The Braille Monitor                                                                                       January 2003

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Getting the Words Down in Braille

by Bill Kaufman

Sheila Amato
Sheila Amato

From the Editor: The following story is only the latest of several that have appeared informing the world about an exciting, and thus far unique, course being taught at East Islip High School in New York. It is a two-year Braille transcription course conducted by Dr. Sheila Amato, a truly dedicated professional in the blindness field and a real Braille enthusiast. In an era painfully short of good Braille transcribers, Dr. Amato set out to provide high school students the opportunity to acquire highly prized job skills in Braille transcription and at the same time to educate young people about the wonders of this elegant code.

This story appeared on November 17, 2002, on <newsday.com>, a Web publication associated with the Newsday publications. Here it is:

With the goal of providing the blind access to a wider scope of learning materials, students at East Islip High School are enrolled in a course in literary Braille transcription, believed to be the only such high school program in the nation. Literary transcription refers to transcription of books versus other materials such as brochures or signs. The course, which is being taught by its originator, Sheila Amato, focuses not only on the long-used mechanical Braille-writing machine but on emerging technology using computers and special printers to transcribe material into the traditional system of touch‑sensed symbols. Amato explained that there's a shortage of Braille transcribers to produce textbooks, and "many schools are not able to obtain the increasingly wide variety of new textbooks they need."

"In addition to learning the Braille code, students in this course are being exposed to the college and vocational opportunities that are available to them upon high school graduation," said Amato, who was brought in for the course and holds a doctorate in blindness and visual impairment education from Columbia University.

The elective full‑credit high school course runs for a school year, with a follow‑up year in advanced Braille transcription available. Currently fifteen students at the high school, all sighted except one, are enrolled in the course. Amato said she designed it not only to offer transcription training "but also the opportunity to learn about people who are blind and to develop a level of comfort with them and respect for their capabilities."

Students who complete the advanced course can go on to receive certification from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, which will boost their chances of finding a job in the field.

Mary Ann Siller, co‑chairwoman of national education programs of the nonprofit American Foundation for the Blind in Dallas, said the East Islip course is "as far as I know, the only one being taught in a high school for credit."

Siller added that her organization has teamed up with Verizon in a three‑year campaign "that promotes the new career, Braille textbook transcriber, at the federal and state levels and raises general awareness of the needs of blind and low‑vision schoolchildren for timely access of textbooks and learning materials."

The course has attracted national attention. Recently Barbara MacNeil, program manager for students with vision impairments of San Diego's public schools, visited East Islip to observe the training. She said that her school system plans to implement a similar program next year.

A transcribing student, Michael Conlon, nineteen, who is blind and hearing impaired, said in a typed note that he learned Braille when he was four years old, "just like the other children in my class who were learning print." A junior, he said he enjoys reading books in Braille, "especially adventure stories or stories about animals," adding, "I try to read a chapter in my book every night before I go to sleep." Conlon does all his homework in Braille, "and I hardly make a mistake," he noted. He's attending the course to keep abreast of developments for the blind.

Another student, Erica Zampardi, sixteen, a junior, said via a typed message, "I took this class because I'm deaf and am friends with a boy who is blind. I want to learn about their culture."

Some of the students take the class for sheer pleasure. "I love Braille," said Shannon Brew, sixteen, a junior. "My favorite part of the day is Braille and sign language classes. I go home and show my family, and they are so proud. It's amazing, and I'm so happy I'm learning it."

Schools Superintendent Michael Capozzi hailed the two-year curriculum developed by Amato. He said she has "created a wonderful environment for children to learn Braille transcription. This is a tremendous opportunity for our students to learn a world-class skill."

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