimately serves to “restrict our understanding [rather] than to illuminate it” (Trimbur, 1991, p. 281). By emphasizing crisis, much of the discourse surrounding braille literacy misses opportunities to gain unique insights into multimodal literacy practices at work. Through examining the braille literacy crisis and the history of both the braille code and audio literacy technologies related to blindness, we can see in active practice how sound can function as a dominant mode of literacy and understand more fully the affordances of a range of modes and the facilities of multiple media (Kress, 2003).
1 A note on capitalization of “braille”: The Braille Authority of North America (BANA) “recommends that the word “braille,” when referring to the code developed by Louis Braille, be written with an initial lowercase letter. When referring to the proper name of Louis Braille, the inventor of the reading system, the initial letter should be capitalized.” Based on the BANA position statement, I use the lowercase “braille” throughout the document. The National Federation of the Blind utilizes the uppercase “Braille” in the documents cited, so I’ve retained the capitalization in these references
2The National Federation of the Blind is an organization of approximately 50,000 members; the NFB puts particular emphasis on the “of” in the organization's name, considering themselves as the "voice of the nation's blind (NFB, 2012a, n.p.). In arguing for the fundamental value of braille, the NFB assumes to be representing “the hearts and minds of [all] blind people” (NFB, 2009a, p.3).
3 Refreshable braille displays typically cost anywhere from $3,500-$15,000 while screen readers, which recode digital text into sound, are far less expensive; they range from $250-$1500 with open source options increasingly available (American Foundation for the Blind, “Products”).