Scientia Small Conference

Hands reading braille

Interdisciplinary Research Perspectives on Braille Reading and Writing
March 8 - 10, 2018

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Registration is closed at this time. Please send an email to if you have any questions.


Robert Englebretson, Rice University, Dept. of Linguistics

Simon Fischer-Baum, Rice University, Dept. of Psychology

Cay Holbrook, University of British Columbia, Special Education


This symposium seeks to build an interdisciplinary network of researchers to explore the perceptual, neurological, cognitive, linguistic, educational, and sociocultural aspects of braille reading and writing. At its most basic, we plan to address the question of what it means to read and write, how this may be similar or different across the visual and tactile modalities, and how this matters for the reading, writing, and teaching of braille. Speakers at the conference will take up these questions from the diverse perspectives of Psychology, Cognitive Science, Neuroscience, Linguistics, Education, and Disability Studies.

Reading and writing comprise one of the greatest achievements of humankind, and are central to full participation and engagement in the cultural, educational, and occupational landscapes of literate societies. Yet until the mid-1800s, blind people were afforded no means of written literacy. This began to change in the 1820s when Louis Braille (1809-1852), while a pupil at an institution for blind children in Paris, developed the tactile alphabet that today bears his name. Braille enabled blind people to read and write independently for the first time, and access to literacy (along with changing societal attitudes) opened a world of education, leisure, and employment. Modern technologies have greatly transformed the way braille is produced and consumed. Many blind people now use portable electronic braille displays to interface with computers, PDAs, and smartphones, allowing instant access in braille to virtually any material that is available online or in electronic format, and continuing to level the playing field with sighted colleagues and co-workers. Yet despite its centrality in the lives of those for whom it enables literacy, braille remains only on the margins of the reading sciences, and very few researchers are actively conducting empirical work on braille.

One goal of this conference is to carve out a space for research on braille in the academic mainstream. We will explore ways that research on braille can be integrated into already-established research agendas and paradigms in the reading sciences, in order to better understand how reading works at a more general level. In other words, this conference explores how braille is relevant beyond literacy for individuals who are blind: empirical research on braille has real import for scholars in a range of disciplines (neuroplasticity, written language processing, tactile perception, etc.).

A second goal of this conference is to encourage cross-disciplinary research on braille so as to facilitate innovative approaches to teaching braille and promoting braille literacy. We aim to foster new collaboration among conference participants, especially among those in different fields who may benefit from complementary expertise. We seek to bring braille research more into the academic mainstream, and, at the same time, to bring research from the cognitive sciences to bear on braille pedagogy, literacy, and teacher preparation.


All conference talks and roundtable discussions will take place in Farnsworth Pavilion, which is located in the Rice Memorial Center. Presentations will generally be 45 minutes in length, plus 15 minutes for discussion. Attendees are welcome at all talks, and are especially encouraged to actively participate in and bring their perspectives to the Saturday afternoon roundtable discussions. If you wish to attend this conference, please register. The $30 registration fee entitles you to attend talks and roundtable discussions, and includes the cost of all coffee breaks and lunches.

The following schedule is provisional and may be revised until late February.

Thursday, March 8

Time Description
8:30 - 9:00
9:00 - 9:30
Welcome and Introductions
9:30 - 10:30
Robert Englebretson, Rice University. "Setting the groundwork: Basics of braille reading, writing, and current trends in research"
10:30 - 10:45
10:45 - 11:45
Frances Mary D'Andrea, Braille Literacy Consultant. "Historical perspectives on braille codes and braille readers"
11:45 - 1:00
1:00 - 2:00
Georgina Kleege, University of California Berkeley. "Visible braille, invisible blindness"
2:00 - 3:00
Marina Bedny, Johns Hopkins University. "The neural basis of braille reading: What we know and some open questions"
3:00 - 3:15
3:15 - 4:15
Jeffrey Yau, Baylor College of Medicine. "The neural basis of spatial and temporal touch"
4:15 - 5:15
Barry Hughes, University of Auckland. "Sensorimotor aspects of braille reading at the extremes of reading fluency"
5:15 - 5:30

Friday, March 9

Time Description
8:30 - 9:00
9:00 - 10:00
Simon Fischer-Baum, Rice University. "Orthographic structure in reading and writing: Evidence from print and braille"
10:00 - 10:15
10:15 - 11:15
Brenda Rapp, Johns Hopkins University. "Spelling words: Possible commonalities and differences between sighted individuals and braille readers"
11:15 - 12:15
Kathy Rastle, Royal Holloway University of London. "Learning the relationship between form and meaning in English and other writing systems"
12:15 - 1:30
1:30 - 2:30
Anneli Veispak, Tallinn University. "The effects of word frequency and neighbourhood size on braille reading"
2:30 - 3:30
Ronan Reilly, Maynooth University. "Towards a computational model of braille reading"
3:30 - 3:45
3:45 - 4:45
Tessa McCarthy, University of Pittsburgh. "A detailed analysis of the mechanics of reading braille: More than meets the eye"
4:45 - 5:00

Saturday, March 10

Time Description
Mackenzie Savaiano, University of Nebraska at Lincoln. "Teaching vocabulary to braille users: A discussion of context and assessment"
Natalie Martiniello, University of Montreal. "Exploring the impact of aging on braille usage: Towards evidence-based strategies for adult and senior learners"
Cay Holbrook, University of British Columbia. "Providing direct instruction in braille reading and writing: Service delivery challenges and solutions"
Roundtable I: Cross-Disciplinary Observations, Discussion, and Research Questions
Roundtable II: Future Collaboration and Planning
Closing Remarks


The following individuals will be serving as discussants throughout the symposium and at the roundtables, thanks to generous financial support from the Department of Linguistics and Department of Psychology at Rice University.

  • Josh Miele, Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute, Associate Director of Technology Research and Development.
  • Sile O'Modhrain, University of Michigan, Associate Professor, Performing Arts Technology, School of Music, Theatre and Dance; and School of Information.
  • Sheri Wells-Jensen, Bowling Green State University, Associate Professor of Linguistics.
  • Karen Arcos, UC Irvine, NSF Graduate Research Fellow in Cognitive Sciences.
  • Lindsay Yazzolino, Johns Hopkins University, Research Assistant,Neuroplasticity and Development Laboratory.


Register Here Button

Registration is closed at this time. Please send an email to if you have any questions.

Seating at the conference venue is limited, so early registration is recommended. The $30 registration fee entitles you to attend talks and roundtable discussions, and includes the cost of all coffee breaks and lunches. All credit cards are accepted.

Online registration will close at 11:59pm, February 21, 2018. Space permitting, you may register on-site, with all fees payable by credit card.

Cancellations must be requested no later than Wednesday, February 21, 2018 by 11:59PM in order to receive a refund. If you have any questions/problems, please send an email to

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