19th Century Innovation Remains an Integral Part of Our Future
Thursday, March 26, 2009 marks a defining moment in American History: the launch of the 2009 Louis Braille Bicentennial Silver Dollar taking place at the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. The 2009 Louis Braille Bicentennial Silver Dollar commemorates the 200th anniversary of the birth of Louis Braille, inventor of the Braille system, a vital tool used by the blind to read and write. This coin is the focal point of a national effort to bring awareness to the Braille literacy crisis.
The average person may wonder why Braille literacy is such an important issue, especially in this modern electronic age when there are so many technological alternatives to “old fashioned” reading and writing. For the blind in particular, there have been some remarkable advances in what is known as “assistive technology” to provide electronic alternatives to reading.
The world of assistive technology and the world of Braille literacy seem to be antithetical. If a blind person can use a hand-held reader, wouldn’t that mean they don’t need to be able to read Braille?
As a user of both Braille literacy and Assistive Technology, I am able to share first hand the importance of Braille literacy in the technological age. I attended the proceedings in Baltimore, as an Ambassador for Braille Literacy for the National Federation of the Blind. As many of you know, I am also the National Sales Director for the KNFB Reader Mobile, the first hand-held device that a blind person can use anywhere to access the printed word.
The launch of the newly minted 2009 Louis Braille Bicentennial Silver Dollar is a perfect opportunity to dispel the misconceptions about the role of Braille and the importance of Braille literacy in America.
To appreciate why Braille literacy still important with all the new advances in assistive technology, one must first understand that Braille is a language. Electronic media such as audio books of all genres, whether educational, recreational, or artistic, are becoming increasingly popular ways to deliver content which enriches our lives, blind and sighted alike. But the primary basis for the information that is transmitted is language.
The process of language involves reading, writing, hearing and speaking. For a blind person, Braille is written language, the only way of engaging the reading and writing components of language. The literacy rate for sighted people in this country is 98%; the literacy rate for blind people is 10%. 40 years ago, the literacy rate for blind people was 50%.
The 2009 Louis Braille Silver Dollar will help the National Federation of the Blind raise money for Braille literacy, as well as raise awareness of the crisis. One of their most important objectives is to change attitudes about Braille. As educational programs fall under the scalpel, it would be easy to be lulled into false complacency, that technology will solve all of our problems. As a nation, we cannot overlook access to language as a fundamental human right.
For blind people throughout the world, regardless of their native tongue, Braille opens up their ability to fully communicate and contribute to human culture. Despite its rich history and almost quaintly poetic story of how it originated, Braille remains as vital and “cutting edge” as the latest technology, as it is essential to our use of language and ability to communicate.
At this historic launch of the first-ever U.S. coin to feature readable Braille, we should consider the words inscribed on the coin itself: “Liberty; In God We Trust, Louise Braille 1809 2009” Liberty is one of the founding principals of our nation. The preservation and perpetuation of Braille as a vital, living language, ensures liberty and equality for everyone.