How are you reading these words?
Looking at a screen? Feeling braille? Listening to a voice?
The disability rights movement coined “universal design” as the aspirational ideal that describes a world built for everyone. Certain designs—like stairs or ink-printed pages—define people who cannot access them as disabled. But the world can be designed differently.
Although Howe designed pages for all to read, he did not think reading Boston Line would be easy. Howe challenged a sighted colleague to touch an embossed page and say if it “feels like any thing you ever saw.” Learning to read raised print took a lot of practice. Howe suggested that a trained student could read tactilely at a third the speed of a sighted person reading aloud.
Howe is celebrated for making books accessible to blind and low-vision readers, but he is not universally revered. Howe, educator Horace Mann, and telephone-inventor Alexander Graham Bell actively campaigned against sign language because they considered it “arbitrary” like braille. Howe favored lip reading and speaking instead because he believed they would help Deaf Americans integrate into a society dominated by hearing persons.
Howe’s success had costs even for the blind community. Boston Line Type's success hindered the popularity of braille, which was widely adopted in the US decades later than in Britain and France. The amount of time and money that Perkins and other American schools had invested into Boston Line Type made them resistant to adopting a new system. Boston Line Type was, however, much harder to learn than braille, and only braille allowed individuals with visual impairments to read and write tactilely.
Digital platforms are changing the senses of reading for everyone. Our tactile learning extends to books, smart phones, and computers. Although visual readers tend to think of reading as only visual, reading almost always involves a combination of senses. How we make sense of the ways we read depends on how we pay attention to our senses.