In this post, I will discuss a research paper that debunks the misleading, though often-quoted, statistic that only 10% of blind people in the United States read braille. That statistic has been repeated in academic research and in media stories. It is the favorite talking point for those who want to avoid producing materials in braille.
The study is:
Sheffield, R. M., D’Andrea, F. M., Morash, V., & Chatfield, S. (2022). How Many Braille Readers? Policy, Politics, and Perception. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 116(1), 14-25.
Unfortunately, this research paper is behind a pay wall, and I had to request a copy from interlibrary loan. Librarians are the best!
This research paper needs to be more known because assumptions about the low rates of braille literacy contribute to the scarcity of braille materials in public places including museums.
Sheffield and her colleagues conducted a literature review to search for the source of the often-quoted statistic that only 10% of blind people read braille. They analyzed “a collection of 95 articles and manuscripts that made specific statements about the prevalence of braille readership. They found that all “identified citations used as the basis for braille literacy rates since the 1970s can be traced back to two primary sources: a National Library Service report from 1979 and the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) Federal Quota data”.
These sources are problematic because they are outdated, and they were written to serve the needs of particular federal programs. they were not designed to collect data on rates of braille literacy (Sheffield et al. 2022:17-18). Here is an explanation of problems with both sources.
Primary source 1 is a National Library Service report from 1979 that described a telephone survey of library patrons who requested that braille books be mailed to them. Braille volumes were packed in large reusable boxes. Back then, readers could not download braille files to read on electronic devices called refreshable braille displays as they may do now.
The 1979 survey results about numbers of library patrons who requested books by mail were repeated in a 1996 article by the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB). In 1996, the AFB cited a 17-year-old number as evidence of braille literacy rates in the United states, but that number was intended to show how many people used a service in the 1970s.
Despite the age of this statistic, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) cited it in their 2009 publication The braille literacy crisis in America: Facing the truth, reversing the trend, empowering the blind.
Sheffield et al. demonstrated that the chain reaction continues because literature written after 2009 cites the NFB publication of a statistic that is now over four decades old.
As I read about the old statistics for braille readers, I reflected that an outdated estimate of print literacy rates would not be permitted in academic literature or quoted repeatedly in the media. It would never be used to question the need to produce print materials.
The repetition of An outdated number for braille readers is a symptom of the marginalization of blind people in society.
Primary source 2 identified in the research study is the data collected about K-12 students who have federal funding to purchase textbooks and other materials from the American Printing House for the Blind (APH). That data represents a subset of all braille readers in the United States because it excludes K-12 students who lack funding and adults who learned braille later in life. Recent publications from the APH state that the older federal quota data was never intended to measure braille literacy rates.
Sheffield et al. conclude that there is no current source of data measuring braille literacy rates in the United States. Furthermore, no data can explain whether braille literacy rates are rising or declining. They suggest that researchers address this question in a more systematic way.
I agree with Sheffield and her colleagues that this inaccurate statistic still has an influence on public perceptions of braille literacy rates. I have observed two contrasting ways that it is used.
• To justify not producing information in braille.
• To advocate for education funding to teach braille.
Unfortunately, the most common use of this debunked statistic is to avoid producing braille. The assumption of low braille literacy rates contributes to the scarcity of braille materials in public life.
I am routinely asked if blind people read braille, and if braille is still being taught because books are available in audio or digital formats. Print readers have access to books in audio and digital formats, but I have never heard anyone question the relevance of print, or if they need to have print in their exhibits.
When I am asked about braille in museum exhibits, my advice is to include braille wherever you have print. As I said earlier, the question about braille literacy is a symptom of the marginalization of blind people in society.
There is a good discussion of the research study on the AFB blog. Read How Many Braille Readers Are There?
I recommend the following open-access research papers about braille.
Englebretson, R., Holbrook, M., & Fischer-Baum, S. (2023). A position paper on researching braille in the cognitive sciences: Decentering the sighted norm. Applied Psycholinguistics, 1-16.
Silverman, A. M., & Bell, E. C. (2018). The association between braille reading history and well-being for blind adults. Journal of Blindness Innovation and Research, 8(1).