Braille as a Text Technology

An example of braille integrated into another assistive device, in this case a handrail at a Japanese train station (photo taken by Brian Farrell in Tokyo, Japan, October 17, 2010).

As part of a culminating course in my masters program, I recently reread this article that I wrote last year, and thought I’d share it again here. I’m sure there is a lot more to this technology than what I’ve simply covered here, but I really enjoyed learning about something (braille) that I knew very little about previously. Enjoy!


In a society that places a high value on the ability to read and write, those with visual disabilities were once at a tremendous educational loss and not able to participate fully in society. The current technology available to those with physical disabilities today is extensive, and means that many more people are now able to access, read, and author written texts. In the course of our history though, this is a change that has only occurred recently, and assistive technologies such as the braille system have been incredibly important in driving this change.

Braille is a standardized and tactile system that was developed by a blind man faced with the inability to view, and therefore read standard texts. In 1829, Louis Braille codified and developed a system of raised dots that would allow blind readers to use touch to discover texts, and while some modifications and additions have occurred, this same system largely remains in use today. Braille was inspired to create his system after learning about a military system using raised dots that would allow soldiers to communicate in the dark and without speaking aloud (Canadian National Institute for the Blind, 2010).

Rather than a distinct language, braille is a system of writing, reading, and transferring knowledge. Based upon the standard roman alphabet, braille also incorporates other written symbology such as punctuation and letter accents, without which the organization of written texts could prove difficult. This is an important distinction of braille from other reading technologies for the visually impaired, as it places an emphasis on the written word as it would be viewed by a sighted person. Where an audio recording may also serve to deliver a written body of work, its absence of explicit punctuation means that this technology may limit the listener’s understanding of standard grammatical structure used in writing.

Braille is but one example of raised print used to express meaning to a reader (photo by Brian Farrell of Menena Cottin's "The Black Book of Colors", Groundwood Books, Toronto, 2009).

Braille is but one example of raised print used to express meaning to a reader (photo by Brian Farrell of Menena Cottin's "The Black Book of Colors", Groundwood Books, Toronto, 2009).

Similar to learners of other languages, learners of braille may gain an ability to read and access texts at differing levels. Like any other learners, “…findings show that braille patterns are processed in a variety of different ways by different people and in different conditions” (Millar, 1997, p. 249). It is certainly possible for one to have a learning or other disability in addition to a visual impairment, and so the education of a braille reader needs to be differentiated much in the same way that it may be for a fully sighted learner.

Unfortunately, the adoption of braille has not been incredibly widespread. Other assistive technologies such as audio recordings of written texts are often preferred, as they do not require the listener to have any special knowledge of the unique braille reading system. Braille requires an upfront commitment to learn and understand a formulaic system of communication, and in the case of someone who is born blind, this development occurs when a learner is also trying to gain a grasp of a language in its audio or spoken form. While this is realistically similar to the effort required of a sighted learner who is first learning to decode our written structures, the fact that there are other audio alternatives available for visually impaired learners can often mean that braille is not fully pursued. Indeed it has been estimated that braille readers constitute, “…fewer than 10 percent of the estimated number of persons who are legally blind in the United States and slightly fewer than 40 percent of the estimated number who are ‘functionally blind’ (defined as those whose ability to see is light perception or less).” (National Federation of the Blind, n.d.) This can easily create a vicious cycle, as fewer users of an assistive technology such as braille mean a corresponding decrease in those able to teach and transfer this knowledge to a new generation.

Braille incorporated alongside typed text (photo by Brian Farrell of Eric Hill's "Where's Spot", Ventura Publishing Ltd., London, 1988).

Like other writing systems, braille does have its limitations in functionality. Legibility can often become a problem, as a text can easily become altered by a reader who presses too hard on the pages on which it is transcribed, creating changes in the level of braille dots on the page (Millar, 1997, p. 138). Similar alterations can occur if a braille text becomes worn or otherwise damaged, and these frustrations are compounded by the fact that a blind reader, obviously unable to visually inspect a paper book, will not discover these deficiencies until he or she attempts to access the text.

Further, the requirement to indicate each letter of a word separately can mean that braille texts are many pages longer than their roman alphabet written counterparts. This challenge has meant that several systems, or ‘grades’ of braille have emerged, each with different characteristics. Grade one braille is a system that replicates only the 26 letters of the alphabet and punctuation, grade two braille, the most common system in use, incorporates contractions to shorten words, and grade three braille goes even further in shortening entire words to serve as a sort of shorthand (Omniglot, 2010).

