Technologies of Resistance/Resisting Technology:
Braille, Computers, and Literacy
for the Visually Impaired

(Speaking Notes: Inkshed 2000)

Diana Brent
Doug Brent


[Note: Diana read the main text; Doug read the text in italics]

My job is to help blind and severely visually impaired high school students use Braille and computer technology for a wide variety of reading and writing tasks. All too often, for blind children, the assumption is made that computer technologies, especially those with speech to screen access, are an easier and preferable mode of learning compared to reading and writing hard copy Braille the old fashioned way.

When I went to school, I wrote Braille using a Perkins Brailler, which looks something like a manual typewriter and punches dots mechanically onto a heavy piece of paper. Writing with one is much like composing at a typewriter except that you can't write in the margins or squeeze things between the lines, especially after the page has been removed from the Brailler. Even the clumsy cross-out, cut and paste editing that longhand writers do is impossible. My essays at that time didn't get through more than one, maybe two drafts, and most often, the first draft was the Braille draft from which I typed my final print copy which was handed in. Once the work was typed, no final editing could be done since I couldn't see the typed copy to make revisions.

Within this context, technology is incredibly powerful and liberating. When I first started using computers with Braille or speech output, I was suddenly freed to make the kind of revisions that sighted writers take for granted. I could move things around, have second thoughts, find a better word, without tearing up a draft and starting over from the beginning.

Oral technologies such as audio tapes combined with scanners and computers with speech output are efficient and relatively inexpensive. Materials in these formats are more plentiful and more readily available than texts that require translation and printing into Braille. A computer can be adapted with speech screen reading software for around $1400. Compare that with the cost of a Braille printer and a Braille display -- about five thousand dollars for the printer and six to nine thousand for the display, on top of the cost of the computer itself. Also, Braille reading materials must be produced by skilled transcribers and printed using special equipment. Tapes, on the other hand, can be produced by unskilled volunteers and duplicated on equipment that can be bought at Radio Shack. Finally, Braille, like other forms of writing, takes a long time to learn well.

In Orality and Literacy, Walter Ong describes the early days of writing technology: "The physical properties of early writing materials encouraged the continuance of scribal culture. Instead of evenly surfaced machine made paper and relatively durable ball-point pens, the early writer had more recalcitrant technological equipment: . . . wet clay bricks, animal skins . . . the bark of trees . . . dried leaves. As inscribing tools the scribes had various kinds of styli, goose quills which had to be split and sharpened over and over again, . . . brushes wetted and dabbed on dry ink blocks. Special mechanical skills were required for working with such writing materials, and not all 'writers' had such skills suitably developed for protracted composition. . . .
"'In the physical act of writing,' the medieval Englishman Orderic Vitalis says, 'the whole body labours.'" (Orality and Literacy 94-95)
Braille, too, requires special materials, tools, and skills in a world where the default learning mode is standard print. Consequently, educators think seriously about the merits of relying on technological aids based in orality rather than teaching Braille.

But what happens when children grow up using primarily oral media for reading and writing? I'd like you to take a look at two examples of writing produced by students who use speech most of the time and Braille very little. The third sample is from a student who uses Braille as his primary instructional medium. This isn't exactly a scientific sample but these examples reflect a pattern that I have observed time after time in my many years of teaching.

Example 1 is an analysis of the Santana song "Maria Maria," written by a student whose primary reading and writing tools are tape and a computer with speech:

