by Fredric K. Schroeder
From the Editor: NFB First Vice President and Virginia affiliate president Fred Schroeder delivered the following banquet address at the annual conference of the California Transcribers and Educators of the Visually Handicapped (CTEVH) on March 14, 2009. The occasion was the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the CTEVH, and Dr. Schroeder used this opportunity to summarize the history of access to Braille in the United States. This is what he said:
The American author Leo C. Rosten wrote, "I think the purpose of life is to be useful, to be responsible, to be honorable, to be compassionate. It is, after all, to matter: to count, to stand for something, to have made some difference that you lived at all." This evening we celebrate CTEVH's golden anniversary. We gather to celebrate fifty years of progress; fifty years of dedication, hard work, and sacrifice; fifty years of working together, combining our talent and training in support of blind people, children and adults, and their right to become educated, to be employed, not merely on society's fringe, not in the backwater of nonparticipation, not in isolation and dependency, but as fully engaged, productive members of society.
I believe it is fair to say that fifty years ago conditions for the blind were unimaginably bleak. Opportunities were severely limited and hope for a better life a far-off dream. Few blind children were educated in their neighborhood schools. Few blind adults had jobs. Education was in schools for the blind. Employment was in the sheltered workshops. The lives of the blind were characterized by poverty and segregation.
Yet there was no public outcry. Poverty and segregation were presumed to be the inevitable condition for blind people--people seen as so damaged, so limited that they could hope for nothing more in life than protection and care. And these were not just the beliefs of the uninformed, the casual observer; they were the views commonly held by the leading professionals of the day.
In the mid-1950s a well-known and respected educator wrote: "With many persons there was an expectation in the establishment of the early schools that the blind in general would thereby be rendered capable of earning their own support, a view that even at the present is shared in some quarters. It would have been much better if such a hope had never been entertained or, if it had existed, in a greatly modified form."
At about the same time a prominent rehabilitation agency director wrote: "After he is once trained and placed, the average disabled person can fend for himself. In the case of the blind, it has been found necessary to set up a special state service agency which will supply them not only rehabilitation training but other services for the rest of their lives. The agencies keep in constant contact with them as long as they live. So the blind are unique among the handicapped in that, no matter how well-adjusted, trained, and placed, they require lifelong supervision by the agencies."
Yet custodialism, isolation, and lost opportunities could not extinguish the human spirit--the spirit of blind people, supported and encouraged by others who shared their hope for a better life. But how could the dream of a better life be realized, take form, and become more than an unfulfilled yearning? As it happened, chance played a role, presenting an unanticipated strain on the system of schools for the blind and thereby opening the door to greater integration of blind children.
In the 1940s and 1950s premature babies were treated with high concentrations of oxygen, leading to thousands of children’s becoming blind from retrolental fibroplasia. Later the rubella epidemic of the 1960s led to a dramatic increase in the number of deaf-blind children. The nation's schools for the blind became overcrowded. As a result many blind children had to be integrated into the public schools. But how could the public schools hope to serve the blind?
Schools for the blind had shown that blind children could be educated. It naturally followed that blind children integrated into neighborhood schools could learn given the necessary services and supports. Resource rooms sprang up in large numbers; however, few trained teachers were available to meet the demand. In addition to a shortage of teachers, Braille materials were in short supply. Consequently, during this period many heretofore volunteer Braille transcribers found themselves hired as resource room teachers since they knew Braille and could prepare materials for their blind students.
The strain on the system was severe. In schools for the blind textbooks could be transcribed and shared year after year by many children. With the decentralization of blind children into public schools, the demand for Braille textbooks and other educational materials skyrocketed. It was impossible for printing houses to meet the need, making it necessary to transcribe massive amounts of materials by hand. During this same period Braille writers were hard to come by. It was not unusual for Braille writers to be backordered for a year or two or even longer. But the shortage of Braille writers did not stop teachers and transcribers from doing their best to meet the need. As incredible as it seems today, it was not uncommon for materials to be transcribed with a slate and stylus. And it was difficult to share hand-transcribed Braille. The only available technology for copying Braille was the thermoform machine, which reproduced Braille one sheet at a time, a slow and cumbersome process, but considered a blessing at the time.
During this period it was assumed that blind children would learn to read and write Braille. Of course then as now most blind children had some remaining vision; yet Braille was their presumed reading medium. I suspect this had less to do with pedagogy and more to do with the state of technology at that time. Large print was difficult to produce and expensive, but new technologies were just around the corner.
By the late 1960s handheld magnifiers made it possible for many low-vision children to use print for the first time. By the 1970s, low vision technology had come into its own with the introduction of the closed circuit television video magnifier. The emphasis on low-vision technology seemed to provide the ideal solution to meeting the educational needs of the nation's blind children. Low-vision technology obviated the need for time-consuming hand transcription of materials into Braille. It also made it possible for low-vision children to have immediate access to the same materials as their fully sighted classmates. Educators also believed that reading print was less stigmatizing, less isolating than reading Braille and consequently fostered greater social integration.
