On a recent morning, six visually impaired people gathered in a building, huddled over their iPhones, waiting for Andrew Godwin’s technology class to begin. The day’s lesson? Creating and finding contacts in your cellphone.
At the Associated Services for the Blind (ASB) in Center City, people who are blind and visually impaired can learn the skills they need to survive and thrive in today’s digital-first society.
The nonprofit also offers classes to teach people with low vision how to read Braille. For decades, ASB has been one of the largest producers of Braille in the United States, creating versions of everything from books for the Library of Congress, to manuals for your cable box.
But the number of Braille readers has decreased significantly in the past 50 years. In 1960, half of all legally blind children in the U.S. were able to read Braille, the American Foundation for the Blind said. Today, fewer than one in 10 blind people possesses the skill.
The number of fluent readers has plummeted for a variety of reasons: a shortage of teachers, decreased emphasis on teaching Braille to low-vision individuals, and the rise of assistive technology.
“Technology offers the opportunity for those that are blind or visually impaired to live independently,” said Godwin, 46.
To demonstrate, Godwin opened an app, SeeingAI, on his iPhone 5S and turned the camera to face himself. The phone described aloud what it saw: “56-year-old male with dark hair, looking happy.”
Godwin laughed. “56?!” he said.
The app isn’t perfect — but it is helpful. Users can program it to recognize faces — simply by holding up the camera, they can find out who is in the room.
Godwin, who has a rare inherited eye disease, began teaching at ASB two years ago. He hosts group classes on cellphone usage as well as one-on-one computer lessons.
Audiobooks and screen readers — programs that convert on-screen text into audible speech — make reading more rapid for individuals such as Godwin, who are used to relying on hearing and can understand speech at a speed that far exceeds a normal speaking pace.
Without the ability to read Braille, visually impaired people must take in all information by listening. But with the raised-dot Braille system felt by the fingertips, they can process data at their own pace.
“It’s one thing to receive information passively as you’re listening, but when you’re bringing it in and interpreting it, it’s much more of an active way of engagement,” said Tony Stephens, director of advocacy and governmental affairs of the American Council of the Blind.
Stephens was born with low vision and became completely blind at age 15. It took him two years to learn to read Braille. In recent years, he’s been using Braille more. Technology, apart from offering an alternative to Braille, also makes access to Braille easier.
Refreshable Braille displays, tablets that can be programmed with different Braille texts, are becoming more affordable and widespread. People who shied away from Braille in the past because of inconvenience — a Harry Potter novel in Braille would fill an entire bookshelf — can now carry a novel in one hand.
“Technology has made huge achievement in access to information, but at the core there is still the fundamental need for literacy,” Stephens said.