Braille and Cognition

A couple of weeks ago, I went into the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute in San Francisco to hear a presentation by my friend Robert Englebretson. Robert is a professor of linguistics at Rice University. He is blind, and I met him through an email group of blind academics. In addition to his primary linguistic research on Indonesian languages, Robert has begun to research Braille reading using the tools of cognitive linguistics. It’s exciting research that points the way toward better Braille for everyone.

This particular presentation was about a study he had done on Braille contractions with his Rice colleague Simon Fischer-Baum. I haven’t said much about contracted Braille since my very first post, so I’ll recap: in order to save space and increase reading speed, there are a bunch of contractions that reduce the length of common letter combinations and words. Some of these contractions have to appear by themselves, but others can be used as parts of larger words. These include small groups of letters like [er], [ch], [ing], and [the], as well as words like [time], [ever}, and [less]. 

In English Braille, these contractions were determined largely by statistical frequency. The most common letter combinations and words got contracted, meaning the most possible space got saved on the page. In the days when huge tomes had to be hand-Brailled, this made a lot of sense, but it’s a practice that benefits the producers of Braille, and its effect on readers had never been studied. 

For decades, the prevailing assumption in Braille education has held that blind Braille readers expand all of the contracted words into their full print form before interpreting them. If this is true, then all contractions should be equally readable. But are they?

Granted, there are some contracted spellings that everybody agrees are a bad idea. My favorite is this gem:

⠡⠑⠐⠍⠁⠏⠽

In English characters, that’s 

[ch] [e] [mother] [a] [p] [y]

Chemotherapy. Sure, it’s space-efficient—it shortens a twelve-letter word to seven cells. But the two-cell (dot 5, m) contraction for [mother] is so ingrained to mean “mother” that everyone inevitably reads it something like “Key-mother-a-pee.” Is saving the space of five cells on the page worth losing a few seconds every time you have to make sense of this word? Not to me.

Robert set out to show that the same process happens in less egregious situations as well. You don’t often run into contractions as bad as “chemotherapy,” but there are many, many examples of contractions that cause momentary confusion and delays in comprehension. Take ”redo” for example, which can be written in Braille as [r] [ed] [o]. Most people can’t help but read it as “red-o.”

Basically, Robert theorized that reading problems occur when contractions conflict with our understanding of a word’s sublexical structure. We all intuitively understand that some words are made up of smaller units that have been smooshed together. “Redo” is the verb “do,” plus the prefix “re-.” We understand it as a two-part word, and when the [ed] contraction effectively erases the boundary between the two parts, we stumble over the reading.

And this is exactly what he found in a large number of similar cases. I won’t go into the methodology or technical details here, but Robert was able to show that fluent Braille readers took longer to comprehend words when contractions crossed sublexical boundaries than they did when the contractions did not cross boundaries. This implies that Braille readers are reading those contractions as single units, covering up any dividing lines that may exist within them. In other words, the theory that Braille readers uncontract words before they process them does not hold up.

To me, sitting in the audience, Robert’s results seemed right on. To be fair, I remember a time when I did have to uncontract every word I read. When I was first learning contracted Braille, I had to picture every word in my head, building each one letter by letter as I read each cell. But this was just a symptom of my inexperience, and I moved past it quickly. After a month or so, I no longer had to picture the words I was reading. Instead, the cells brought sounds into my mind—whether letters, syllables, or entire words. 

Then, maybe a month ago, something different happened. I brushed my finger over some Braille text and all of a sudden the meaning of the words came into my head. Not the sounds, the meanings. It felt surreal, how automatic it was. I took that for granted with print reading—for most print readers it becomes so automatic that it isn’t even a choice. Text is read as soon as it is seen, whether you like it or not. It was very strange to have that sensation in Braille. 

Right now that only happens with very simple language. Less common words take a little longer, and rare words or weird contracted spellings can trip me up pretty bad. As I gain experience, more will become automatic and everything will come faster, but Robert’s research suggests that some contracted spellings will never stop slowing me down.

The study shows that cognitive linguistics can provide valuable insights into Braille reading, and points the way toward further research. In time, we may be able to more precisely distinguish between contractions that help and contractions that hinder, We may also come to see which other features of the current Braille system improve speed and comprehension, and which do not. Eventually, research like this could influence best practices that optimize Braille for the human beings who read it rather than pages it is embossed on.

SBL!

