The Braille Monitor                                                                                         July, 2002

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From the Editor's Mailbox

Jerry Whittle's article "Read Until You Bleed" in the April 2002 issue has generated a good bit of comment. Some people have found it encouraging, while others have complained that it makes learning Braille as an adult sound too difficult. Everyone who has made comments to me has agreed that the rehabilitation professionals who discourage adults from attempting Braille on the grounds that mastering the code will be too difficult should be denied permission to read or write print visually for a year to see how well they get along communicating and managing their lives using tape and speech-access only.

I become more convinced every day that learning to read well as a young child is key to successful mastery of Braille as an adult. I certainly understand that learning Braille during the formative years is the best of all methods of mastering the code, but I suspect that those of us who never saw efficiently enough to learn to read print well as children have a harder time achieving reading speed in Braille as adult learners than those who once read print efficiently.

Clearly research must be undertaken in order to discover how best to assist those who are attempting to make the most of the Braille instruction they are now receiving as adults. As further encouragement to this group of would-be Braille readers, here is a letter I recently received. Heather Peterson wrote to contribute her personal experience and perspective to the conversation. This is what she says:

Dear Editor,

Jerry Whittle's helpful article in the April Monitor on Braille literacy for adults reminds me that, since I became visually impaired last year, I've run across two statements over and over, both here and in other publications for the blind. I'm afraid I don't have the extensive experience that most of the people who make these statements have since I have not worked with other blind people, but may I offer my personal perspective?

The first statement often made is, "Learning Braille as an adult is exceedingly difficult." The more optimistic‑minded members of the blind community go on to add, "But it can be done."

I had this statement made to me so many times before I started to learn Braille that I approached the task with terror, all the more so because I have a long history of being poor at learning languages. It was thus a pleasant shock for me when I discovered that I was able to teach myself Braille I in the space of two months (it took me that long only because I had a hard time locating the proper materials) and Braille II in the space of two weeks. Naturally my reading speed was quite slow at the beginning, but I found learning Braille to be much easier than any skill I ever learned in school. By contrast the penmanship I learned in elementary school was a much bigger challenge.

I'm not sure why Braille is thought to be such a difficult form of writing to learn; I suspect it may be because some students are asked to memorize every rule of Braille before they get to the point of being allowed to read texts. This method of teaching works quite well for students with a methodical frame of mind, but some of us learn better under the immersion method that has been so successful in teaching foreign languages: learning a minimum of rules and then plunging into the text and learning the remainder of the rules as time goes by. I don't know how commonly this method is used in teaching Braille; I certainly hope that it's offered as an alternative to students.

The second statement often made, usually by implication, is, "Braille literacy consists of reading Braille fast." Could I offer a revised form of that statement? I would like to suggest that Braille literacy consists of reading Braille at the speed that is most helpful to the individual.

When I was in elementary school, I encountered a tale about a prisoner of war who was allowed to take only one book into prison with him, so he read the book at a rate of one sentence per day. I envied him. Already at that age I had become a compulsive speed‑reader, and the problem increased over the years; by the time I lost the ability to read print last year, I was utterly incapable of reading any book, even a book I much loved, without skimming it. Since I'm a freelance writer and hone my skills by careful reading, this compulsive skimming had a detrimental effect on my career.

Learning Braille was therefore a wonderful breakthrough for me and for my professional life. For the first time in my life I have been forced to read books slowly, savoring the contents. As it happens, I'm fortunate enough to have acquired the ability during this past year to read limited amounts of large print, so I now have two alternatives: to read quickly with my eyes or to read slowly with my fingers. I certainly prefer to read with my eyes when skimming material such as index pages. But given a choice between reading a novel in print and reading it in Braille, I prefer to read it in Braille.

I don't want to suggest that my circumstances are typical. But I do want to suggest that, in encouraging students to learn to read fast, the Braille community should not lose sight of the fact that slow reading may sometimes be preferable, depending on the circumstances faced by the student. When I was in high school, we were taught that dialect is not inferior to Standard English but that a person should reserve dialect for appropriate circumstances, such as informal dialogue. Likewise, I hope that teachers of Braille will not forget to tell their students, "Learn to read quickly so that you can do so when you need to, but don't be afraid to read slowly if you want to."

I would like to end this letter by saying I am grateful that I was initially unable to read large print, because otherwise I might never have had the incentive to learn Braille. I strongly agree with members of the blind community who argue that people with low vision should be offered the opportunity to learn Braille; my own life is richer because I was given that opportunity.

Yours truly,

Heather Peterson

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