Braille Online

From: Curtis Chong (
Date: Wed Dec 18 1996 - 16:04:05 PST

                        National Federation of the Blind
                               in Computer Science
Curtis Chong, President 20 Northeast 2nd Street
Phone: 1-612-671-2185 Apartment 908
Fax: 1-612-671-6615 Minneapolis, Minnesota 55413-2265
Internet: U.S.A.

December 18, 1996

Mr. Bob Gotwals
The Shodor Education Foundation, Inc.
923 Broad Street Suite 100
Durham, NC 27705

Dear Mr. Gotwals:

I have received your post to the EASI mailing list dated December
18, 1996; and I thank you for your candor on this subject. You
acknowledge in a straightforward and no nonsense manner that the
current design of the Braille Online program makes it difficult for
blind people to benefit from the course material. I wish that you
had made this clear in your original announcement so as to mitigate
some of the criticisms you have doubtless received.

Regardless of whether or not Braille Online will be useful to blind
computer users, the fact remains that the blind community will be
better served if more people become proficient in reading and
writing braille. We, the blind, need teachers of blind children
who believe in braille and who are competent, both in its use and
in its teaching. We need more skilled braille transcribers in
order to increase the number of braille books that we can read.
Above all, we need more people to believe in the value of braille
so that all blind children will be schooled in this vital tool of
literacy. We cannot know today whether any on-line method of
teaching braille (such as Braille Online) will help to achieve
these goals, but this should not stop people from trying to develop
new and innovative ways of teaching braille.

I am not personally convinced that blind people can learn braille
using audio output alone or, for that matter, any form of on-line
computerized instruction. Braille is, after all, a tactual "hands
on" means of reading and writing. Without hard copy braille
material or a refreshable braille display (which most of us can't
afford to begin with), how can we realistically expect someone who
is blind to learn braille?

Carrying this thinking a bit further, I hope that your
instructional program will enable sighted participants to actually
feel the braille which they are learning. Instructional programs
in which braille is presented only visually (e.g., printed dots on
the screen or page) fail to reinforce the notion that braille is
first and foremost something handled by TOUCH!

If I were to make some specific recommendations, they would be as

1. I think it is important that your promotional materials
             clarify that Braille Online is not now accessible to the
             blind. You might even take this notion a step further and
             clarify that the target audience for the program consists of
             sighted people who will be teaching or producing braille.

2. I would not hold out much hope that web browsers will make the
             graphical world more accessible to the blind. Although web
             browsers can and should be made more compatible with screen
             reading systems used by the blind, accessibility to the
             Worldwide Web is more readily achieved if web page designers
             take the time and trouble to ensure that the design of their
             web pages meets basic accessibility guidelines too numerous to
             list here.

3. If you haven't considered doing it, provide a way for course
             participants to deal with hard copy braille. Based upon what
             I have read so far, it appears that course participants will
             be producing braille, either with a Perkins Braille Writer or
             a slate and stylus. This is eminently desirable. I wonder
             how you envision having them turn in their braille

4. I think that some research needs to be conducted specifically
             to determine how on-line computerized instruction
             courses--specifically, courses to teach braille--can benefit
             people who are blind. My initial notion is that no benefit
             can be truly realized unless the course presents information
             both audibly (via synthesized speech) and tactually (via a
             refreshable braille display) at strategic points. You may
             have a different concept in mind. If so, I would like to
             discuss it.

I want to thank you for taking the time to discuss this important
issue with everyone. I hope that you will not feel personally
offended by some of the comments you may have received. All of us
want more blind people reading and writing more braille, and all of
us want more and better braille instruction and transcription
services to be available to the blind community. Where we may
differ is in our respective approaches.

Yours sincerely,

Curtis Chong
National Federation of the Blind
             in Computer Science


Date: Wed, 18 Dec 1996 08:33:40 -0500
From: Bob Gotwals <gotwals@SHODOR.ORG
Subject: Re: Interest in On-line Braille Course
To: Multiple recipients of list EASI <EASI@SJUVM.STJOHNS.EDU

To Jim and others on this list....

We are VERY aware of the fact that the current design of the braille online
folks makes it difficult for blind individuals to participate easily. This
is a three year program....Years one and two are concerned with developing
and pilot testing the curriculum, and experimenting with the use of current
and emerging technologies to try to think of new ways of presenting braille
education. If you read the grant proposal
(, you will notice
that we intend, once the courses are pilot-tested, to ensure that all of
the materials are 100% accessible. We had asked the granting agency for
funding to do this earlier, but this portion of the request was not funded.
 What WAS funded was the money to develop the materials and to investigage
the use of advanced technologies, such as JAVA and VRML, in the teaching of

What we are COUNTING on is that the improvements in Web browsers for blind
folks by others who are being funded by the Federal government (and other
agencies) will make our additional task of ensuring accessibility that much
easier. Yes, there are a number of things that we can do early on, such as
make liberal and clever use of ALT tags for images. We're not sure yet how
we're going to handle the heavy use that we make of screen snapshots, but
we're working on it. We THINK we'll be able to go a long way towards 100%
accessibility from the early stages.

What are our options? If there is the demand that the course be 100%
accessible from Day One, our option might be: we can't do that at this
stage of the game, either for the amount of money awarded us by the
granting agency and/or because of technical limitations. In other words,
we don't even try, give the money back. If folks are willing to give us
the time we need to develop the course, work on the technological
advancements, get bugs out, and wait/work with others who are looking to
improve browsers, then perhaps everyone wins.

I've worked in the VI field as a braillist/teacher for almost 35 years. My
masters degree is in education of the hearing-impaired from the National
Technical Institute for the Deaf, I taught at Gallaudet, am fluent in sign
language. I am WELL-AWARE of all the issues concerning accessibility, and
we thought a lot about this issue early on (and is why we asked for the
additional funding to make it happen!).

This braille ed program is, by the way, part of a larger VI masters degree
program that is being developed at North Carolina Central University. The
idea is to make a large part of that program accessible over the net, and
the braille course is the first test of that concept. We sure would like a
chance to make it work....again, if there is a demand that the effort be
made to ensure 100% accessibility in the experimental phase, we can pretty
much ensure that the experiment will fail.

Tell us what to do. The Foundation that I work for is a group of
computational scientists and educators -- we do chemistry and physics on
high-performance computers. We want to do this work because we think it's
important, because we think we have something to offer, and because we care
deeply about the community. Our original budget proposal was HALF of what
we were awarded -- the US Department of Education felt so strongly that
this work was important that they asked us to look at new technologies as
well as design the series of courses. As computational scientists, we
think we can take some of the techniques that we use on a daily basis to do
science to the problem of helping folks understand braille better.
Hopefully, we'll have a chance to figure that out, THEN deal with the
problem(s) of accessibility.

Looking forward to a REASONED and REASONABLE discussion of these issues.

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