Braille Monitor                                                                             August-September 1986

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Braille Still Fights for Survival

by Joyce Scanlan

This article appeared in the Spring, 1985, issue of Blindside, a publication distributed to the general public by the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota. Strange as it may seem, Braille is a controversial subject. There are those who say (and, moreover, actually believe) that Braille can only be read at something under a hundred words per minute. Some believe that Braille should only be taught as a last resort and that, if at all possible. print should be used, even if the individual has such limited sight that & reading speed of twenty or thirty words per minute is all that can be achieved. Some advocate the use of recorded material as the primary medium of reading for the blind with Braille as a backup for addresses, telephone numbers, etc. Others believe that Braille should be stressed and that it is a mistake for it to be deemphasized.

Joyce Scanlan's views (as expressed in this article) are bound to be controversial. Some will wholeheartedly endorse them; others will agree with part of them; and still others will reject them altogether. Be this as it may, her views deserve serious thought and careful attention. For many purposes and situations there is no adequate substitute for Braille. Here is what Joyce says:

Your child has entered school and is learning to read. Reading is taught for one-half hour per week by a teacher whose reading speed is between ten and twenty words per minute. The teacher constantly remarks, "Reading print is so difficult, slow, and inefficient; it's also very bulky, and students will never use it very much." Under these conditions, do you believe your child would ever read print very well?

This is precisely the situation in which many blind students find themselves today. They have Braille reading class for one-half hour a week from a teacher who not only cannot read and write Braille with proficiency, but also is convinced that Braille cannot be useful as a means of written communication. The obvious result is that many blind children and adults are functionally illiterate.

Developed by Louis Braille in 1825, the Braille system has been on an uphill struggle for acceptance ever since. A system of embossed dots which are identified by touch, Braille is heartily ^claimed by those blind people who have portive instructors.

Much can be said in defense of Braille: It is basically simple--all symbols are formed through different combinations of six dots. The six-dot cell is arranged like the 6-card in a deck of cards. The dots can be numbered as one, two, and three down the first side of the cell and four, five, and six down the second side of the cell.

Print consists of a whole set of capital letters and another set of lowercase letters. Not so with Braille. Small letters become capitals when a dot six precedes the letter. In print, one must deal with a different style of handwriting for every individual. In Braille, all people write exactly the same; all are restricted to the same six-dot cell with the same combinations of dots for each letter or symbol. One more advantage to Braille: When you write something and want to cross it out, you can--and no one will be able to read what you first wrote! All you do is fill in all six dits in every cell, and your original error is hidden forever.

Knowing Braille allows one to take down messages, telephone numbers, recipes, and classroom notes without assistance from another person. Compared with taking down information with a cassette recorder, Braille is much more efficient. For reading a book or magazine, Braille readily reveals the spellings of words, punctuation, and the beginnings and endings of sentences and paragraphs--all difficult to learn from listening to tapes or another person reading. Compared to obtaining information by listening to a speech synthesizer, which is not very easily understood, Braille can be used quietly and in the privacy of one's own home or office. Braille can be read in the dark; print cannot.

Why should it be necessary for Braille to be defended? Why must parents of blind children and those of us who are blind adults fight for the right to read and write Braille?

The ultimate putdown used by special educators and rehabilitation teachers of the blind is that Braille sets the blind apart from the sighted. It is so different in configuration from print that sighted people find it difficult to read with their eyes. Well, Braille wasn't meant to be read with the eyes, and what can set blind people more apart from the sighted than functional illiteracy?

In order to increase the awareness and the availability of Braille, blind people have organized the National Association to Promote the Use of Braille (NAPUB). We intend to reverse the downward spiral of less use, less availability, and higher cost of Braille so that more blind people will use Braille, more Braille will be available, and the cost of producing Braille per unit will go down. We know that Braille is a viable communication tool for blind people, and we insist that educators and rehabilitation professionals seize the opportunity to make Braille more available. If these professionals were to maintain contact with the National Federation of the Blind, they would know quite easily how meaningful Braille is to blind individuals in their personal. lives and in their various areas of employment. Sighted people see information to read and have a need to write at every turn. Why should the blind be excluded from the opportunity to participate and to obtain information?

Braille is essential to the lives of blind people. We must have Braille to overthrow ignorance and illiteracy. We can take away tapes, discs, computers, and all the other fandangled technological devices, and we will survive; but without Braille, we really will be left handicapped. While there is some valuable new technology available to blind people, none of it can replace Braille. No blind person who wants to operate with independence and competence can function without some use of Braille. The battle to save Braille has reached crisis proportions. With the help of NAPUB and our many friends and supporters around the country, we should be able to reverse the trend toward illiteracy we are seeing in the upcoming generation of blind citizens. But it will take large- scale efforts to undo the damage of special education teachers and their destructive approach to Braille. If we must, we will replace special education professionals with a whole new staff of teachers who truly are committed to providing blind people with an education equal to that provided to the sighted. A major challenge, but necessary for our survival.