A photograph of the San Antonio Riverwalk. Just like me, the people in this photo have not fallen in the river.

I just got home from San Antonio, where I attended the Annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. SBL, as we call it, is the largest conference of biblical scholars in the world, and it’s held in conjunction with the American Academy of Religion. This means that for one weekend a year, thousands upon thousands of scholars in biblical and religious studies descend upon one unsuspecting American city.

The scope of the thing is truly mind-boggling. There are hundreds of papers and presentations each day, covering every conceivable topic within and around biblical studies and religion. It’s a great place for scholars to hear about new discoveries, new ideas, and new approaches, and to share their own ideas and get feedback before committing them to print. But the best part is reconnecting with friends and colleagues and meeting new ones. The conversations over dinners and drinks are consistently stimulating and gloriously nerdy.

For me, SBL also offers a chance to reflect on how I am changing and still need to change as my sight wanes. It’s a different experience every year.

The most noticeable change this year: I used my white cane. Last year I brought it with me, and I carried it in my bag throughout the weekend, but I never actually took it out to use it. This time I had it out almost the entire time. Inside and in daylight I don’t really need it for the large-scale tasks of orientation and navigation, but it warns me of curbs, planters, and benches, and warns people around me that I will definitely run into them if they don’t move. At night on the narrow and winding Riverwalk, on the other hand, I needed the cane (and a few timely nudges from my friends) to keep from taking a swim.

The social and networking aspect of the conference keeps changing, too. I’ve never been great at picking faces out of a crowd, but now it’s near impossible. I’m sure I walked right by dozens of people I should have said hello to, and failed to notice friends and colleagues attending sessions with me. Name tags are useless, so I’m sure I also miss out on meeting scholars whose work I know but have never met in person.

Even meeting close friends can be disorienting. Suddenly someone appears right in front of me, or beside me walking in lockstep, and it takes a few seconds to piece together who they are from their voice and whatever visual clues I can get. Sometimes I start a hug or a handshake without knowing who’s on the other side, and recognize them halfway through. Luckily, my assumption that people who want to hug me or shake my hand generally have a good reason to do so hasn’t backfired yet! 

I am curious to see how my experience of the conference changes over time. It will continue to provide a benchmark for my vision and adaptation, as well as for my scholarly career. Next year I plan to present a paper—a dual novelty since it will be my first paper at an academic conference and my first presentation from Braille notes!

Connection and Collaboration

For the past several years, being a blind person in the academy has seemed like a very lonely, and often discouraging road. I was able to find a few stories about blind professors online, but I had difficulty finding any in real life. Faculty and students at my university were supportive and willing to help, but no one (including myself!) was well acquainted with the particular problems of blindness or how to address them. 

A couple weeks ago, however, in a crazy series of events, I suddenly began to find the blind academic camaraderie I’ve wanted. My wife Kristin, who is an interaction and usability designer, decided on a whim to attend an accessibility even in San Francisco, hosted by Cordelia McGee-Tubb. The event was great, and while she was there, she fell into conversation with Jennifer Sutton, an accessibility consultant who also happens to be something of an expert on Braille, and also happens to be blind (go see what she does on Twitter or on LinkedIn). Kristin took her card, and told me I should get in touch with her.

So I gave her a call, and I couldn’t be more happy that I did. Jennifer was generous with her time and resources. In a phone call and a number of subsequent emails, she connected me to blind scholars and academics in a variety of fields—a professor of linguistics at Rice, an English professor at Berkeley. Through these connections, I found an email group of blind academics. There are smart blind people doing great academic work in practically every field imaginable—English, history, art, psychology, human computer interaction, you get the idea.. They share knowledge and advice freely, and I have already learned a great deal from this group.

Perhaps most important of all, she connected me with a small group of people who are working to increase access to biblical language study for people who are blind. They have transcribed the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, and some other original language documents into Braille. Now they are working on scholarly research tools, grammars, and other ancient language materials. 

Check out night-light.org for more information, and this blog post in particular to see the current state of the project. My skills at Braille pale in comparison to theirs, but I hope to contribute to this work as I improve.

It’s been exciting and slightly overwhelming to realize how many other talented blind people there are out in the world and in the academy. Those I have met are kind, generous, and resourceful. They are determined to succeed and eager to help others do the same. They have thought through and worked around many of the difficulties associated with academic work, and they are happy to give advice and encouragement. Of course, there will still be many challenges in my future, many problems left to solve, but the task feels a little lighter.