Maria Maria means that Santana really loves the girl in the West Side story. The song teaches us to love and cherish girls and give the girl what she wants and needs. He is a real emotional singer and this song demonstrates what he is talking about. This song also says that Maria has to listen to the guitar of Santana. He also says that Maria is his lover.
This isn't a bad piece of writing. But it can't really be called analysis. The passage repeats the basic plot of the song in different words but it never gets much beyond the literal.
Ong suggests that many features we take for granted in modern thought are enabled only by the technologies of writing:
Oral cultures tend to use concepts in situational, operational frames of reference that are minimally abstract in the sense that they remain close to the living human lifeworld. . . . Havelock has shown that pre-Socratic Greeks thought of justice in operational rather than formally conceptualized ways. (Orality and Literacy 49)
Luria's experiments with illiterates' reactions to formally syllogistic and inferential reasoning is particularly revealing. In brief, Luria's subjects seemed not to operate with formal deductive procedures at all -- which is not the same as to say that they could not think or that their thinking was not governed by logic, but only that they could not fit their thinking into pure logical forms, which they seem to have found uninteresting. (Orality and Literacy 52)
Example 2 is a narrative.
"Mark to tarry come in over" Marks voice crakled over the radieo. "This is tarry what do you wan't" he said "Hay can you come ovver to the tree?" Mark asked "O.K." said tarry. "See you in a second turning off my raidoes now." Mark switched off his raido and sat back and wated.
Tarry came and came out to the tree house.
"Hi say have you ever seen the shack in the yard?" mark asked "Yah " tarry said "I want to go in there but I can't or else my dad will hurt me." I have a idea you could get a robot to scot out the shack to see if there was a secreet hole to get in." Great idea you can be the robot but make shure you arn't cought." "O.K."
Tarry scouted out the shack and said when he got back  " nothing" Tarry said. "darn" Mark said We could dig under the shack." "How we don't have proper diging toles.?" "I have it we will make them" My dad has some tools but he will never let us have them." "That is it we will make him sleep with some sleep gass" "we could buy some frome the store called Sanfrisco" "O.K. Lets Go."
Mark whent to his dad who was laughfing and gigling his dad stopted him and stufted a wod of $20 buils and mark whent to the mall and bought 10 paks of 15 sleep gass boms. The labble said:
Pop the glass near the person that you wan't to sleep and run at lest 13 feet from the placee that you threw the bomb the will not wake up untill 3 hours pased the will wake up and not rember a thing.
Mark thought of a idea to get his dad in the grouge. The plan was to wate untill his dad whent in the grage to wax his Truck. Mark told tery to stay out sid at the tree house. The tree house was atlist 14 feet away. He walked away and made it look like he dropted his glass of water. He ran he hurd his dad yell
"Get bback he..." His Dad fell to the ground. Mark whent back in the grouge and snatched a sluge hamer, shuvel, gluves, shuvel, and a large battery operated burt drill called a oger.
They made plans that every time they were digging that they had to knock his dad with there bombs. The dug for mounths they were all most out of bombs so they dicided to have a sleep over at the tree house late in the night the used one stink bomeb in the house to make his dad extra sleepy so he wouldn't here them Mark took the sleep bomb and sneeked in the room he chucked the bomb righ in the bed with his dad the bomb whent off it pop Mark ran out of the house and got out of the house. He looked in the house windo that was his da windo his dad was walking around with a mask on he took it off he opend the windo and fell on his bed sleeping mark took two bombs and tosed them in the windo the popt his dad lept up but before he could grab the mask it explodedhe fell down asleep.
"He is sleeping" Mark said "How will we dig at night with this" Tarry said
He puld out a light and put on Tarrys back the light made where ever teary whent the durt light up. Then one hour befor done the durt around the shak show orng. Tarry came out of the hole and the hid all of the tols in the tonel. They coverd up the tunel with a blanket matching the collor of the grash. IN the morning The boys woke up around 12:00. They woke up his dad wis in the shak. He came out and whent in the grouge. The tolk all of the bombs and disided to use them all but ther was a problem his dad was waring a mask so mark whebnt over to his dad and put four bombs in the two canistors in the mask. And som around the groughg he made them to explode when he slamed the store. That the ones that were on the ground on the grouge. The ones on the mask alridy exploded his dad was walkaround gasping mark slamed the door. The other bombs exploded just as his Dad took off his mask. His dad fell on the ground and sleept quite quickly. Mark and Tarry cut a hole in the bottom of the shack and opend up the tunel.when the goot ingthe shack mark flicked up his light he couldn't bleave his eys there was a tuns of hunting linces and gunes and a lot of aliggle stuff. The coverd up the shack hole and plande to distroy the shack the would say that one of the light s had popt and they hurd a explothions. The also distroyed the tunel the last time the came by puting gassline on everything then Mark threw a match in the tunnel it exploded.
