Since the tactile alphabet known as Braille was introduced nearly 200 years ago, blind people have been able to read on their own in a sighted world. Today, Braille is more available than ever before. It is also appearing in more places than ever before, from elevator buttons to restaurant menus. Yet its use in the United States has declined to the point where only about ten percent of blind people can use it. Jean Parker explains why, and why some activists are trying to reverse the trend.

Blind professionals throughout the world consider Braille indispensable. But only ten percent of blind Americans can read and write using the alphabet code of raised dots.

The invention of the system by Frenchman Louis Braille in the 1820s revolutionized life for blind people. Chris Danielson, a public relations specialist with the National Federation of the Blind, explains that up until then, blind people had not had a simple and effective way to read and write. "And so for the first time at Louis Braille's school, students could not only read but they could take their own notes in their classes instead of having to memorize, they could use the system to work out mathematical equations, and any other thing they needed to do in writing. They could use it even for music notation." He adds that various blind people had improvised in the past, but Braille was the first one to come up with a uniform system that could work in many contexts.

And although the system still works, fewer people are learning and using it.

Tom Anderson teaches Braille at the Colorado Center for the Blind in Littleton, Colorado. His classroom is lined with Braille books on every imaginable topic, or as he says, "everything from the sacred to the profane." He's teaching his students letters and numbers by recognizing the combinations of dots that comprise the Braille alphabet.

It's a challenging exercise for Jim Steele, a 59-year-old farmer from Pennsylvania who recently lost his sight. He's been a student at the Center for two months, and admits he's having a hard time picking up the Braille code. "I been a dairy farmer all my life and so I have cut these fingers on things," he says ruefully. "And during the winter, they have been broken open with sores on 'em and calluses, and I've never taken care of the fingers that much. I never knew they had to be so important to me."

Classes like this one are held in a few centers across the United States that are operated by blind people themselves. But Tom Anderson says, in many government-funded rehabilitation centers, learning Braille is declining. "In the United States, in the 1930's and 40's, many blind children attended schools for the blind, and many children learned Braille, whether they had no sight at all or residual vision," he explains. "In the 1950's and 1960's, more blind children went to public school - which certainly has its good qualities to it - but one of the unfortunate things that happened is that many itinerant teachers in the school systems in the United States began to de-emphasize Braille."

An itinerant teacher travels around a public school system, working with blind students at their local schools. Julia Zanon had such a teacher when she was young. Because she had some vision growing up, she was not encouraged to learn Braille. Today, as a rehabilitation counselor, she regrets that. She understands how knowing Braille could make parts of her job, such as giving presentations, much easier. "What I do is I have to commit all that to memory. And that's just a lot of work," she admits with a laugh.

New technology and talking computers make it easy for people to get along without Braille today. However, as Tom Anderson points out, listening is not reading and writing. "If technology was literacy then we could throw away all print books and everyone would just be listening to technology. But sighted people certainly find print to be valuable," he observes.

He says the decline in the use of Braille has to do with expectations of what blind people can do. He speaks angrily of a teacher who told students who were having trouble learning Braille that just learning the alphabet would be good enough, they could play cards and that sort of thing. "But the teacher I'm speaking of had no expectations that people would be employed and be successful."

Some teachers and even some blind people view Braille as archaic, saying it takes too long to learn and that technology has replaced the need for it. But Chris Danielson of the National Federation of the Blind says 90 percent of employed blind people read and write Braille.

He says doing something to revive Braille is crucial to keep blind people on a par with their sighted colleagues, and notes that 33 states have passed what he calls Braille literacy laws. "These are laws that require that every blind student, even if they have a little bit of residual vision, have an assessment to determine if Braille will benefit them, then have Braille taught to them. So it creates in effect, a legal presumption in favor of Braille."

Danielson says the public is not aware that Braille literacy has declined. But they should be, he insists, and they should be outraged by it. "Because it would never be acceptable in any civilized country in the world for only ten percent of any group of children to be literate. But that is essentially what is happening to blind children."

The U.S. mint will be producing commemorative coins for the bicentennial of Louis Braille's birth in 2009. Proceeds from sales of the coins will fund a public awareness program about the decline of Braille and seek support to make it part of all blind students' school curriculum.