Due to its historical era of creation, braille has been a pioneer system in advancing the abilities and education of previously disadvantaged and disabled people. While many more advanced and technical systems have emerged since the advent of braille, the idea of creating a system that would allow the blind to read the same texts as sighted people meant that an enormous gap in understanding and education for the blind could be bridged. Of course, the functionality of such a system can often depend on the assistance of those without a visual disability, and the limited portability of large braille texts has meant that digital audio solutions for the blind have thrived as an alternative.

The implementation of braille has meant a heightened awareness of the needs of those with disabilities, and the system has served as a model for further developments. The very idea of non verbal communicating by touch and feel has been applied to a variety of applications. Sidewalk strips using raised plastic guides of different levels that can be felt underfoot, braille-like dots on paper currency, and employing a variety of different edging, shapes, and sizes of coins are all similar applications. While many of these advancements are primarily intended to benefit the visually impaired, they can often prove useful to a sighted individual, and they do serve to heighten an awareness of the needs of others.

The future of printed text appears to be in flux with the advent of more and more advanced digital technologies, and braille is undergoing a similar period of questioning and transition. Still, braille remains an incredible enabler in breaking down traditional barriers, and its highly codified and touch-based foundations have served to expand the possibilities of non verbal communication for us all.

Highly visible and physically raised plastic panels along a walkway (photo taken by Brian Farrell in Yokohama, Japan, October 17, 2010).


Canadian Braille Authority. (2010). About Braille. Retrieved October 16, 2010, from

Canadian National Institute for the Blind. (2010). Biography of Louis Braille. Retrieved October 14, 2010 from

Canadian National Institute for the Blind. (2010). Braille Literacy. Retrieved October 14, 2010, from

Millar, S. (1997). Reading by Touch. London, UK: Routledge.

National Federation of the Blind. (n.d.). Estimated Number of Adult Braille Readers in the United States. Retrieved October 14, 2010, from

Omniglot. (2010). Braille. Retrieved October 16, 2010, from


Apple Distinguished Educator Reject

**UPDATE: I have since been selected to join the Apple Distinguished Educator class of 2013

My application for the Apple Distinguished Educator program was recently rejected. This is the second year in a row that I’ve been turned down for the program, and this year, I’m really left scratching my head. Last year, in a rush to honour the deadline set out for applications, I admittedly submitted a subpar application video. But this year I really devoted a great deal of time and effort to putting together an application form and video that I thought was pretty good (I shared this video here in a previous post).

So I’d love to hear feedback on how you think I might improve my application and chances for success if I choose to apply again in future. Particularly those of you who are already part of the ADE network, I’d really appreciate hearing any advice and tips that you might have to offer. In my application document, I highlighted my development of a Japan-wide reading program site that I created and now moderate, my work with my students in using databases and ebooks, my work in my masters of educational technology program, my professional learning community on twitter, my role as coordinator of online courses at my school, and my involvement in the design and implementation of the upcoming 1:1 laptop program at my school. What am I missing? What makes some applications stand out over others? Please be brutally honest with you comments, as I’m really at a loss here.

Copyright Applies to all Media

As a mostly amateur, but sometimes pro photographer, I struggle with finding the perfect balance between being able to share my work and also protect it from being misused. I’ve blogged about people stealing my photos before, and I’m certainly not alone in having this happen (this guy’s story is particularly unbelievable). But as I begin to sell more of my work online, I’m finding it increasingly frustrating. Half the time when I find my work ripped off, I would have gladly let the person use my photo had they simply asked permission and then acknowledged me as the creator of the work.

One of my most frequently plagiarised photos. I've had to ask sites advertising for things in Bali and Hawaii to take this photo down (never mind that this is actually a photo of Saipan). © 2010 Brian Farrell

The latest case of this blatent sort of copyright infringement that I’ve discovered is a site called weheartit that is copying and indexing millions of photos, many of which have been clearly marked as copyright, and even worse, many of which are copied off of sites offering them for sale. This isn’t the first site to do this, as Tumblr has already been driving many a photographer crazy for years, and there are plenty of others out there, but this site is particularly malicious in that it doesn’t seem to have any other purpose aside from ripping off people’s work.

The agency that I have some photos licensed with, Getty Images, will go to bat for photographers and have their legal team contact these sites to remove photos that they represent. Unfortunately, beyond this, it’s up to individual photographers to use reverse photo search engines like TinEye and to keep a close eye on referring site statistics to try to catch their work being misused. The internet is kind of big though, so it’s impossible to catch everything.

