The State of Access to Biblical Languages for Scholars Who Are Blind in 2016

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.

In 2011, Lauren Tuchman and I gave a presentation at the Society of Biblical Literature entitled Using Technology to Meet the Needs of Biblical Language Scholars Who Are Blind. Download the SBL presentation audio.

Some developments in technology that were new at the time made great strides possible for scholars who are blind, particularly in Greek study. I summarized unmet needs at the end of the presentation. The most pressing of these concerned a way for people to use the Mac for access to biblical languages. Others concerned new codes for additional ancient languages.

Many steps forward have been made since Lauren and I presented at SBL. At the same time, Biblical language scholars have also experienced some difficulties as screen reader technology has struggled to keep pace with the development of mainstream biblical study software. On this page, I will describe the solutions that are available as of the fall of 2016. These include both mainstream solutions and workarounds that take full advantage of adaptive technology.

New Developments in Hebrew

A broader array of options is now available for people who wish to learn Hebrew than was available in 2011. The JAWS screen reader is still the most appropriate option for the PC.; Users of JAWS 16 and later may contact Freedom Scientific customer support and request information about access to Hebrew speech support. JAWS does not come configured for access to pointed Hebrew or polytonic Greek. My configured table is still needed for access to pointed Hebrew and polytonic Greek. My table also provides limited support for braille display of Syriac characters when braille translation mode is set to computer braille.

Apple devices provide spoken Greek and Hebrew support beginning with IOS 8 and Yosemite. Braille support On the Mac, all of the Hebrew points are not supported in braille display, and there is no way to configure the table. On the IPhone and IPAD, no Hebrew points are displayed in braille; and some of the Greek accents are not supported. On all IOS devices, vowel points and some accents are identified verbally. However, it is very challenging for a person to learn Hebrew using Voiceover alone. For best results, a braille supplement should be used, either in hard copy or via digital braille file that can be accessed on a braille display.

Braille Translation Improvements

Duxbury Systems introduced a specialized template called the Biblical Original Languages Translator for biblical scholars in version 11.3 of the Duxbury Braille Translator. This software is now available in version 12.1, and the template has undergone some improvements. In addition to the ability to translate multilingual documents that include Roman-based languages such as English, French, and Spanish, as well as Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, and Arabic from print to braille, DBT can also back-translate from braille to print.

Other Languages

Screen readers and braille translation programs still do not support Ugaritic, Akkadian, or other languages which use Unicode numbers higher than U+10,000. Ray McAllister has developed preliminary braille representation systems for these languages and has translated some primary sources for use with braille display. However, this material has never been tested in a teaching environment; and no grammars have been translated.

Biblical Study Software Accessibility

Biblical study software holds the potential to offer scholars who are blind access to a wealth of research materials simply because the materials are already in an electronic format. However, software packages often present great barriers because their interfaces can be difficult to use or, even worse, not usable at all. Ray McAllister and I have tested BibleWorks and Logos using several screen readers. Both packages are usable for people who have tremendous enthusiasm, determination, and a significant level of experience navigating with a screen reader. Often, a person must use the screen reader in a way that is not common in order to accomplish a task. Frequently, portions of the screen are not read aloud which are crucial to the user understanding what is happening or where the cursor is. This is a highly disappointing situation.

Some Remedies

In an effort to counter the problem of lack of access to biblical studies texts, Ray McAllister has submitted a large library of digital braille format resources to the Bartimaeus Alliance of the Blind. These are all original language documents. There is still great need for grammars, dictionaries, lexicons, etc, to be translated into braille. Because of the difficulties described above, particularly with regard to IOS devices, it is important to ensure access to a version of these resources that enables a person to view the proper spelling of the text regardless of the device they are using..

I am available to transcribe advanced grammars and other multilingual materials upon request. These materials require special attention because the support in DBT for specialized characters is still preliminary and also because they require specialized formatting. For a quote regarding transcription, please send me an email.

Changes in Use of Braille

The use of braille is undergoing some changes at this time. The United States is in the midst of transitioning to a new braille code which is used internationally. This means that the ways in which some braille symbols are used will differ in newly transcribed texts. Young readers will become accustomed to the new system as they read it often in their daily work. Older readers have more entrenched usage habits of reading, and it will be more challenging for some of them to work with the new system, especially while also learning a new language.

I mention the change with use of braille because this affects the manner in which foreign languages are transcribed and is especially important to understand if a person is using texts that include transliteration. Braille is not a language itself; and the braille system does not attempt to transliterate another symbolic system into English sounds. However, due to the limited number of braille characters available for use, symbols used to represent characters in the target language sometimes resemble the symbols used for English characters that make the same phonetic sounds. It is therefore highly important to be able to identify what is transliterated language vs. what is target language. The new Unified English Braille Code allows for just such identification. However, some currently available texts are transcribed according to the old Literary Braille standard. I always recommend that readers learn to be highly flexible and cope with both standards in order to make best use of language resources.

The Communication Gap

Even if a person has all Biblical studies texts available in the most accessible format, the person still needs to be able to communicate about the language with sighted people. People who are blind have used a variety of methods to communicate with sighted professors and colleagues. These have included oral communication, made-up keyboard codes, and standard Hebrew and Greek keyboards. There is no reason, assuming that the person has access to software that reproduces the language, why a standard keyboard should not be used. Numerous keyboards exist, and choosing from among these options can be challenging if a person is not familiar with this technology. Professors themselves sometimes do not use keyboard options that are compatible with screen readers. Unicode is becoming standard, but occasionally I still meet a person who prefers older softwware or transliteration.

To add to this challenge, IT professionals and disability support staff are often not familiar with biblical languages. If you teach biblical languages, take time to get to know your IT department and your disabilities support staff.

I expect that steps will continue to be made back, forward, back and forward as mainstream technology moves ahead, assistive technology catches up, and the cycle repeats over time. I hope that as more people become aware of the work that scholars themselves are doing, these steps will be more friendly toward access.

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