Would Braille have thrived in inclusive education?

The other day I had a brief tweet discussion with Liz Ball, campaigns involvement officer with Sense, the British deafblind charity, about whether Braille would have become established as the major means of written communication for blind people had the Victorians embraced inclusive education. That was prompted by an article on the BBC’s Ouch (disability) section on a forgotten group of Victorian educationalists who deplored the trend towards segregated schools for deaf and blind children which often taught particular trades which sometimes enriched the institutions, not the pupils. In the 21st century, the majority of blind children in the UK are taught in mainstream schools and Braille has declined in popularity. I do not think that these two facts mean that Braille would have been forgotten without the segregated schools of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Image of a thin print volume on top of a large ring binder containing the same book in Braille, with a tape measure diagonally across the bottom-right corner.For one thing, at that time computers did not exist. The technology available now, with computers available on the High Street with inbuilt screen readers (Macs), was not even available at the turn of the current century, let alone in the Victorian era. These days many blind people find that talking computers are easier to use and more convenient than Braille, particularly for large volumes. Liz mentioned that this technology is also more convenient for teachers, not many of whom in mainstream education know Braille, which is still widely taught in special schools; she suggested that the raised print that was favoured in the 19th century (which was originally taught in the school Louis Braille was in) was favoured because it was easier for teachers. Braille’s system was originally opposed by his teachers, although the school adopted it after his death, at the pupils’ insistence.

I am not convinced by this argument. Braille was a pre-Victorian invention, first presented by Louis Braille to his fellow pupils when he was 15, in 1824. The raised-print system he was exposed to was dreadfully inefficient, and could only be read, not written, by a blind user, but it had the prestige of having been invented by the school’s founder, Valentin Haüy. Had he not been in that school, and yet received an education at all, he would likely not have been expected to read raised-print books but simply to learn books and facts from memory. However, he may still have learned about the Barbier raised-dot system used in the French military and may still have been inspired to develop his system. Without the environment of a boarding school, he may have had greater liberty to promote his invention, but may have had less time to develop it because of requirements to do house chores; however, his teachers may have been unencumbered by loyalty to someone like Haüy and embraced an invention that allowed blind people to read and write. During both that and the Victorian eras, there were more blind and deafblind people (at least relative to the population at large) because of the prevalence of diseases like measles, smallpox and rubella (although Braille himself was blinded by an accident), so he may still have known enough blind people to find a user base for his system.

Inclusive education can be good or bad, and have good or bad motives, much as with inclusion of disabled people (and mentally ill people) generally. It can be done for the welfare and educational betterment of the children, or it can be done because it costs less than special education, especially if you do little to accommodate the blind (or otherwise impaired) child’s needs. A progressive, inclusive school might pay for one or two of its teachers to learn Braille so as to make sure Braille learning material is available for blind pupils or students, while a badly-run school with a transient staff might provide them with a laptop but provide little support, let alone maintenance. In the Victorian era, it might not have seemed progressive to “integrate” blind children into schools that were not taught by proper teachers, where the methods were Gradgrind-esque, where discipline was harsh and physical and which were located in insanitary, polluted cities; the reason why many institutions for disabled people and the mentally ill were built in the countryside in that era was not to do with segregation but with its health benefits (élite schools were often similarly located). In the case of the better institutions, having a place there was seen as a benefit, not a way of getting rid of an embarrassing or burdensome disabled child; in the case of the inferior ones that taught basket-weaving and other manual crafts, how important were they in teaching and popularising Braille anyway?

I think Braille, or something a lot like it, may still have thrived if the Victorians had embraced inclusive education for positive reasons (as the BBC’s article says was already happening in France and Belgium). The same philanthropists who funded blind schools may well have instead funded Braille Institutes or something similar, to print and distribute texts in Braille and to train teachers and blind adults to use it. Despite raised print having the advantage of being easily readable by a sighted person and thus slightly more convenient for teachers, it is still a lot more limited than Braille; the letters are huge, and the resulting book would be enormous, or spread over several volumes. They would not have been considered in a school with only a handful of blind pupils, or just one. Braille has the clear technical superiority of being easier to produce than raised print, both by the blind writer and the commercial printer; the schoolteacher is only one link in the chain and will not dominate a child’s life forever (and does not teach someone blinded as an adult). Braille and talking computers both serve the purpose of allowing a blind person to both record and read back information; raised print was a one-way means of communication. Faced with the inefficiency and bulk of raised print, I suspect many blind people would have preferred memorisation, and the better-off would have hired scribes. Raised print could not have enjoyed widespread popularity; the need for something like Braille would have been obvious until it was met.

Image source: “Braille book” by Karl-Heinz Wellmann - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Braillebook.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Braillebook.JPG

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