by Winifred Downing
On October 14, Dr. Abraham Nemeth was one of four outstanding individuals in the blindness field to be welcomed into the Hall of Fame at the American Printing House for the Blind, Louisville, Ky. The other three recipients were William Hadley, founder of the Hadley School for the Blind in the early 1920s; William English, past superintendent of the Wisconsin School for the Blind; and Max Woolly, past superintendent of the Arkansas School for the Blind. Each award winner received a certificate and a sculpture of his face, and it is these sculptures that are assembled at the museum of the American Printing House.
Dr. Nemeth was recognized for his mathematics code which has been used by blind children learning this subject for the last 55 years. He never received any monetary sum in recognition of his tremendous contribution to the education of the blind but has been satisfied with the accomplishment itself.
Though 86 years old, Dr. Nemeth continues to work diligently, now in the development of the Nemeth Uniform Braille System (NUBS). Anyone who has used braille for a substantial amount of time reacts negatively to the suggestion that braille must change in some fairly substantial ways, especially with regard to technical material. The small anomalies are easily apparent when one realizes that there are now three different dollar signs in use: one in literary braille, one in computer braille, and a third in mathematics. Two different forms of parentheses are also employed, and literary braille presently offers no sign for plus, minus, or equals.
Even more important, having several different codes in preparing braille material means that scanning and translation programs cannot easily be used to produce the ever increasing and ever more diverse documents in braille that are required now that almost all blind children are being mainstreamed and require textbooks which tell them the same things that those books tell the sighted students. For the traditional braille user, it isn't important to know whether the print is italic, boldface, in small upper case letters, etc. When these print changes appear in the textbooks being used in classrooms today, however, they are made to communicate some additional meaning to the reader; and a way must be found to bring to the blind child all the information given to sighted students by changes in print style.
Some 16 years ago, the Braille Authority of North America (BANA) accepted these realities and assembled committees to develop a single code which would express to the blind reader everything that the sighted reader can experience. The code became known as the Unified Braille Code and, after its acceptance by most of the English-speaking countries, the Unified English Braille Code (UEBC). From the very beginning, some observers of the procedures initially adopted realized that there were very serious problems, and Dr. Nemeth proceeded to develop an alternative code. The intensity of the discrimination practiced by BANA and the braille publishers so closely involved with that organization was so all-absorbing and shockingly unjust that observers are baffled by it to this day. He was not permitted to offer his code and was even denied the opportunity to read his papers explaining his reservations. Though in more recent years there has been a recognition that there is an alternative to the UEBC available, serious consideration or detailed study has never been approached because the code, the UEBC experts tell us, is not "complete." What a curiously discriminatory attitude that is when one remembers that the braille we use every day has had changes made in it several times in the last 20 years and that committees concerned with the UEBC are still dickering over some decisions!
Like the reception offered initially to the NUBS, the discriminatory practices continue by exacting a standard for Dr. Nemeth's code not applied to any other development in braille. It has even been impossible to advance any discussion of this subject in the professional magazines in the field. I am not connected with any publishing house but have been aware for years of the problems presented by the UEBC. Several years ago, I requested an opportunity to write an article on the subject for the "Journal of Visual Impairment And Blindness" (JVIB); but the editor denied my request because the matter involved was of too limited interest to be included. Later, however, Bill Gerry, a blind person of considerable technical knowledge, contributed an article praising the UEBC which was accepted by JVIB and jubilantly reproduced by the publishing houses and BANA whenever any opposition was expressed. As far as I know, Bill Gerry is the only blind person with experience in technology who has taken this stand.
Many of the people associated with BANA and the publishing houses insist that they know braille; and they do when it comes to the construction of the characters and interpretation of the rules governing contractions, punctuation, etc. They are not, though, users of braille. To them it is not significant that three or four symbols are necessary to express one character, that an arithmetic multiplication problem with two numbers cannot be written on a 40-cell braille line, that very few blind people have achieved the ability to write in the UEBC, or that 55 years of technical braille material will be scrapped if that code is adopted. I believe that there are people in the UEBC camp who realize that the code cannot be used successfully to express technical material, and the chair of BANA herself may well understand that fact; but they are afraid to step forward with their views because of the political pressure among professionals. Politics should have no place in determining the future of braille.
Understanding some of these severe problems existing in the UEBC and responding to the fact that the two national organizations of the blind, the National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind, have, by resolutions approved by their national conventions, totally rejected the UEBC, the National Braille Association (NBA) has established a committee of blind users of braille and of braille transcribers to investigate the NUBS and work toward having the broader community learn about it. I have studied the NUBS enough to understand the basic principles and have conducted several workshops to acquaint mainly blind users with the system. My materials were initially prepared by Joyce Hull, an experienced NBA transcriber; and she has furnished me with the 150 to 200 booklets I have needed.
The system has several immediately attractive features, especially the fact that it will not require giving up any of the contractions or spacing practices to which we are accustomed, that it needs less space and fewer symbols to express technical material, and that it builds on what we already know and does it so that the learner can absorb just the extent of the system that is needed. If literary braille is what is being sought, no study of the mathematical or other technical expressions is necessary; but if that knowledge is necessary, it is readily available.
My workshops have been at the California Transcribers and Educators of the Visually Handicapped in 2004, the California chapter of the Braille Revival League in 2005, and the Braille Revival League national meeting at the convention of the American Council of the Blind in 2005. About 75 people have experienced the system that way; but wanting to make it better known among persons who could not attend the workshops, I have prepared a cassette to accompany and explain the booklet which exemplifies the main points of interest and have offered the cassette and the booklet to anyone who wants it. I have sent out 60 envelopes of this material since July. To get a copy for yourself, send a letter to: Winifred Downing, 1587 38th Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94122; phone (415) 564-5798; or e-mail [email protected]. Please also write to Angela Cofaro, National Braille Association, 3 Townline Circle, Rochester, NY 14623. If you can spare a monetary contribution, it will be very welcome, for NBA has a tiny fraction of the money that BANA could spend promoting the UEBC. Even without money, though, your expression of interest will be valuable. If we are going to have changes in braille, it is blind users who must be involved, not just publishers and those indebted to them. Imagine how we could congratulate Dr. Nemeth if the NUBS were to be adopted to meet the needs of blind people in the many uses they make of braille!