Jerry Whittle reads Braille
   Jerry Whittle reads Braille

The Vitality of Braille

by Jerry Whittle

From the Editor: Jerry Whittle is the Braille instructor at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, one of the NFB's adult rehabilitation centers. We are often told that, unless a person learns Braille as a young child, he or she will never find it a useful tool because impressive speed and accuracy are impossible to master. Certainly the speed one can achieve as an adult learner depends on many things: the time devoted to practice, the degree of sensation in one's fingers, and the determination one brings to the task, among others. But whether or not one reads quickly, Braille is an important skill to master. Here is Jerry Whittle's article about the importance of Braille at the Louisiana Center:

One afternoon Marilyn Whittle, an instructor at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, happened to glance out the window and saw Dr. and Mrs. Jernigan getting out of a van and approaching the front door of the center. She quickly called Center Director Joanne Wilson and excitedly told her that Dr. Jernigan was in the parking lot. At first Joanne thought Marilyn was teasing her but quickly realized that it was true. Dr. and Mrs. Jernigan were on their way to Dallas that year to make hotel arrangements for the forthcoming national convention and decided to stop in Ruston to visit our students and staff. Joanne informed the instructors what was happening, and much bustling took place—loose papers snatched up and hidden away and last-second cleaning done.

Dr. Jernigan toured the center that day and conducted a seminar with the students—one that none of us will ever forget. During the tour of the library and the Braille room, one of the staff members noticed that Dr. Jernigan had his hand behind him reading titles as the tour proceeded. Later he told us, "You are doing the right thing here at the center. You should surround your students with Braille books. That's what we did in Iowa, and I am glad to see that you are doing the same thing here. Every time a student turns around, he or she should find books in plentiful supply." Dr. Jernigan's belief in the importance of Braille literacy and his supreme efforts to build and establish libraries throughout the nation should be impetus enough for all of us to follow his example and promote Braille among our blind peers.

When we first opened the Louisiana Center for the Blind in 1985, we had no Braille library, and we had a single, rough-hewn bookshelf. We quickly acquired a Braille Bible and purchased a Braille copy of Shakespeare's King Lear, a fine start to a good library. We continued to add more books, particularly NFB literature.

We placed a wooden box in the Braille room, and many people contributed quarters and dollars to the box for the purchase of books, including a cash contribution by Dr. Jernigan on his visit to the room. Many books have been purchased or contributed by former students, and the library has steadily grown. Now we have over 1,500 titles in the library on just about every subject imaginable. These books have played a large role in the promotion of Braille and its instruction and mastery.

Our large collection of books helps the center in many ways. For example, many students who come to the center are encouraged to work harder to learn the Braille code so that they can begin to read the books surrounding them. On more than one occasion we have heard a student say, "When I finish the code I want to read this book," or "I cannot wait to finish the code so I can begin reading a book." Another important way the collection has helped is the Braille instructor's ready access to many books, enabling him to find interesting books for each student. Even though we love our state library, it would be difficult to rely on it since it takes a few days to receive a book. Moreover, suppose a student does not like the book he or she has selected to read. With a large, readily accessible Braille library at hand the instructor can substitute other titles until the appropriate book is found. As a result the student will read more because he or she likes the book. It is also good to have two copies of some titles so that an instructor can read along with a beginning student until the student develops the competency to read without assistance.

Our center library adds a strong feeling of the importance of Braille as a chief ingredient in the success of our students. By surrounding them with Braille books, we convey our conviction that Braille is an integral part of our teaching philosophy and that Braille literacy truly plays an essential role in the success of any blind student for future employment and for personal enrichment and independence. In other words, by the very presence of so many titles our library makes a statement and serves as an incentive to strive harder to acquire a vitally important skill.

Dr. Jernigan built huge Braille libraries wherever he went, and his love for books has been passed to all of us through his words and actions. His energy and passion for literacy among the nation's blind set in motion the individual Braille bills in more than half the states and promoted the strong language in the Braille amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Through his guidance all of us can look to the National Center for the Blind as a Mecca for Braille literacy and technology. By following his example in the promotion of Braille libraries and literacy among the nation's blind, we can help reach his dream of first-class citizenship for all blind people. Without the ability to read and write, this goal will be virtually impossible to attain.