As we now know, in spite of our best intentions many low-vision children who functioned well with print in early elementary school found it increasingly difficult to meet the reading demands of middle and high school. But what to do? Pandora’s box was wide open. The clock could not be turned back. By the 1980s the infrastructure was gone. Integration had become institutionalized and with it the model of itinerant teachers traveling from school to school, trying to provide services to too many children with too little time. To compound the problem, an entire generation of teachers had been trained to believe in the primacy of print, the superiority of low-vision technology; and blind children paid the price.
In 1989 the Committee on Joint Organizational Effort (JOE), representing America's leading blindness organizations, spoke out against the alarming decline in Braille literacy. The JOE Committee called on the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) of the Library of Congress to develop a test that could be used to ensure that teachers of blind children really knew Braille. NLS created the test; however, after experiencing technical problems during the final development stage, they did not release it for general use. Yet the need for a Braille competency test persisted. Four years ago NLS asked the National Federation of the Blind to convene a committee representing blind adults, educators, Braille transcribers, and others to complete the competency test; and today the test, known as National Certification in Literary Braille, is becoming increasingly available across the nation.
Nothing is more fundamental, more essential to a child's education or an adult's employment, than literacy; yet literacy is more than the mechanical ability to read and write. Braille enables us to read but not simply for the purpose of helping us while away our otherwise empty hours, not simply to occupy us in our lonely isolation. The ability to read and write Braille efficiently is the key to education, employment, and social integration for the blind. Yet, despite its unquestionable value, today only 10 percent of blind children in the United States are learning to read and write Braille. Is it any wonder that fewer than half of all blind children will graduate from high school or that seven of ten blind adults are unemployed? Are poverty and isolation the inevitable consequence of blindness or the by-product of functional illiteracy? So what can be done? How can we ensure that today's blind children will be prepared to face the academic rigors of higher education and the increasingly technical demands of the workplace?
On March 26, 2009, the United States Mint will release four hundred thousand silver dollars commemorating the bicentenary of the birth of Louis Braille. The Louis Braille Commemorative Coin will have the word "Braille" on it in beautiful, tactilely perfect Braille. The coin will bring attention to the importance of Braille, and it will do more. The Mint will add $10 to the cost of each coin sold, generating $4 million to support Braille literacy. These funds will be given to the National Federation of the Blind, which in turn will raise $4 million in matching funds, making a total of $8 million available to support the most aggressive, far-reaching Braille literacy effort in history. The goal of the campaign is to double the number of Braille readers by the year 2015.
Blind children need to be literate. They need to be able to read and write on a level commensurate with that of their sighted peers. This should be, must be, the standard. We know that Braille makes this possible. We know that Braille readers taught from childhood are able to read fluently and efficiently, irrespective of lighting conditions, with no cumbersome technology or fear of eye strain. Said more plainly, literacy--true literacy--must be the standard, and Braille must be the default, the presumed reading medium for blind children. Of course some blind children have enough vision to use print well, but we must not pretend that they are the norm in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. We must not bury our heads in the sand, must not pretend that it is just a very few low-vision children who fall through the cracks and end up functionally illiterate. We must end the practice of having low-vision children struggle to use print, compromising efficiency and relegating them to substandard performance--substandard lives--allowing them to get by when we know they can do more, when we know that Braille will give them true literacy.
California Transcribers and Educators of the Visually Handicapped was founded in 1959. In that year we joined our skills, our knowledge and experience, our imagination and commitment to meet the challenges brought about by the overcrowding of the schools for the blind. It was not easy. We faced many obstacles, but we did it. We found ways to meet the educational needs of blind children integrated in large numbers into the public schools. We did it without enough teachers, without enough transcribers, without enough Braille writers, without today's technology. We did it because we knew it was needed and because we knew it was right. We did it without fanfare and without the need for recognition or acclaim. We did it. We found ways to make it work.
Today we face a new challenge. Only ten percent of blind children are learning to read and write Braille. To change this condition, to make a real difference will take concerted effort on the part of us all. It is a daunting task but no more so than the challenge CTEVH's founders faced fifty years ago.
This is why we have dedicated ourselves--transcribers, resource room and itinerant teachers, paraprofessionals, orientation and mobility specialists, rehabilitation counselors, counselor-teachers, school and agency administrators, librarians, parents, blind adults, and others--to give blind children the gift of literacy, the ability to read and write, and by so doing give them the opportunity to live normal, productive, integrated lives and the self-respect and dignity that come with full participation.
In the words of Leo Rosten: "The purpose of life is to...matter: to count, to stand for something, to have made some difference that you lived at all." CTEVH's founders made a difference and so have all who followed, including all of us in this room this evening. It is our history, it is our present-day responsibility, and it will be our legacy: "to be useful, to be responsible, to be honorable, to be compassionate...to matter: to count, to stand for something, to have made some difference."
Note: Dr. Ruby Ryles has provided data from her research that illustrate the dismaying decrease in Braille instruction between 1963 and 1993. Unfortunately we have little reason to hope that the pattern has changed in the years since 1993.
1963: 57 percent of students read Braille, 43 percent read print, and 1/10th of 1 percent (.012 percent) were nonreaders. 1973: 28 percent of students read Braille, 48 percent read print, and 20 percent were nonreaders.
1983: 15 percent of students read Braille, 32 percent read print, and 49 percent were nonreaders.
1993: 10 percent of students read Braille, 27 percent read print, 9 percent were auditory learners, 23 percent were pre-readers, and 31 percent were nonreaders.