Future Reflections Spring/Summer 1993, Vol. 12 No. 2

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THE VALUE OF LEARNING BRAILLE AS A CHILD
by Mary Hartle

From the Editor: My fifteen-year-old son is totally blind in one eye, and over the years the visual acuity in the other eye has varied from between 20/70 to 20/200. He has nystagmus, cataracts, and glaucoma. He reads standard size print. He also reads Braille. Braille instruction, with the goals of increasing reading speed and notetaking speed with the slate and stylus was on his IEP this past year and will be on his IEP again next year. Why? Because years ago, when my husband and I joined the National Federation of the Blind, we began to meet blind people like Mary Hartle. And if you multiply Ms. Hartle's story (which is reprinted below) by hundreds of others like it, the message begins to sink in: Braille makes sense. In twenty years or so my son will also have a personal story about Braille to tell; it might even have the same title as this article. But it will be a different tale and it will have a different ending.

Mary Hartle's parents did not have the information or the blind role models that are available to today's parents through the National Federation of the Blind. They did the best they could, given the circumstances. We, too, must make decisions based upon the information available to us. What tale will your blind son or daughter or student tell twenty years from now about Braille and their early education? Will our children be able to say when they grow up that, given the circumstances, their parents did the best they could?

Here is Mary Hartle's story:

Although visually impaired, I attended regular school in the 1950's and 1960's. I attended a parochial school in Minneapolis and was the only child with a vision impairment. I was taught to read print and progressed through the grades along with other children my age. No effort was ever made to teach me Braille. But, in retrospect, I wish I had been taught Braille as a small child.

Although I could read standard-size print, I could not read it as fast as sighted students could. My grades ranged from a few B's to several C's, and some D's. (My brothers and sisters got A's and B's.) I was tracked into the lowest ability group in junior high, although I was promoted to the middle group halfway through both the seventh and eighth grades. I could not read as much material as others could and thus had to spend more time on homework. I had to hold books much closer to my face. Due to prolonged periods of bending over to read books at close range, I developed posture problems which, to this day, require chiropractic treatment.

Learning became difficult and painful rather than joyful and exciting. As reading and learning became more difficult, I came to feel less intelligent. I began to feel shame and, thus, had more difficulty concentrating on learning. I became more anxious because of my increased difficulty in learning. This was manifested in my struggles with arithmetic in fifth grade. I can still recall my extreme frustration and tears as I attempted to do my homework with my family's tutorial help.

As a child, I read fewer books than my classmates, especially novels. I read magazines and a few quick-read books. I also had, and still have, trouble spelling many words because I was not able to see the letters within words correctly. For instance, spelling double-consonant words has been particularly difficult because my eyes did not focus normally when I first learned to spell these words.

Since I did not use Braille as a child I was truly handicapped in my educational progress and my self-confidence was low because I was unable to read fluently at a normal speed. I was embarrassed about both my slow reading speed and the fact that I had to look closer in order to read. Had I learned Braille earlier I would have been able to read at a speed similar to sighted students.

As I progressed through high school and college the reading requirements became much greater and the size of the print became much smaller. In college, I avoided classes with heavy reading demands, such as history and literature.

Over the past ten years I have lost the rest of my vision, thus necessitating my learning Braille. I am not unique. Many legally blind children become blind adults, with little or no ability to read print any longer. Although I use Braille in my day-to-day life and on the job, I do not read with the kind of speed I could have had I learned Braille in the primary grades.

There is nothing shameful about reading Braille or using any other non-visual technique. Today's blind children deserve a better education and a better chance to succeed in our highly competitive information age. In fact, the need to read as efficiently as possible is more crucial today than ever before. Without Braille, the chances of these children going beyond-much less getting through-high school will be minimal.

When I think of how much Braille would have enhanced my education, even though I could read standard print at the time, I think of how important Braille is for children who can barely read standard print or who rely on large print. School does not have to be such torture! I believe visually impaired children should be given the opportunity to learn Braille if:

Braille is as effective a reading method as print is and blind and visually-impaired children have the right to become as literate as
their sighted classmates.

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