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Braille is Literacy

Monday, December 23, 2019

Braille is a system of raised dots that people can read with their fingers, either through a physical embossed braille book or through braille software designed to read electronic braille on a computer using a braille display. With the widespread availability of audiobooks and assistive reading technologies such as screen readers, why are braille reading materials still needed?

Charlene Young was born in Rosetown, Saskatchewan without her sight. She began learning to read braille when she was four years old, at the same time as her sighted peers were learning to read printed books. The first step in learning to read braille is the development of “tactile readiness”, which is the ability to feel each raised dot. Much like a sighted child learns what the letter “A” looks like and sounds like, children with sight loss learn what the letter “A” feels like and sounds like. Learning the braille alphabet, just like learning the printed alphabet, is the gateway for learning to spell and read. These are the very basics of literacy development, which is vital for future success in educational and vocational environments. Charlene is grateful she learned to read braille as it enables her to fully participate in team meetings at her workplace; she can read meeting agendas and other reading materials on her braille display at the same time as her colleagues.

Despite the importance of braille for literacy development, braille resources are expensive and not widely available. When braille books are available, they are often released after print publications have already been published. A lack of timely access to braille resources creates less demand for learning how to read braille, which in turn creates more dependency on screen readers and other assistive reading technologies that are not as effective in developing literacy and learning capabilities. It is a cycle that is not inclusive.

Traditionally, braille readers have often waited for books to be produced into alternative formats - often not having an opportunity to read the books they're excited about until months later. Ensuring that braille copies of published materials are available on the date of release places braille reading Canadians on an equal footing with their sighted peers. Braille Literacy Canada commends all those who advocate for timely and increased access to braille. -Natalie Martiniello (President, Braille Literacy Canada)

The ability to read a book as soon as it has been published ensures people with print disabilities are included in the literary conversation. According to Adam Wilton, of the Provincial Resource Centre for the Visually Impaired in British Columbia, “it is not enough to say that reading materials will be accessible; reading materials must be accessible in a timely manner in order to be considered inclusive.”

Ashley Nemeth, a vision impaired braille reader from Regina, Saskatchewan, progressively lost her sight from birth until she was no longer able to read large print in grade 7. She attended a class to learn to read braille at that time, a pivotal moment that set her on a course of lifelong reading and learning. Ashley doesn’t know how she would have been able to read stories to her children at bedtime if she didn’t know how to read braille. She also loves braille cookbooks, as they enable her to quickly check measurements and review ingredients as she is making the recipe. Can you imagine how cumbersome it would be to use an audio cookbook? To Ashley, “braille is literacy”. Ensuring publications are released in braille at the same time as print makes her feel like she has equal priority, and that her needs are not an afterthought.

The National Network for Equitable Library Service (NNELS) advocates that inclusive access means access for all readers at the time of publication (also known as “born accessible” books), and thanks in part to support from the federal government’s Social Development and Partnership Program – Disability Component (SDPP-D), we have been fortunate to work with incredible industry partners to advance the born accessible vision. Earlier this year, NNELS worked with House of Anansi Press for the simultaneous embossed braille and electronic braille release of the Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology. After this successful release, NNELS has been delighted to work with several Canadian publishers on the simultaneous release of nine additional published works in embossed braille, electronic braille (BRF), and EPUB. The fiction and nonfiction books represent a diversity of topics in both French and English, including military history, mystery, poetry, and children’s literature. Visit the NNELS website to learn more about specific titles that have been released.

Bart Vautour, author of The Truth about Facts, was thrilled his work can reach an expanded, inclusive audience:

I am thrilled that my work is part of a large initiative that is working to increase accessibility through our public libraries. What is more, for my work to have simultaneous release in print and braille formats demonstrates a growing movement to make sure that those with print disabilities are not an afterthought in our literary culture. With the rise and viability of accessible publication formats, I’m eagerly awaiting the possibilities of change and innovation in the ways we as authors imagine our audiences, which in turn can make real change within our literary communities.

Braille readers can access these titles, and many others, from the NNELS distributed braille collection. Electronic braille files may be downloaded, or a physical embossed braille book may be requested for loan from 14 host libraries across Canada. To find out how you can borrow these braille books from your library (because any Canadian can!) please send a note to or call 1-888-848-9250, option 5.

Our deepest gratitude goes out to publishers Bouton d'or Acadie, Coach House Books, House of Anansi Press, Invisible Publishing, Royal British Columbia Museum, Scholastic Canada, and University of Calgary Press for their commitment to inclusive publishing. NNELS also thanks and acknowledges the fantastic work of braille transcribers Point-par-point, Braille Jymico, Bonnie Read, and Tactile Vision Graphics.

Publishers with planned release dates up to March, 2020 are encouraged to check out our Braille Publication Project to see if your book can be produced in braille. Let’s work together to ensure braille readers are included in the literary conversation!