Braille Monitor March 1985
by Mary Ellen Reihing
There are some magazines which are better left unread because they print material which would have been better left unwritten. The Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, as it pretentiously calls itself, is a classic example of a periodical with no redeeming social value. In fact, it often prints material which has devastating implications for blind people.
The September, 1984, issue of the Journal contains an article entitled "How Useful is Braille? Reports of Blind Adults," by Katherine Mack. It is a classic example of the misuse of social scientific methodology to support spurious conclusions.
Ms. Mack begins by describing Braille as "a complicated system of raised dots" which has been taught to "blind students unable to see print" since there are "no practical alternatives to Braille for these students." Then, she gives a token nod (one paragraph) to the advantages of Braille and proceeds to spend several pages discussing its drawbacks. She tells us that it is ambiguous, bulky, and difficult to scan. She says that the use of contractions means Braille readers are notoriously poor spellers and that we are condemned forever to slowness and inefficiency. But she can state her case quite adequately. She says in part:
"Certain kinds of reading, like long, college-level assignments, simply could not be completed if one had to depend on Braille. . .We now have some viable alternatives to Braille: computers with voice outputs, talking calculators, speech synthesizers, speech compressors, Optacons, tapes, etc. . . .The relatively low cost of speech access to computers and the increasing recognition of listening is possibly the most viable learning mode for educational programs with visually handicapped students (Wood, 1984) suggests that Braille may be taught and depended on less in the future."
Ms. Mack was a teacher of blind students in California. She wanted to know how much blind adults really use Braille and decided to ask blind people about it. On the surface this sounds like a very good thing. Federationists have always said that professionals in the field should consult with the blind about matters affecting us. But Ms. Mack had other ideas. The answer to her research was already implied in the question she posed. She asked: "How much Braille exposure, practice, and dependence is really necessary for visually handicapped students today?"
Given that frame of reference, the deck was stacked; the dice were loaded; and the outcome was clear. Ms. Mack could have written her conclusions--in fact, she would have found it easier to do so--without ever talking to a single blind person.
Ms. Mack conducted telephone interviews with thirty blind adults who had read Braille for at least five years in school. After getting necessary background information, she asked questions about their daily use of Braille. She wanted to know about letter writing, keeping checkbook and other financial data, reading books and magazines, reading work related materials, and keeping telephone numbers and recipes. Ninety seven percent of the people questioned said that they use Braille for recording phone numbers, addresses, and similar memoranda. More people used Braille than any other method for keeping checkbook records. One-third of the people who read work related material use Braille to do it. This is a surprisingly high percentage given the limited amount of Braille available. More people seem to prefer to read books on talking book, though many who use recorded books prefer Braille magazines. Thirty percent of the people questioned said that they use Braille almost always. Twenty percent said they use it rarely. Most people said that they use it occasionally and /or frequently. Altogether, the group mentioned thirteen" advantages and five disadvantages of using Braille.
The results are there for all to see. Blind adults use Braille in a variety of ways. It is clearly a viable and valuable tool.
The truth, like beauty, is in the mind of the beholder. At least that is what one must conclude after reading Ms. Mack's analysis of the survey findings. But let her speak for herself. "This (the survey results) has significant implications for the education of our children who are unable to see print. Clearly they should be taught sufficient Braille skills so they have the option as adults to use it for reading and writing. However, it should be recognized by educators that their blind students will probably not choose Braille as their primary mode for reading and writing after they finish school. Therefore, in addition to teaching Braille skills, other skills should be given equal, if not more, attention."
What a strange analysis! Since blind adults do not use Braille for everything, educators can relax their Braille standards and present Braille to us as an "option." It could be argued with equal vehemence that, since sighted students spend more time watching television than reading books, television watching skills should be emphasized in lieu of print reading.
There can be no doubt that it is important for blind people to learn how to type, supervise readers, use tape recordings, and operate microcomputers and other electronic devices. All of those skills are important tools for increasing the flexibility of blind adults. But it is thoroughly unreasonable to deemphasize Braille, our most basic tool.
The tone set in our classrooms will shape the attitudes and behavior of the next generation. If Braille is taught as an inferior option, we may see a generation of blind adults who can use sophisticated talking calculators but who are unable to write down the results of the calculations.
Perhaps we would do well to as*, learned professionals to function for a time in the way they advocate we function. Ask them to rely for one week on readers, tapes, computers, and calcu- experiment with a better understanding lators. Take away their pencils and their typewriters since these devices serve the same function for the sighted as slates and Braillers serve for blind people. Perhaps educators would end the of the real worth of Braille. They might find it difficult to write journal articles. That in itself might be a significant service to blind Americans.