Rice to host Scientia Small Conference on braille reading and writing March 8-10

Braille, a writing system that allows people who are blind to read by touch, used to be greatly understudied by the academic community. This was particularly true of specialists in the reading sciences, a visually focused field that traditionally concentrated on the more optical components of reading: eye tracking and movement, visual perception and other physical activities directly related to the human eye. But this began to change with new research that emerged two decades ago.

One goal of the upcoming Scientia Small Conference is to carve out a space for research on braille in the academic mainstream.

One goal of the upcoming Scientia Small Conference on Interdisciplinary Research Perspectives on Braille Reading and Writing is to carve out a space for research on braille in the academic mainstream.

“Really surprising findings from neuroimaging data showed that when people who are congenitally blind — people who are born blind — read braille, their visual cortex lights up,” said Rice’s Robert Englebretson, department chair and associate professor of linguistics. “That wasn’t supposed to happen, right? The visual cortex was for vision. I was talking with a neuroscience professor about this in the late 1990s who said, ‘If that’s true, it’s really going to change a lot of what we understand about the brain.’ Well, it turns out that it is true and it did change a lot of what we understand about the brain.”

Today Englebretson and research partner Simon Fischer-Baum, assistant professor of psychology, are hoping to launch even greater investigations into what braille can teach researchers about how the brain works and how humans process written language, whether that writing system is in alphabetic form (like English), logographic form (like Chinese), syllabic form (like Japanese Katakana) or a tactile format like braille, which was first created by Louis Braille in 1824.

Together with Cay Holbrook, a special education expert in braille pedagogy and the director of graduate programs in Special Education at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Englebretson and Fischer-Baum are hosting the upcoming Scientia Small Conference on Interdisciplinary Research Perspectives on Braille Reading and Writing, a series of lectures and workshops to be held March 8-10 in the Lay Student Center’s Farnsworth Pavilion. Other conferences on braille have been held in the past but have focused primarily on advocacy and literacy rather than academics or research, Englebretson said.

“People are kind of living in their own disciplinary silos,” he noted of the decision to host an interdisciplinary conference on the Rice campus, “and the reading sciences really have a lot to learn about tactile writing systems.” Despite 20 years of ongoing research into other writing systems and “all of the really fine work that people in the reading sciences are doing,” he said, “the thing that was often left out of that equation was tactile reading and writing like braille.”

The question of how to bring these two silos together fell to Englebretson, who also serves as co-chair of the Braille Authority of North America’s research committee, somewhat organically. “I just happened to be in both silos because I’m a lifelong braille reader and someone who happens to have a Ph.D. in linguistics and has some interest in the reading sciences,” he said. But even a linguist like Englebretson wasn’t naturally inclined to study braille.

“It never really occurred to me that there would be interesting linguistic questions until about 10 years ago,” Englebretson said. That was when he was approached by the International Council on English Braille to complete some research on their behalf. In doing so, he discovered a large disconnect between people who work specifically in the braille education arena and people in the reading sciences — that is, psychologists and cognitive scientists who work on reading and writing. “I realized this is something that very, very few people in the world have been looking at and it needs to be studied for both humanitarian and social reasons; literacy is a social justice issue.”

A shortage of braille teachers, a misunderstanding of the writing system and the so-called “paradox of technology” — the idea that audiobooks, synthetic speech and other new tools should be used as a replacement for braille rather than a supplement to learning — has led to a critical decline in braille literacy in the United States.

As a result, over 70 percent of adults who are blind are unemployed and nearly half of  high school students who are blind drop out before graduation. “That’s a real problem, because there’s plenty of work that shows that blind people who read braille tend to be more successful in employment, in education, just in life,” Englebretson said.

While the upcoming Scientia Small Conference won’t focus on advocacy per se, Englebretson said, “our goal is really to dig into the academic research behind it, and hopefully there will be advocacy and work that comes out of it.”

To that end, the conference has invited academics and researchers from across a wide selection of fields and specialties, including professors from Baylor College of Medicine, the University of California at Berkeley, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Michigan. There’s even an international cohort of scholars from New Zealand’s University of Auckland, Ireland’s Maynooth University, England’s Royal Holloway University of London, Canada’s University of Montreal and Estonia’s Tallinn University, making it a truly global conference.

For a self-described “grammar geek” like Englebretson, who was first attracted to linguistics because of his fascination with the abundant diversity of the world’s languages, there’s great allure in studying braille from a linguistics perspective. “The morphology of English braille works a little differently than English print, and it’s a good laboratory for finding out about how linguistic structure is represented,” he said. But the conference offers opportunities for study and discussion beyond linguistics. What can cognitive scientists and neuroscientists contribute to work in special education and pedagogy, for instance, and vice versa?

“We have people from the special education world who are speaking and we have people from the cognitive and neuroscience and linguistics world,” Englebretson said. “And what we hope to get out of this is some kind of new synergy — some kind of new collaborative research projects that many of the people present might want to do together that they wouldn’t be able to do independently.”

Seating for the conference is limited, so early registration is recommended. The registration fee of $30 includes all talks and round-table discussions as well as coffee and lunch breaks. Online registration ends Feb. 21.

The conference agenda and registration information are available here.

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.