As educators then, I feel it’s incredibly important that we instill a strong sense of ethical behaviour in our students when it comes to using work that they’ve found online. There are fantastic sources like Creative Commons that students have available to them to legally access and use creative works, and we as teachers need to be making the use of these sorts of tools a standard requirement. Whether it is written, sung aloud, painted, danced, or in a photo, work created by someone else must be acknowledged and ethically reproduced. The medium does not matter, and any other sort of behaviour is plagiarism.

Apple Distinguished Educator 2011 Application

The end of the school year is sneaking up on us, and I’m also several weeks into the last course for my Master of Educational Technology degree, which will last me well into the summer. Add to that an impending apartment move, the usual summer vacation planning, and an impending wedding to plan, and, well, things have been very busy lately!

I made a point though to put some quality time into creating my application for the 2011 run of the Apple Distinguished Educator program here in Japan. I was disappointed to not be accepted last year, as I feel that this program opens the door to a great network of like-minded educators both locally and around the world. I’m still a little lost as to what exactly they’re looking for in potential applicants, but hopeful what I put together is a good representation of how I see my role in our school.

The video application is below, and any feedback would be greatly appreciated (but please be gentle, I hate talking about myself!)

Brian Farrell Apple Distinguished Educator 2011 Application from Brian Farrell on Vimeo.


Thank you Iwanuma

After the opportunity to sample Sendai’s most popular dish (cow tongue) the night before, we returned to Iwanuma Monday morning for our last day of work. The volunteer centre was noticeably less busy as it was the end of the golden week holiday, and so there was plenty of work for us to do.

Debris littering a rice field beside one of the homes we worked at

Our morning assignment saw us working in the relief supply warehouse getting things ready for people still living in the shelter. All of the supplies were being kept in a huge gym, as they were unable to use this same space as a shelter since it had been damaged by the earthquake. The pieces of still hanging roof tiles and a large chunk of air duct lying in the middle of the gym served as reminders of the awesome force felt here. We spent the morning shifting boxes and containers full of essential supplies of food, water, blankets, and even toilet paper, most of which were donated by various organizations and countries (thanks for the cookies Malaysia!).

Debris and a destroyed car in a field beside one of the homes we worked at

After finishing up in the gym, we headed back to the volunteer centre to receive our final assignment – another trip out to the mud for more shoveling. Arriving at a large house beside what were once rice fields, we split into two groups and did our best to help the homeowners shovel out. My team spent most of our time scraping out a layer of mud from underneath the floorboards inside the house, most of the flooring having already been ripped up and thrown away. The army has already been in the area clearing out the bigger debris with their heavy equipment, but the thin layer of mud that remains everywhere is something that has to be tackled by hand, and its creep into areas like these under the floors reminded me of just how all-consuming the tsunami was.

We returned to the volunteer centre at the end of the day and said our good byes to the lovely staff working there. I wasn’t able to really talk with them, but there weren’t many foreigners volunteering there (I saw three others in the three days), and so they had begun to recognize me when we returned each morning.

These people, like many others we met volunteering were truly inspiring. We spent several days working with a man who had been evacuated from his home in a town near the Fukushima nuclear power plant. He was obviously out of work and had to leave most of his things behind in his haste to get out of the area. But rather than search out a new job and attempt to restart his own life, he had been spending several weeks volunteering in Iwanuma, sleeping in his car each night to save money.

It’s very hard to express how I feel after having come back from these experiences. I certainly find it difficult to focus on answering emails, filing in paperwork, and sitting in on meetings knowing what’s happening just a few hundred kilometers from here. But I do feel lucky to have had the opportunity to do something like this, and particularly being able to work alongside Nana while doing so. More than anything else, I’m left feeling inspired by the courage and selflessness of both those who were volunteering and those who were impacted directly by the tsunami (many of whom are one and the same). Thank you for reminding me that what is often most important in life is life itself.

Into the mud

Day two in Iwanuma meant our first journey into the now mud-coated area directly hit by the March 11 tsunami. Upon arrival at the volunteer centre, we were assigned a team and our task for the morning – shoveling mud around a house close to the Sendai airport.

I had watched live online as a wall of water flooded in around the airport on the day of the earthquake, and so it was obvious that the area that we’d be going to was one that was hard hit. We gathered our tools, donned our protective gear of masks, goggles, gloves, and long sleeves, and boarded a mini bus with our team to travel to our work site.

My fiancée Nana and I at the volunteer centre after a morning of work in the mud. We look deceptively clean, but this is after getting caught in the rain and then being hosed off upon our return to the centre.