Marks dad never found obout the act of arson that his son did to his dad so he wouldn't hurt or kill animals out of seison.
The story has a certain insane charm. But the narrative never sustains an idea for more than a few lines. Ideas such as the robot pop up, are developed for a line or two, and are never heard from again. Such truncated thought, bouncing from one unconnected idea to another,has a cartoon-like quality reminding us of Saturday morning children's TV. Mark's father stuffs $20 bills in Mark's shirt for no apparent reason, other than adolescent wish fulfillment. The story has the dramatic structure of a dream rather than a story, and characters are just plain bizarre.
"The heroic tradition of primary oral culture and of early literate culture, with its massive oral residue, relates to the agonistic lifestyle, but it is best and most radically explained in terms of the needs of oral noetic processes. Oral memory works effectively with 'heavy' characters, persons whose deeds are monumental, memorable and commonly public. Thus the noetic economy of its nature generates outsize figures. . . . To assure weight and memorability, heroic figures tend to be type figures: wise Nestor, furious Achilles, clever Odysseus . . . the overpoweringly innocent Little Red Riding Hood, the unfathomably wicked wolf, the incredibly tall beanstalk that Jack has to climb -- for non-human figures acquire heroic dimensions, too. Bizarre figures here add another mnemonic aid: it is easier to remember the Cyclops than a two-eyed monster, or Cerberus than an ordinary one-headed dog." (Orality and Literacy 69-70)
The students who wrote the above examples have good keyboarding skills and are relatively proficient in the use of computers equipped with adaptive speech screen-reading technology which they use to input and edit their own assignments, and also for reading texts and assignments that are stored in their computers. Yet the overall structure of their writing is jumbled and confused. It's as if all of their ideas are crammed into a container, shaken, and thrown randomly onto a sheet of paper like dice onto a table. The process of making connections, linking one idea to another is tenuous at best. They are able to orally recount the plot of a narrative but are more challenged when they need to write the narrative down. Grammatically, they write using very simple sentences or run-on sentences, connecting often unrelated thoughts and ideas together with several "ands."
For Ong, oral texts are additive rather than analytic. He compares the residual orality of the Douay Bible to the high literacy of the New American Bible:
"The Douay renders the Hebrew we or wa ('and') simply as 'and.' The New American renders it 'and,' 'when,' 'then,' 'thus,' or 'while,' to provide a flow of narration with the analytic, reasoned subordination that characterizes writing and that appears more natural in twentieth-century texts. . . . Written discourse develops more elaborate and fixed grammar than oral discourse does because to provide meaning it is more dependant simply on linguistic structure, since it lacks the normal full existential contexts which surround oral discourse and help determine meaning somewhat independently of grammar." (Orality and Literacy 37-38)
Compare the first two examples with example 3.
Who's Better Than Who
As Stephen was racing up the street to Taylor's house he said, " I'm late!" As Taylor was waiting for Stephen he shouted, "When is that blasted brother of mine coming?" When Stephen got there, Taylor exclaimed, "You are late!" Stephen admitted, "I am, but it's so far away from my house." "No it's not!" "Yes it is," "Well, I'm stronger than you," shouted Taylor. "Well I'm faster than you!" demanded Stephen, "Oh yea, Stephen you are cooler than me," taunted Taylor. "Be quiet!" screamed Stephen. "You be quiet," snapped Taylor. "Well you're not smarter than me," said Stephen. "Okay then," said Taylor. "How about we have three tests and the one who wins two out of three is the winner." "You're on" said Stephen. So they went to Taylor's backyard to have their first test. "Our first test will be a race. The first one from the maple tree to the river wins" said Stephen. First Stephen drew a mark from the maple tree to the river. Then they started to run. As Stephen was running he tripped and fell in a hole and two seconds later Taylor was in the hole too. "Who put this hole here!" mumbled Stephen. "I don't know." exclaimed Taylor, " "But we have to get out of here." As Stephen stood up to try and get out, he felt the ground crumbleing under him.

