Welcome to the first issue of the revitalized version of RE:view! It is fitting that the editorial for this issue invite our readership to reflect on topics which currently pose challenges for individuals in our professions. Fresh from the AER International Conference in Utah, many of you will have had an opportunity to hear new ideas and to discuss current challenges facing those of us in our field. Undoubtedly, all of you routinely experience situations which require an open-minded examination of a proposed change or new approach. The development of Unified English Braille (UEB) and the subsequent controversy created by proponents and opponents to its implementation is the subject of this editorial.
Despite its public release in 1829, braille did not become the primary tactile code for readers who were blind until nearly a century later. In the United States ongoing debates about the tactile code to be used continued until 1917 when a slightly modified British version of the braille code was accepted. The "war of the dots" as it became known in organizations serving those who were blind, culminated in 1932 at a conference in London when the United Kingdom and the United States adopted standard (grade 2 or contracted braille as it is now known) English braille. Of course braille has continued to evolve over the years through the efforts of many dedicated professionals. They continued to refine the literary code, creates specific codes for mathematics, responded to the need for braille computer notation, and designed a code for use in providing tactile access to written music.
In the last few decades of the twentieth century, it became increasingly evident that significant changes in the braille code might well be warranted. The majority of children who were blind were being educated in public school settings with their peers who were sighted and the advance of computer technology and associated software programs resulted in a greater need for students to understand the nature of print notation. Accompanying these changes more individuals who were blind were actively seeking and securing employment in the public sector. Braille translation technology and the tremendous advances in access to written material dramatically increased the need for braille readers to expand their range of reading materials. The existence of different tactile codes created increased demands on the cost of producing and procuring braille materials as well as on the complexity of code information a braille reader was required to learn and use.
In 1991 the directors of the Braille Authority of North America (BANA) acknowledged the difficulties inherent in having multiple codes and initiated the development of what has become Unified English Braille (UEB). Two years later BANA was successful, through their affiliation with the International Council on English Braille (ICEB), in having the UEB project internationalized and taken over by ICEB. This code development process has been on going since the early 1990s and committees continue to work on the refinement of the code as well to investigate potential implications of implementation throughout the English speaking world. In the spring of 2004, the ICEB considered UEB to be close enough to completion to be presented to its member countries as their national standard for braille. New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Nigeria have since adopted UEB and are in varying stages of the implementation process. In Canada, a committee is working to evaluate the potential for implementation. Neither the United States nor the United Kingdom have formally committed to adopting UEB but they both continue to participate in the refining process for the code. They are watching the developments in other English speaking nations with great interest.
The point of this editorial is not to sway the readership one way or the other in relation to the adoption of UEB. However, it is crucial that professionals in the field of visual impairment and blindness become better informed about UEB, its potential to improve or deter the development of literacy and numeracy among braille readers, and the implications relevant to accessibility issues it raises. Does UEB provide new opportunities to improve the level of literacy and access to technology? Will it allow immediate back translation of mathematical notation in the public school classroom so that students can interact directly with their classroom teacher who does not know how to read braille? Will adoption of UEB temporarily reduce the amount of braille material available to individuals just beginning to learn to read braille? Will instruction in UEB open the doors to literacy for children who have traditionally struggled with the ambiguities of the Standard English Braille code? Will UEB support improved access to the development of numeracy and access to higher mathematics courses for more students? There are hundreds of other issues which need to be discussed in an open dialogue among professionals who have taken the time to examine UEB and become knowledgeable of the factors inherent to it. As the war of the codes intensifies over the next few years, the perspectives of Braille readers, paraprofessionals, and professionals are urgently needed so we can benefit from the wisdom of those who daily use and work with Braille. It is those individuals who use braille that have the most to lose or gain from the implementation of UEB. As editors, we look forward to your discussion or input on this subject.
For more information on UEB go to the ICEB website.