Biblical Language Study for Scholars Who Are Blind

About Sarah Blake LaRose

Sarah Blake LaRose is a freelance writer and a professor of Biblical Hebrew at Anderson University School of Theology in Anderson, Indiana. She is one of three blind academic scholars who received the Jacob Bolotin Award from the National Federation of the Blind in 2016 in recognition of innovative work in the field of access to biblical language texts and tools for people who are blind.

Can a person who is blind learn biblical languages? This is a question that many people ask. Some ask because they are blind and they want or need to learn biblical languages in order to prepare themselves for a particular kind of ministry. Others ask because they teach in the field of biblical studies or provide staff support to students with disabilities who are planning to take language courses, and they need strategic help in learning how material in these languages can be made accessible to a student who cannot read print. The lack of an answer to this question leads to decisions that have serious negative consequences for the lives of people who are blind and for the people whom they serve as ministers.

Many people who are blind have been exempted from language courses and have never enjoyed success as gifted biblical scholars. If a person who is blind happens to be one who has great difficulty as a language learner, and that person is exempted from language study, that person has not enjoyed the empowerment that comes from overcoming their struggle with patient guidance and instruction. This is a benefit of seminary that all language learners should experience.

What Is Possible

People who are blind have long studied material in Greek and Hebrew as scholars In the past, this was accomplished with the aid of readers. Today, people who are blind read texts independently in many ways. Ancient language texts have been transcribed into Hebrew braille and Greek braille. It is also possible to scan them into the computer and use optical character recognition software that converts images captured from written pages into text. Other programs then read the text aloud or feed to braille displays. The same programs that read text aloud and feed it to braille displays, called screen readers, can also interact with web browsers, word processors, and even Bible study software, to give the user who is blind information about what is on the screen. In this way, a person who is blind can read a vast amount of information that has been unavailable in the past.

it is possible for a person who is blind to learn any language that a sighted person can learn. Some do it with great success. Some people have great difficulty with language study. This is true of sighted students as well. It is vital that faculty and staff understand that language learning success and difficulty are traits that sighted and blind people have in common.

Because languages are often taught using visual elements like charts and pictures, people who are blind sometimes encounter difficulties in the learning process. These difficulties need not be barriers. A creative teacher can think outside the box and overcome them.

If a person is learning to read in braille or using adaptive technology, there are also some unique needs that should be considered. These unique needs are not always barriers; but they are differences. An instructor who understands the differences between sighted ways of reading and ways of reading by scholars who are blind can effectively teach a person who is blind to read in Greek or Hebrew. In fact, scholars who are blind are themselves making new strides that promise to make it possible for a person to learn additional ancient languages as well

The State of Access to Language Materials

The state of access to biblical language material is not perfect. There is great need for improvement in the ways that screen readers and Bible study software work together. Scholars who are blind desire this improvement deeply because Bible study software would allow them to use lexicons and other reference material that is otherwise not easily accessible. Scholars who are blind and who have studied biblical languages successfully advocate strongly for the development of more accessible software, accessible language content online in Unicode format, and quality audio resources.

Current Needs

There is also great need for funding for the production of additional language materials in braille. All materials in Hebrew braille are currently produced by volunteer transcribers. The lack of accessible grammars and reference materials is the greatest barrier to successful study of biblical languages for a person who is blind.

Scholars who are blind and who have had the privilege of learning biblical languages encourage seminaries and universities to provide quality instruction to people who are blind. In addition to making language programs accessible, recognize the quality work that your scholars do–not as inspiring accomplishments because of their blindness but as contributions from scholars who are qualified for their work.

While access to biblical language materials continues to improve, people who are determined to succeed in this field continue to use resources that are available in order to learn and to succeed as scholars who happen to be blind. The greatest predictor of success is not the tools available but the strength of determination and the willingness to work that a person brings to the task. If Didymus could succeed as a scholar who was blind during the fourth century, others certainly can today.

Are there benefits to the community for going to such expense to make it possible for people who are blind to study biblical languages? If one holds to the philosophy that God calls whom God chooses, then it would follow that to make possible the study of languages by a person who is blind is to equip another whom God has called to serve God fully.

Getting More Help

If you are looking for resources for accessible language study, please see the submenu under “site navigation.” If you need help, For questions about software or web site accessibility, accessible language teaching, screen readers and foreign language characters, or to suggest a resource or link, please email me.

Disclaimer: JAWS 13, 14, and 15 do not properly support right to left languages. Hebrew is supported on the Mac beginning in Yosemite and on the IPAD and IPhone beginning with IOS 8. The Hebrew support in JAWS 16 is very good. Mac and IOS support require some fairly good understanding of sound-letter correspondence, ability to understand synthetic Hebrew speech, etc. More information is available on other pages on this site.

If you are highly determined to learn biblical languages, in particular Hebrew, do not give up because of such bumps in the road. It is because of these types of barriers that you must increase your determination to be diligent. It is because of these kinds of access problems that Night-Light exists.

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