The Braille Monitor                                                                                       November 2002

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Just Saying No to Reading Braille

(Part One)

by Sheri Wells Jensen

From the Editor: Dr. Sheri Wells Jensen teaches in the English as a Second Language Department at Bowling Green University in Ohio. She is interested in psycholinguistics and language preservation. As a Braille user herself she thought that Braille Monitor readers would be interested in her observations and reflections on Braille literacy from a somewhat unusual perspective. This is what she says:

Growing up in the Midwest in a middle-class home, I took reading for granted. Everyone around me read. My girlfriends read love stories; my brothers read dopey boys' stuff like motorcycle and car magazines; my father read the newspaper; my mother read everything (lots of it out loud to me); and I read all the science fiction I could get my fingers on. The fact that my books were larger than theirs simply meant I had more trouble climbing the maple tree in our front yard while carrying one of mine.

Learning to read was neither optional nor especially interesting. It was just a thing you did as part of the natural order, like learning to ride a bike or to cross the street. It was so woven into the fabric of my culture that as a youngster I never imagined there were people in the world who could not read at all. When I did find that out (probably sometime in late elementary school) I had trouble imagining how exactly you could manage a happy, efficient life without writing things down and reading things other people had written for you. I could never have imagined deliberately choosing illiteracy, but this is exactly what I found more than once after graduating from college. It was a shock that took me a while to get over.

Undergraduate diploma in hand, I went off to join the Peace Corps. After the initial three months of training, I was thrilled to find myself in a tropical coastal city (a twenty-five-minute, hair‑raising bus ride from the best beaches you could ever imagine), working at a small girls' high school. Since many of these young women were the first in their families to get a high school education, they were eager students. They were being trained to take their places in the emerging Ecuadorian middle class and would probably get jobs as secretaries or clerical workers of some sort in small businesses. They'd make enough money to live comfortably in the city. One or two of them might even go on to college. For many of their families it was like a dream coming slowly true around them.

My job was to teach them enough English to answer a telephone, take simple messages, make an appointment, or at least apologize nicely for not being able to do these things and then pass the call along to someone who could. It was good work but not wildly exciting. So I was delighted a few months later to find that we would be putting English lessons on hold for a while in order to participate in a national literacy campaign.

The implementation of the campaign struck me as tremendously clever. It took advantage of the enthusiasm and energy of students like my girls, children of the relatively wealthy. Although poor by U.S. standards, the young women at my school had enormous advantages by local standards. After all, they were well fed and secure and were going to graduate from high school in a country where many country people (campesinos) never made it past grade school.

All high school students in the country were placed in pairs. The government plan specified that each pair be matched with a campesino who could not read. In order to earn that prized high school diploma, they would teach this person to read and write, sharing their knowledge, passing on the gift of literacy.

The high school students were trained in the basics of reading instruction and sent on their way. My girls joined the campaign with a particular mission. I had taught them the basics of Braille and techniques for getting started, and they were matched with blind campesinos. Except for the fact that they were teaching Braille, our girls received the same training as the other high school students.

It was person-to-person, Ecuadorian-to-Ecuadorian, making connections across class and lifestyle. I thought the plan was brilliant, and I sent my girls out with high hopes.

Then I heard a disturbing story. It seems that a pair of high schoolers (mercifully not mine), armed with their picture books and alphabet cards, went out into the countryside to meet their assigned campesino. Most likely they'd had to travel for an hour or more on a jouncing, jolting, open bus, hanging on for their lives as the driver gambled his way along the hills on the less‑than‑adequate roads. They probably arrived hot, dusty, and tired. Then they were introduced to their campesino as planned. They were told that the farmer would be happy to learn to read. He was ready to start right away. He was eager. He'd be delighted, in fact, assuming the kids would pay him. He was willing to accept payment in cash or in chickens, but he did expect to be fairly reimbursed for his time.

Yes, you read that right. The illiterate campesino was charging for his services as student. You might think of it as sort of a reverse tuition. If the privileged city kids wanted to graduate from high school, he figured they'd fork over the money straight away.

As you might imagine, I was appalled. I started making a list of names I would like to call the campesino if we ever met: crass . . . ill‑mannered.... mercenary . . . I stopped making the list when I got to the word "ungrateful." I'd certainly heard that one before. It forced me to consider the situation with more care. What was up with this guy?

Campesinos are smart. They may not have formal education, but they know the land in all its phases and seasons. They have a savvy survivor's grasp of economics too. They know what to plant and how to sell it and how much they need to produce to feed their families. And they work hard. Their land is relatively poor and their equipment meager. They make up for this with sheer investment of sweat. They are rightfully proud too. At the end of each day they see what they have accomplished and know their children will eat. Still, why would such a person be indifferent to the gifts of literacy?

There are several reasons. First, his realistic grasp on reality tells him that he has no immediate use for such things. He has no letters to write, no books to keep, and no street signs to read. He gets the news he needs from passersby or from the radio. There is no public library from which he can check out books. If he had money for books, he has nowhere to buy them in his little village. He doesn't need to keep a calendar; his schedule is not that tight, and he can keep track of the birthdays or religious festivals important to him. In a small village everyone knows everyone else's business; if he forgets something, his uncle or sister or neighbor will remind him. He doesn't have to read recipes; he knows how to cook the simple food his family eats. There is no need for academic work or note taking. If he wants to write a poem or a story, he simply makes it up and tells it to someone. If he or his audience remembers it, it was a good story, and it will be told and retold.

Second, he has a real appreciation of his free time. After a hard day of work, he wants a cool drink and a hammock to stretch out in. He wants to spend time joking with family and neighbors, catching up on the day's events, playing with his children, enjoying the sunset, or staring out across the ocean or up into the mountains. Why would he want to use this precious time learning to read when he feels no need for it? His life is complete and satisfying.

Finally, in his village there is no social expectation that he learn to read—no stigma for illiteracy. He is not ashamed of not reading. It would be like you feeling ashamed that you cannot ride a unicycle. You might grant that unicycle riding would be interesting, but you probably don't feel bad that you can't do it: nobody else does, after all. I could point out to you that there are hundreds of jobs in circuses for good unicycle riders and that you could entertain yourself and your family, but you're still not going to dash out and sign up for lessons even if they're free. On the other hand, if I (for my own twisted reasons) want to pay you to be my unicycle student, why not? You probably aren't vehemently opposed to the idea, just indifferent.

As an educated middle-class American, it took me a while to get used to this idea. But, when I finally began to be truly comfortable with the fact that not everybody wants what we think they should want, many things about living in Ecuador began to make more sense to me.

A few years after I returned from Ecuador, I was reminded of this experience by a conversation with a friend. I was talking to him about why as a blind person he should learn to read Braille. Like the farmer he simply did not feel any lack. His affairs were in order and his life full and productive. From my perspective I could clearly see how his circumstances would be improved by learning to read, but he did not and does not live in my world.

I began to think about Braille literacy campaigns in a new way after that. I wanted to find out how a person lives so that Braille is not missed and what perceptions, assumptions, and coping techniques make it seem reasonable to go without reading. I thought, and think still, that understanding these things would make it easier for us to promote Braille to nonreaders.

In an attempt to find these things out, I spent a few months of spare time talking with readers and nonreaders alike. I learned some very interesting things. What they are and what implications they have for Braille literacy will appear in part two of this article.

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