Future Reflections April 1982, Vol. 1 No. 3
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By: Barbara Cheadle
(Much of the following article is based upon information in the articles: BRAILLE: A BIRTHDAY LOOK AT ITS PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE by Jim Burns, and READING BY TOUCH by Donald Bell. Both articles are avilable free of charge from: The National Federation of the Blind, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, MD 21230.)
I remember when I, as a small schoolchild, learned about Braille. At the time, all I knew was that it had to do with reading raised dots with one's fingers and it was "how blind people read". I assumed that the shapes those dots formed were similar in shape to the letters we read visually. That is, as "A" in Braille dots would look very much like the print "A". In fact, of course, the Braille alphabet does not look like the print alphabet in any way. Unfortunately, this difference seems to be one of the basis for some of the negative myths about Braille.
Prior to the official acceptance of Braille, the common methods used to teach blind students to read were embossed, or raised letter systems. Sometimes the inventor of an embossed system would create a number of abbreviations to make reading a little easier and faster, but it was still a system based upon the shapes of the print alphabet. The problems with the various embossed systems were many. They were usually quite difficult to learn, many blind persons could never master them, and they were slow and cumbersome to read. One of the biggest draw-backs was the inability to write using this method. All materials had to be type-set, so the average blind person could not use it to write anything for himself, or to communicate with other blind persons.
Then, in 1825-1827, a young blind Frenchman, Louis Braille, introduced a system of reading for the blind that we know today as Braille. The system is fairly simple and logical. It is based upon the various combinations possible of the domino six. The six dots are, for teaching purposes, numbered 1-2-3 downwards in the left hand column and 4-5-6 downwards in the right hand column. Letter A is dot 1, B dots 1 and 2; C dots 1 and 4, and so on. Blind people who had the opportunity to learn it, found it easy to learn, easy and quick to read, and maybe best of all, a simple metal frame and puncher allowed them to write for the very first time!
Despite the advantages, Braille was slow to be accepted by schools for the blind. It was 1854, three years after Louis Braille's death, before his own alma mater officially adopted its use. It was 1860 before the first school for the blind in the U.S., the Missouri School for the Blind, was to officially use it. The delay in the use of a system that blind people themselves found easy to learn and were eager to use, came because of the resistance of the "old guard" ...sighted teachers who found it difficult to accept a system that did not look like the reading system th^y used. It seems that then, as now, the fact that Braille was "different" made it a prime target for accusations of being difficult to learn, slow to read and in short, inferior to print. According to Jim Burns in BRAILLE: A BIRTHDAY LOOK AT ITS PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE, "Braille was even criticized because it supposedly...set blind people apart from others. The fact that near illiteracy due to the failings of the preferred systems of embossing tended to set blind people apart from others was overlooked."
It is sometimes a difficult lesson to learn, but "different" does not necessarily mean inferior, or superior for that matter. It may seem to me, for example, that learning English with an alphabet of only 26 letters would be infinitely easier than learning Japanese, which has 1,850 characters. However, Japan has an illiteracy rate of only 2%; little more than the U.S. illiteracy rate of 1%, and comparable to Switzerland's 2% illiteracy rate. We could conclude from this that either the Japanese are inherently smarter than we (the current world economic situation does make one consider that possibility), or that we have underestimated the human ability to easily learn a variety of language and communication systems. I believe the last is true, and that we could apply the same principle to learning Braille.
To test a little of your own knowledge about Braille, see how you do on the following True-False questionaire.
1. The blind pre-schooler can and should be introduced to Braille just as their sighted play-mates are introduced to print.
2. A slate and stylus is a simple metal fram and a hand held "puncher" that blind people use to write Braille with. It serves the same function as a pen or pencil does to someone who is sighted.
3. Writing with a slate and stylus is slow, difficult and confusing for most children to learn.
4. Children with some usable vision will naturally prefer reading large print to using Braille.
5. Braille will eventually be totally replaced as technology provides us with new and better print-reading devices...talking machines, Optacons, etc.
1. True...Blind children are as curious and stimulated about learning letters and words as a sighted child is. Simple alphabet books, Braille blocks and Braille "flash-cards" are as interesting, entertaining and educational to the blind pre-schooler as their print counterparts are to the sighted child. Unfortunately, these pre-school toys are seldom available for purchase, but handmade ones work just as well. Twin-vision books (books with both print and Braille text) are good to use, too. (Ask pur State Library for the Blind about them, or contact the American Brotherhood for the Blind, 18440 Oxnard Street, Tarzana, CA 91356.)
2. True...A slate may come in various sizes, but the 3" x 5" and 2" x 9" are most common. The stylus is small and fits easily into the palm of the hand. It has all the advantages that a pen or pencil has...it fits easily into purse or pocket; is handy for all those necessary quick notes to oneself...writing down names, addresses, telephone numbers, telephone messages, making labels, etc. Not having or being able to use a slate and stylus is as much a disadvantage to a blind person as the lack of a pen or pencil would be to those with sight.
3. False...When the slate and stylus is introduced in the early grades and taught by skilled teachers, the child quickly masters it and finds it no more difficult to learn and use than say a sighted child who must master both print and cursive writing. Unfortunately, many blind children are now being deprived of an early, positive introduction to the slate and stylus. These children are truely "disadvantaged" and may never achieve the speed and skill that many blind adults of this generation, who learned its use at an early age, enjoy.
4. False...Children will prefer whatever they have been taught is most respectable and acceptable. The attitude of teachers, parents and others toward Braille will largely determine how the child will feel about using it. For example, two sisters who attended a mid-western residential school for the blind several years ago, were not scheduled to learn Braille because of their ability to read print with magnification. However, the sisters insisted they be taught Braille as well. Motivation? The sisters close friends were all Braille users and Braille notes and letters were an important part of their "secret club" and other childhood play. Fortunately, their parents supported them and the girls became proficient Braille readers. Later, in college, on the job, and in their personal and social lives, Braille proved very valuable to them. The sisters remain proficient Braille and print users.
5. False...Technology will replace Braille to the same extent that the invention of the printing press made pens and pencils obsolete and radio and television has replaced newspapers and books.
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