June 13, 2017
The Read Read - The Holy Grail of Braille Education

The numbers were never perfect.

Alex Tavares, the creator of the Read Read, tells me that in the 1950’s, the Braille literacy rate was at 50 percent in the United States. In 2017, just 8.5 percent of blind children receive the necessary education to learn Braille.

The surreptitious decline is not entirely black and white, however.

Alex Tavares, the Read Read
Alex Tavares, Founder of the Read Read

Six decades ago, visually impaired students were concentrated to institutional schools for the blind, while today those same students have had the chance to be integrated into the wider school system.

“The mainstreaming of kids with visual impairments has been wonderful for their social integration,” Tavares says “but the public school system hasn’t found a way, through the itinerant service model, to provide the resources necessary to all these students. Less than half the teachers needed are in classrooms, and some students receive the proper instruction once every two weeks.”

Tavares has experience in these classrooms beyond the numbers. Six years ago, he began working as a literacy instructor, and six years ago, the muse which inspired the Read Read found him.

“One of the most time consuming aspects of instruction was working with phonics, sitting beside them, pointing to a letter, and making the sound that letter makes. So I figured if I’m spending the lion’s share of my time sitting next to students, pointing to letter and saying their sounds, let me automate that.”

According to the Read Read’s Kickstarter page, the hardware is “a breakthrough tool that allows visually impaired & blind people to independently learn phonics & braille.” A tool “can change the course of history for kids who are blind,” said Kate Crohan, a teacher at Perkins School for the Blind.

Tavares took his invention to Perkins for a twelve week pilot program this year through Harvard’s Innovation Lab. There it was classroom-tested and student-approved.

“A teenage student who is blind and on the Autism spectrum had great difficulty learning braille letters, and hadn't managed to master the first 10 letters of the only two days, using the Read Read for less than 20 minutes each day, the student learned braille letters 'A' through 'J.'”

The results speak for themselves. But the next challenge sits not on the drawing board and not in the classroom, but on the production line.

The Read Read’s Kickstarter goal of $273,000 is ambitious and manufacturer-matrixed. The total will allow the Read Read to make its way to 400 students in need by November, but crowd-funding is not Tavares’ only play.

“The American Printing House for the Blind, they handle what’s called the federal quota. Each teacher is allotted about six hundred dollars to be spent on resources for each student by the federal government. And we’re in the final round of judging with them, to see if we will be approved by them to be listed on their website.”

A nod of approval and a spot on the website could kick the assembly lines into gear, but the turnaround time could be bogged down when dealing with the requisite bureaucratic processes of government organizations.

“It can be about two and a half years minimum before kids get their hands on the device. Our Kickstarter campaign would allow us to get those 400 hundred devices to those 400 kids by November.”

$273,000 to be raised in 60 days. Those two numbers may be tall and short respectively, not quite perfect numbers from the pocket book-perspective.  

But the Read Read isn’t going away, regardless of the campaign’s outcome. It’s a gap-closer, a game-changer, and a never perfect number panacea.  

Sam Benson Smith is a contributor to VentureFizz. Follow Sam on Twitter: @SamBensonSmith.