By Dr Azmi Abdul Latiff
In a world that depends very much on the ability to visualise, life is certainly tough for visually-impaired people.
In Malaysia, it is estimated that 1.2 per cent of the country’s population is suffering from vision impairment-related conditions. Meanwhile, on the global stage, it is estimated that at least 2.2 billion people have near- or distant-vision impairment. What has made it more unfortunate is that of this population, at least 1 billion, or almost half of it, are vision-impairment cases that could have been avoided or have yet to be dealt with.
While aging has been identified as one of the contributing factors to vision impairment, it should also be noted that such impairment can also affect young children. According to the United Nations, young children with severe vision impairment could face several adverse consequences such as delayed motor, language, emotional, social, and cognitive development, with lifelong consequences. School-going children with vision impairment may also face the risk of experiencing lower levels of educational achievement.
Furthermore, vision impairment also severely affects the quality of life among adults. A consequence for adults with vision impairment is it potentially reduces their ability to contribute to the workforce and productivity activities. Experiencing such a predicament could also lead them to depression and anxiety. Older adults with vision impairment, meanwhile, could experience social isolation and a higher risk of accidents that could lead to injuries.
In Malaysia, several steps have been taken to help visually-impaired people. For example, several local governments have installed yellow textured paving tiles to guide visually impaired people to move around. These tiles are typically found in public areas in cities such as railway station platforms and pedestrian walkways and crossings. They are also known as ‘tenji blocks’ and are usually yellow, which is said to be the most visible colour for the visually impaired.
Seeking information and knowledge
Nevertheless, more efforts are needed to cater to the needs of visually-impaired people, especially in seeking information and knowledge.
Traditionally, the Braille writing system has been looked upon as the solution to help blind people to read. Nevertheless, relying on Braille-assisted materials alone may not be sufficient. For one thing, publishing Braille-assisted reading materials is a tall order due to issues related to copyright and the high cost of producing such materials.
In addition, a BERNAMA report in 2021 stated that Braille literacy in Malaysia is still considerably low as only 30 per cent of the blind people registered with the Welfare Department are Braille-literate.
The Braille inscription
According to Azmi Abdullah, a coach for the Community-Based Rehabilitation (CBR) Programme, Malaysian Association for the Blind (MAB) (Negeri Sembilan/Melaka), the Braille inscription itself is not easy to master.
“Those who are blind from birth or at a small age are normally sent to attend special classes that teach Braille. Thus, they hold the advantage of getting exposure to the writing system. However, those who are blind at the later stage of their life may not have that opportunity”, he said.
Azmi said older adults may also be hampered by health problems that consequently affect their ability to ‘read’ Braille inscription. Thus, according to him, audio materials are more suitable for adults with visual impairment. Furthermore, the invention of smartphones has also led to the creation of countless apps. Some of the apps are invented to help the blind or visually-impaired people.
Does this mean that the Braille writing system invented by Louis Braille is no longer relevant in the 21st century?
The answer is no. Despite the availability of audio materials and various smartphone apps, they may not be that helpful at all to the deafblind who have hearing loss. Furthermore, while audio materials can give the listening experience, they are not able to show the grammatical and syntactical aspects of a word or sentence.
Braille still relevant
Azmi Abdullah explained that braille is still relevant as it is still needed mainly because it is the cheaper option for early education for visually-impaired people compared to computer-based training.
“Braille is still important in providing basic education for visually-impaired people but computer-based or audio content can be used to complement or be used for such learners at the advance stage,” he added.
In addition, from the language-acquisition perspective, braille is still an effective way to teach the rules of grammar, which is indispensable for both reading comprehension and writing.
In conjunction with World Braille Day, it is hoped that more Braille reading materials can be produced in helping visually-impaired people to seek knowledge.
The efforts to produce Braille reading materials should be encouraged and supported. Reports have shown that despite the predicaments that they face, quite a number of the blind or visually-impaired people have attained social-economic, political, and academic success.
With technological advancements in Braille, it is hoped that more Braille reading materials can be produced that will enable visually-impaired people to seek knowledge and not be continuously left behind.
Dr Azmi Abdul Latiff is Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Language Studies, Universiti Tun Hussein Onn Malaysia (UTHM).