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 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 …