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Braille battles to stay in touch

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People with visual impairments read braille by running their fingers over a series of raised dots representing letters of the alphabet. The system was devised by a French schoolboy, Louis Braille, in 1821. (Cassandra Vinograd/CNS)

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Kalah Dolman, 9, reads the braille text that she has recently written on her braille typewriter. Kalah is one of only 10 percent of blind American schoolchildren who use braille as their primary medium of communication. (Cassandra Vinograd/CNS)

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Kalah Dolman, 9, reads from her braille book during class at the New York Institute of Special Education in New York City. Only 10 percent of blind schoolchildren use braille as their primary medium of communication. (Cassandra Vinograd/CNS)

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Kalah Dolman, 9, who is totally blind, is in the fourth grade at the New York Institute of Special Education, where she learns to read and write in braille. (Cassandra Vinograd/CNS)

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The PAC Mate is a pocket PC device for the visually impaired. It runs versions of common Microsoft applications such as Word and Excel and has a braille and audio output (Courtesy of Freedom Scientific)

Under the proud gaze of her fourth-grade teacher, 9-year-old Kalah Dolman read aloud from "The Bus Station Mystery" by Gertrude Chandler Warner. She was confident, fluent and barely paused for breath as the story unfolded, rapidly scanning each page before flipping to the next, engrossed in the latest exploits of the Boxcar Children.

But despite having gripped Kalah's attention, there was no print on the pages of the book. The narrative intrigue emerged entirely through Kalah's fingertips, which flew across rows of raised dots. With one hand speeding across the top of the page and the other poised beneath, she brought the words to life.

Kalah is one of the star students at the New York Institute for Special Education, where for the past four years she has learned to read and write in Braille. She is totally blind, but she is reading at the level expected of fourth graders. Her teachers anticipate a glittering high school and college career to come.

Wouldn't Louis Braille be proud. In January 2009, Paris will host celebrations to mark the 200th anniversary of Braille’s birth. But much has changed in the two centuries since the French schoolboy invented his revolutionary system of raised dots. Powerful magnification devices, speech synthesizers for computers, handheld scanners and audio books are all now widely available. Braille has become just one method among many that allow a visually impaired child--or adult--to absorb information.

The advent of these sophisticated tools and a push to educate blind children in mainstream schools have led to a decline in the use of Braille. Children like Kalah now represent a minority within a minority. Of the country's 58,000 visually impaired children, only 10 percent use Braille as their primary medium of communication, according to the American Printing House for the Blind. That’s down from around 50 percent in the mid-1960s.

For a while it seemed that the only place Braille might soon be found was in the history books.

But Braille battles on, and advocates insist that the system is still vital for attaining literacy, even in an age of technological advances.

"Think of blind people using Braille as 100 percent analogous to sighted people using print," said William Raeder, president of the National Braille Press in Boston. "Is technology taking over from print? Technology is actually enhancing the use of print, and it is enhancing the use of Braille."

The enhancements include some pretty neat gadgets like refreshable Braille outputs that can be fitted to regular computers and portable devices similar to laptops that allow users to take and review notes in Braille without relying on speech software at all. These Braille writers offer a visually impaired person the same functionality that a Palm Pilot or laptop offers a sighted person--including the ability to listen and read at the same time.

Speech software has also improved dramatically. An optical character recognition program that translates scanned text into audio or Braille output is now available in a camera-size device that takes a snapshot of any text--a leaflet or cash register receipt, for instance--and then reads it aloud.

And users of speech software no longer have to endure the slow, robotic drones that used to be standard issue with such technology. With more recent “real speech” software, users can control the speed of delivery and the tone and gender of the voice, which mimics a human voice almost perfectly.

Dawn Suvino, the director of information services at Visions Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired in New York City, was astounded the first time she installed real speech software on her home computer. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, there’s another person in the house,’" she said.

With so many technological tools, it’s no wonder that there's been a decline in the use of Braille. Only about 5 percent of school-age children considered legally blind are actually totally blind (without any sight or light awareness). Many such visually impaired children now utilize improved magnification techniques to read print instead of Braille. Teachers assess individual students on a case-by-case basis to determine which method of learning would be most suitable.

Still, Braille is the favored choice for students like Kalah, who have both the ability to learn it and profound sight loss or degenerative vision. Without Braille, these children might not ever learn how to spell the words they hear, nor understand the intricacies of grammar and punctuation.

"Braille is the only means by which blind people can truly read the written language," said Raeder of the National Braille Press.

All of this technology means that Kalah, and blind students like her, have more options available than any earlier generation of visually impaired people. Kalah, for instance, could read the latest Harry Potter book in Braille, listen to it on audio cassette or CD, talk about it with friends on the Internet and even write about it for the school newspaper, for which she has recently been appointed junior editor.

There's just one problem.

"My sister watches the Harry Potter movies all the time," Kalah said. "I'm kind of sick of that stuff now."

E-mail: has2114@columbia.edu