Stephen said, "Taylor give me your hand." Just as Taylor gripped on to Stephen's wrist something grabbed Taylor and pulled him back up the hole and left Stephen in the river. Taylor screamed, "Let me go! " "No!" whispered the voice. So Taylor pushed and pulled and he was finally free. So then Taylor jumped in the water and grabbed Stephen's hand. Then he pulled him out. "I'm so sorry for being mean to you!" sobbed Taylor. "I'm sorry for being so late." said Stephen. So they became good friends and good brothers again.

This story displays more complex subordination. The plot hangs together. Odd things occur but they contribute to an abstract idea that emerges from the flow of the action. Overall the story seems much more mature than examples 1 and 2. In many ways the story of Mark and Terry and the gas bombs is more fun than the moralizing tale of Stephen and Taylor and the hole. But it just doesn't seem to reflect the qualities of organized sequence and complex thought that we value in a literate society.

In fact, the author of the third example is 9, while the authors of the first two examples are 15 and 16 respectively. The writer of the third example uses speech technologies but he also loves books, and is proficient in both reading and writing braille. He uses a Mountbatten Brailler, which is essentially a computer and a braille printer combined. It has the editing capabilities of a computer but can produce each draft as a Braille printout, which he writer reads carefully and edits on the next version.

For Ong and other literacy theorists, the technology of writing is utterly transformative. It provides an unfolding record of thought that you can glance back at. It allows you to keep track of complex, abstract ideas that would never come into being in an oral culture because they would be impossible to remember. It externalizes thought -- as Havelock puts it, "separating the knower from the known." It permanently separates us from the situational, participatory, concrete world of primary orality and makes us into literate beings.
This has been criticised as the "great divide" theory. Critics such as point out that these theories subsume all cultural variables into one technological determiner of cognitive style. Furthermore, it is often argued that these theories merely give us license to discount the different cultural and cognitive styles of marginalized groups, and impose our own academic way of thinking and doing as "the norm."
All this may well be so. But perhaps we may still be forgiven if we find ourselves deeply troubled by the idea of an entire generation growing up with only variants of the spoken word to establish their literacy.
Speech technologies, from tape recorders to talking computers, are plentiful, accessible, and portable. Much like early manuscript writing technologies, Braille is bulky, expensive, and is very much limited in its availability compared to the print information that sighted individuals encounter constantly today. Braille requires trained specialists to teach it, it seems difficult to learn, and because it is not constantly "in-your-face" for the blind child as print is for the sighted, it's hard to motivate a child to use it.

But what does Braille do for a person that speech technologies do not? The sequenced, ordered characters of Braille provide a medium laid out in space very much like print. Indexes, lists, outlines, indentation, are meaningful in Braille. One can read them quickly or slowly, stop and back up, and follow a developed argument in ways that are difficult when listening to words flow by on a tape.

In times of education cutbacks and strained budgets, school staff can find many reasons why visually impaired students don't really need to learn Braille at all. In its bumpy, tactile form, Braille is very intimidating to the uninitiate; the average classroom teacher does not know how to read or write Braille and therefore trained vision specialists must be brought in to teach it. Consider, however, that Braille, like print, is a code, a written representation of our spoken language. We would never consider substituting a purely oral medium for print reading and writing for our sighted children. These same priorities and expectations must be observed for those who are blind or severely visually impaired. When oral and written communication is balanced rather than having one substituted for another, technology can become a most empowering and exciting tool, but technology in and of itself cannot be a teacher of literacy.


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