January 4, 2011 marks the 202d birthday of Louis Braille. The milestone is celebrated throughout the world: World Braille Day across the globe, National Braille Week in the UK, National Braille Literacy Month in the United States. In an era when access to information grows increasingly important, the birth of the founder of Braille is certainly worth celebrating.
But thinking about Braille is also sobering. Despite strong civil rights laws guaranteeing effective communication to people with visual impairments, too much critical information is not available in Braille for those who need it. Health care information, financial documents, and a host of other materials that the public expects to read independently, or to read in confidence, must be provided in formats other than print, including Braille. Too often it is not.
The growing availability of accessible electronic and online information enables many in the blind community to independently and privately access information. But not everyone has a computer, and not all information provided on line is accessible. And just like sighted computer users want to read the printed page for convenience and other reasons, people who are blind need access to hard copy information. For many that hard copy is Braille.
Any public or private entity providing standard print documents to the public must have a program in place to provide the information in those documents to individuals who cannot read standard print. Braille is a crucial part of such a program.
Structured Negotiations and Braille
The news about Braille is not all dreary. Over the past fifteen years, Structured Negotiations has helped many large institutions work with the blind community to develop alternative format programs that include delivery of information in Braille.
- Credit Reports. In 2008 the three largest credit reporting agencies in the United States agreed to provide credit reports in Braille, as well as in large print, audio formats, and accessible online formats. The initiative was a result of Structured Negotiations with the American Council of the Blind, its California affiliate, and several blind individuals. Read about how to order your free credit report in Braille.
- Banking Information. In 1999, Wells Fargo was the first financial institution in the United States to adopt a comprehensive program of providing alternative formats to the blind community, including bank statements in Braille, large print, and audio formats. Since that time, and without a single lawsuit, many banks, including Bank of America, Bank One (now Chase), and Union Bank of California now have robust alternative format programs. In the Alternative Format Press Release Category of this website you can read other announcements about Braille and other formats.
- Credit Card Statements In 2005, American Express agreed to provide its credit cards statements in Braille and Large Print as a result of a Structured Negotiations based on the advocacy of Paul Parravano and Clarence Whaley, two blind American Express customers. Read the American Express Braille Agreement. Many banks offering credit cards are also offering Braille statements as a result of Structured Negotiations.
A list of Alternative Format Vendors that have provided Braille and other formats as part of Structured Negotiations projects or are otherwise recommended is available on the Resources page of this website. A google search of Braille returns significant resources. The American Printing House for the Blind in Kentucky has provided Braille textbooks and other information and other services for 150 years.
On a more personal level, an invaluable resource on all things Braille for the Law Office of Lainey Feingold has been Kim Charlson, Director of the Perkins Braille and Talking Book Library in Massachusetts and an internationally recognized proponent of Braille literacy. Thank you Kim and advocates around the world who are working to make Braille available to all who need it.
There are another 28 days left in Braille literacy month. I hope they are days filled with accessible information for all who need it.