Sunday, January 3, 2010

Blindness and Literacy

My research for my dissertation-to-book project is, in part, concerned with the sense of hearing in early Christian theology.  In the world of chant scholarship (a world unto itself, of which my research is not a part), there has long been speculation about how the oral transmission and aural perception of musical and liturgical norms in the mostly pre-literate society of the early Middle Ages differed from later transmission based on transcription and literacy.  I was reminded of the orality-vs.-literacy Gregorian chant debate by an interesting article in today's New York Times Magazine, about the gradual demise of Braille, and hence of literacy, in teaching methodologies for the blind.

Though sighted, I learned to read Braille as a child.  My best friend in elementary school was L., who had been blind since infancy.  L. was mainstreamed into our public school classroom with the help of a teaching aide, who read Braille and corrected the assignments that L. produced on her Braille typewriter.  L. taught me how to read Braille too, and gave me a stylus and a slate so that I could punch out the symbols myself and hence write letters and stories in Braille.  We had great fun reading to each other, using our respective fingers and eyes; she would accuse me of cheating when I scanned the Braille page visually instead of feeling out the narrative with my fingertips.

I have somewhere read the theory (and now can't remember the source) that literacy is a cause of aggression (if I'm recalling correctly, this theory held that the cognitive norms of pre-literate or non-literate societies are somehow more productive of peaceful human interaction).   The Times article seems to suggest, however, that the inability to read, now prevalent among the non-Braille-tutored blind, gives rise to chaotic, disorganized thinking, which seems to me one of the root causes of aggression.

Above:  "Blind Tom" Wiggins, a nineteenth-century piano prodigy and autistic savant.


didjryan said...

You may be interested to know that the 19th century slave pianist and autistic savant, Blind Tom, attained a degree of literacy.

Although his managers were adamant he could not be educated, Blind Tom was introduced to the principles of phonetics (to further a novelty act) and - thanks to his hypersensitive ear and encyclopedic memory - could spell any word thrown at him, ableit phonetically.

Mark Twain, who was a huge fan of Blind Tom, marveled at Tom's enthusiasm for orthography. "When you give him a word, he shouts it out - puts all his soul into it. He says "O, r-a-n-g, orang, g-e-r, ger, oranger, t-a-n-g, orangger tang'. But the feeble dictionary makes a mere kitten of him."

If you want to find out more about the remarkable Blind Tom, check out "The Ballad of Blind Tom" by Deirdre O'Connell.

Pentimento said...

Thank you for sharing this, Didjryan. In case it interests you, a friend of mine, Stephanie Jensen-Moulton, a specialist in music and disability studies, has an essay on Blind Tom in the anthology Sounding Off: Theorizing Disability in Music, which I notice has a Braille-inspired cover design.

Enbrethiliel said...


So you can hear music with your eyes and read words with your fingers? =)

Why am I struggling not to feel envious?

Pentimento said...

Well, I'm not as synaesthetic as all that, Enbrethiliel. I've forgotten how to read Braille!

Anonymous said...

Nice post. I also befriended a special needs classmate who was mainstreamed.

Anonymous said...

Of interest, in Australia, the unemployment rate for persons with significant vision impairment who nonetheless are 100% work ready is 63%. Of those with post graduate qualifications who are work ready, it is 34%. Now, of those persons with significant vision impairment who can read Braille, 90% of work ready individuals are employed!! Speaks for itself!

As a person with significant vision impairment who was mainstreamed in the early 1980's, Braille has been my saviour, in the workplace, at university (where I am currently, as a mature age student studying for a degree in Theology and in my spiritual life, not to mention reacreational.

To see how Braille has kept pace with technology, see
and (the latter's tech I use to use PC technology).

In Aus, we have no Braille music transcription readily available; lost it in 2002; prior, as a church choir singer, this service was invaluable.

Braille affords a flexibility of PC access that speech simply doesn't give.

It is also a process that engages the brain actively, whereas speech engages it only passively.

Generations are being unskilled as sighted persons who think they know best make the educational decisions; the disability Support Officer at university, who is herself a veteran Braille transcriber and tactile graphics expert sees it all too commonly in the kids coming through now; also, without Braille, one cannot fully engage in the study of foreign lanauges (all alphabets in print use the same six dot system, no matter the print system being transcribed; we have an edge as even pictorial systems such as Chinese are rendered phonetically in Braille and the system is elegant and logical. Same goes for Arabic, for instance (of which I have dallied in a little).

May God bless your research and dissertation!!

If you wish to speak with me, I can be contacted at zenia 1 @ bigpond com (just add the dots and remove the spaces).



Pentimento said...

Fantastic information. Thanks for weighing in, Sarah, and God bless.

berenike said...

Yes! Sign me up to buy your book!

Pentimento said...

Thanks, Berenike :)

Be prepared to wait a couple of years though . . . : (