Future Reflections July 1982, Vol. 1 No. 4
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By Ramona Walhof
Parents of preschool children are often surprised at how early their child learns to identify numbers and letters. It is not unusual for a child of two-and-a-half or three to be able to say the alphabet and identify all of the letters by sight. Of course, children who cannot do this are neither slow nor abnormal. Nevertheless, sighted children are exposed to enough print that they absorb knowledge about letters and numbers very young. My son said the word "exit" as one of his first words, and he knew where the exit sign was in church. And yes, he also knew the four letters in the word. Some children are reading words by age three or four. Kindergarten teachers tell us that in each class very few children can really read, but the majority can identify most letters, many sounds, and some words.
Blind children who start to school rarely have had the kind of exposure to Braille that their sighted peers have had to print. Reading and writing Braille need not be a disadvantage, for Braille can be read and written rapidly. It is a disadvantage to get a late start. And it is possible to help your child avoid this.
Of course, it is necessary to talk to your child about blindness, just as you talk to him or her about other things. A blind child will enjoy having stories read aloud, just as a sighted child will-some early, some late. But the blind child will also know that he or she cannot read the books that others read. It is important that Braille books be available to the blind child as soon as he or she expresses an interest in books. The American Brotherhood for the Blind produces and lends a series of books for small children called Twin Vision Books. These books contain the entire print text (including pictures) and the entire text in Braille. The Braille pages are bound into the book next to the print pages that say the same things. Long before a blind child is able to identify Braille letters or words, he or she needs to be aware of Braille books and to know that some day reading them will be possible. It is especially desirable for the blind child to be able to anticipate reading the same books that mother and dad read aloud. Parents and teachers of blind children may borrow Twin Vision Books by writing to the American Brotherhood for the Blind, 18440 Oxnard Street, Tarzana, California 91356. You can also borrow Braille books from the regional library for the blind in your state. If you do not know its address, you may write for this information to National Federation of the Blind Headquarters at 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230.
Besides knowing about Braille, there are other games and activities that help a child develop good use of his fingers and reading readiness for Braille. Talk about the way things feel and the differences beteen them. A velvet bedspread is softer when you run your hand one way and rougher when you run your hand the other way. This is so whether or not the child knows the concept "nap of the material". Paint on a door is smooth. Painted plaster may be rough. Wallpaper feels different altogether. Blocks can be covered with different textures and matched together, just as sighted children learn to choose which shape is "not like the others" on Sesame Street. You can make designs on heavy paper by placing it on top of a screen and drawing with a pointed scratch-all or Braille stylus. This will make raised dotted lines on the underside of the page. Figures should be simple (squares, circles, triangles) but children can identify shapes made in this way and play games with them. Size of shapes drawn can vary, but if they are too small (less than an inch high) they will not be clear.
Children can learn to make Braille letters and numbers using pegboards. Parents can learn the Braille alphabet from cards provided by the National Federation of the Blind. You can assist your child to make the letters with pegs. Of course, you can also help your child to associate letters with sounds and with the things sighted people say about letters. If other children in the family watch Sesame Street or other children's programs on TV, the blind child will probably be happy to be included and to understand through his or her own activities how this relates to Braille.
I would recommend that parents of a blind child obtain a slate and stylus and a Braille writer when the child is still very young. Encourage the child to experiment with both, just as you would encourage a sighted child to experiment with a pencil or a typewriter if it is available. The blind child will be able to make dots. They will be meaningless at first, but they will be an accomplishment. Can you identify all the drawings made by a two-year-old? A child with poor manual dexterity will need to develop coordination and sensitivity, and it needs to begin early. A child with good manual dexterity will be stimulated by accomplishments.
You may wish to make a set of blocks showing Braille letters. Use any kind of blocks and nails with small, rounded heads. Pound the nails into the block in the arrangements of the Braille letter. They need not be enlarged, much, if any. You may wish to have more than one block of some letters, for when your child begins to make words, you will need them. You can also write Braille letters and words on three-by five cards. In preschool and kindergarten other children may use flash cards, and the blind child may also find them helpful and interesting. Braille numbers can be written on cards or blocks. Parents should know that the first ten letters of the alphabet are used to make numbers and that a number sign is used before the letters for this purpose.
It is always a good idea for a blind child to know a blind adult. This friend may be extremely helpful with Braille. He or she can read it and write it, thus encouraging the blind child, as well as demonstrating competency. The blind adult can also assist parents who are trying to help their child with Braille, but are having to teach themselves as they go. Braille can be fun for the whole family.
Most importantly, don't sell Braille short! And don't feel sorry for your child because he or she will be reading Braille instead of print. Braille is less common, not less effective for reading and writing. It has some advantages, such as reading in the dark when you're supposed to be asleep, and reading notes when delivering a speech and it is desirable to look at the audience. Perhaps it never occurred to you that a blind speaker reading Braille notes can maintain better contact with the audience than a sighted speaker looking down at printed notes. The disadvantages of Braille are: (1) that many people underrate its effectiveness, and (2) that there just isn't enough of it. You can help your blind child take advantage of Braille by following some of the suggestions above.
You may wish to have more information about Braille-its use, production, and plans for the future. The May, 1982, issue of the BRAILLE MONITOR was devoted entirely to articles about Braille. This issue of the MONITOR and ongoing subscriptions to it are available free of charge from NFB Headquarters, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230. The table of contents of the May, 1982, issue of the BRAILLE MONITOR is as follows:
BRAILLE: CHANGING ATTITUDES, CHANGING TECHNOLOGY 163 by Kenneth Jernigan
FACTS/CASSETTE-BRAILLE TECHNOLOGY/JANUARY 1980 170
FACTS/CASSETTE-BRAILLE TECHNOLOGY/MAY 1980 172
FACTS 3/CASSETTE-BRAILLE TECHNOLOGY /NOVEMBER 1980 174
FACTS 4/CASSETTE BRAILLE TECHNOLOGY/JUNE 1981 175
FACTS 5/CASSETTE BRAILLE TECHNOLOGY/SEPTEMBER 1981 177
A REPLACEMENT FOR PAPER BRAILLE BOOKS THE ROSE BRAILLE DISPLAY READER 181
CORRESPONDENCE BETWEEN LEONARD ROSE AND THE NATIONAL LIBRARY SERVICE FOR THE BLIND AND PHYSICALLY HANDICAPPED 182
BRAILLE: A BIRTHDAY LOOK AT ITS PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE 199 by Jim Burns
BRAILLE: A COMEDY OR A TRAGEDY? 202 by Ramona Walhof
As you experiment with Braille and other learning experiences for your blind child, please share them with the editors of the newsletter. Send your comments or notes about experiences to Barbara Cheadle, Editor, NFB Parents Newsletter, Box 552, Jefferson City, Missouri 65102. Learning Braille with your child can be fun and stimulating. Most of all, it will help your blind child to be ready for school and to keep up with classmates in the early grades. Braille students in kindergarten and first grade can be expected to read as well as their sighted colleagues. If they are permitted to fall behind, it can be difficult to catch up. One of the main differences between raising a sighted child and a blind child is that you as a parent must insist in a hundred different ways that your child be permitted and encouraged to compete.
Ramona Walhof, blind from birth, is the Assistant Director of J.O.B. (Job Opportunities for theBlind), a joint project of the U.S. Department ofLabor and the National Federation of the Blind. Ramona, a widow with two children, has also been a Head Start teacher and a rehabilitation teacher of the blind.
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