The area around Iwanuma is home to a great deal of farmland, and these fields have been left relatively untouched as the priority for recovery efforts have focused first on the buildings that are still intact. So as we drove to the house where we’d be working, we passed by all sorts of debris littered across the landscape; cars with shattered windows and mud-caked intakes, pieces of roof, and sadly more personal objects like shoes, toys, and a teddy bear. The once fertile rice fields are now coated in a thick layer of mud laden with salt water from the sea, and so it’s unclear when the area farmers will be able to again tend to their land.

Our van dropped us at the house where we’d be spending the morning. While the woman who lived there had already been working hard to clean out the house itself, having removed bag upon bag of garbage and all of the tatami mat flooring, she needed our help to dig out all of the mud on the surrounding property. We sweated through our masks and got down to work shoveling mud from every nook around the house. Most trips with the wheelbarrow revealed new finds in the mud – more shoes, CDs, even membership cards that were still intact. Despite having lost nearly everything, this homeowner and all of the others that we would work with over the next few days insisted on offering us drinks and snacks when we stopped to take a short break. We were guests in their homes, even if those homes were now only shells of their former selves, and so we guiltily obliged.

After a quick lunch back at the volunteer centre, we moved to our next worksite for the afternoon. We were brought to another house and got to work trying to remove mud from a garden area. This family, like many in the area, was very tied to the land, and so they try to grow the majority if not all of their vegetables themselves. A garden may seem like a luxury for many, but for this family it meant being able to support themselves and stand on their own feet. During our coffee break the homeowner told us of how the main centre of Iwanuma used to be much closer to the sea, but was moved inland after being destroyed by a tsunami hundreds of years ago. Over the decades the town has gradually stretched closer to the shore, having forgotten the lessons of history. Still, standing in the garden far from the sight of the sea, it was hard to fully understand the waterline that we could see still visible on the fences and walls around the house – it reached up past my elbow, and we were over 2km inland from the shore.

To be continued…

Tsunami Relief in Iwanuma

The March 11 earthquake impacted all of us in Japan to some degree, but thankfully its effects were relatively minor in my city of Yokohama. We had a few weeks of shortages, some rolling blackouts, a sporadic train schedule. What we had the most of though was a feeling of horror and helplessness for those unlucky enough to be a few hundred kilometers north of us.

Almost immediately after the earthquake, and like many people here, I was struck by the resolve and determination of the Japanese people, and had a desire to try to personally help in some way. I donated money and helped with some fundraising at my school, but this felt like an easy way out. What I really wanted was to go to Tohoku in person and help however I could with the monumental cleanup effort that is now taking place.

My fiancée and I were able to find a volunteer centre a few kilometers south of Sendai in the town of Iwanuma that was looking for help. Sendai is surreally normal today, and the train line from there to Iwanuma is operating normally, so we were able to book a hotel room in Sendai for our stay. While we were able to help directly in the economic recovery by spending our money in Sendai, we realize just how lucky we were to have a hot shower and a comfortable bed each night – many other volunteers, including some of those that we worked with in Iwanuma are camping or sleeping in their cars each night.

Arriving in Sendai felt much the same as anywhere else in Japan at the moment. Aside from the signs and posters of encouragement, there’s little evidence that anything has happened. While the lingering nuclear situation means that things are far from certain, there’s a strong desire to try to return to normal and get on with life.

We arrived our first day in Iwanuma not really knowing what we’d be facing. The volunteer centre’s website mentions that most volunteers will be shoveling mud, but list few other details. We could see some damage to roofs of houses on the train ride up to Sendai, but didn’t know what kind of destruction we’d be encountering when we arrived. Fortunately, much of Iwanuma is several kilometers from the sea, a direct result of the lesson learned from a tsunami several hundred years ago, and so the main part of the town is largely intact and was not reached by the waters of the tsunami.

Volunteers moving supplies into temporary housing units

Upon arrival at the volunteer centre (a converted senior’s day centre), we proceeded through registration and were given our task for the day. It’s now been two months since the earthquake and tsunami, and the legion of construction workers here have rushed to erect temporary housing for those living in emergency shelters. On day one, we were tasked with helping these people move their allotment of supplies into their new temporary homes. Working in teams of six or eight people, we gathered the simple supplies of futons and bedding, kitchenware, and the like. These families were overwhelmingly grateful and appreciative to have these things brought to them, but despite the relative comfort of their newly built temporary homes, I was struck by the fact that our groups of six people were now carrying essentially all of their possessions.

We returned to Sendai that night tired and sore from carrying and lifting things all day, but still without having been directly in the tsunami-hit area. The next day would bring us work closer to the coastline, and our first glimpse of the mud now consuming the landscape.

To be continued…