Future Reflections                                                                                           Convention 2004

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The Many Roles that Braille
Plays in My Life

by Sheila Amato

2003 Distinguished Educator of Blind Children

Editor’s Note: It was with great warmth and enthusiasm that the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children welcomed Sheila Amato to the convention as the 2003 winner of the Distinguished Educator of Blind Children Award. Amato’s promotion of Braille in the university teacher-training setting and her innovative development of a high school literary Braille transcription course have won for her the respect and high-regard of parents and professionals alike. Amato accepted her award from Sharon Maneki, chairman of the award committee, on Friday, July 4, the last day of the convention. The following article is an edited version of the letter Ms. Amato wrote to the committee in response to her nomination for the award. Amato also used the letter as the text for her remarks to the convention. Here is what she says:

Sheila Amato accepts her award from Sharon Mineki, chairman of the 2003 Distinguished  Educator of Blind Children Award committee.
Sheila Amato (right) accepts her award from Sharon Maneki, chairman of the 2003 Distinguished Educator of Blind Children Award committee.

Many thanks for the opportunity to share with you my beliefs on teaching blind children. Since I am both a teacher of students who are blind, as well as a university teacher-trainer, it is probable that my remarks will approach this task from a unique perspective.

My earliest memory of Braille as a reading/writing code for the blind happened when I was six years old. I remember swiping the cardboard inserts from my father’s freshly-cleaned shirts, taking a pencil, poking holes in the cardboard, flipping the cardboard over, “reading” it tactually, and decreeing that I had created Braille. In a similar manner, I created my own sign language hand configurations. I spent many delightful hours absorbed in this type of play.

Fast forward about a decade. My maternal aunt was a teacher of students who were blind. One day, when I was in my teens, she showed me her Perkins Braillewriter. I remember my fascination with this device, and asked her if I could borrow it. She agreed. Little did she know at that time that I would never give it back to her. Braille visited my life on occasions. Although temporarily inspirational, these visits were short.

Fast-forward another decade. I had been teaching in a school for the deaf, and had even reluctantly agreed to forgo my invented sign language code for one that was more universally accepted. I had married, bought a house, and had just given birth to our first son. I was home on a one-year maternity leave to bond and care for our son. The demands of motherhood were great, as we all know, yet I felt intellectually unchallenged and a tad bored with the homemaking scene. One day, I happened to read a small notice in a local newsletter: a Braille course was being offered by a Braille teacher associated with a local Jewish Temple. I immediately called the teacher and asked if I could enroll in this class; but, of course, my three-month old son would have to accompany me. She agreed, on the condition that my son not cause a disruption. Thus, armed with a three-month old, the required baby paraphernalia, my aunt’s Brailler, and a prayer, I set off to, finally, learn Braille.

Four women were in the room as I entered toting a blessedly quiet and complacent infant and the rest of my Braille baggage. We were here to learn Braille! By the third class, I was the lone student remaining. Lessons continued: I couldn’t wait to get home after class and do my homework. Months of lessons passed and my passion for those confusing configurations of dots blossomed. (By the way, to my Braille teacher’s eternal credit, she never told me that it was possible to erase a dot Brailled in error! If I made an error, I had to rebraille the entire page. It was years before I realized it was possible to erase a dot in correction.) Within nine months, I was working on my trial manuscript for literary Braille Transcriber certification through the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), Library of Congress.

Fast forward again, but just a few years. I’m back teaching. My teaching position in the school for the deaf was modified a bit, and I found myself teaching deaf children with multiple impairments. In fact, all six of my deaf students had varying types of visual impairments. I realized that I didn’t know how to provide the best educational practice for them, so I decided to learn. I enrolled in Teachers College, Columbia University, due to their outstanding reputation for preparing future teachers in blindness and visual impairment. After all, my aunt had gone there, so they had to be good! I enrolled in an eighteen-credit program designed to provide New York State Certification as a teacher of the blind. Talk about getting hooked! I’m still there at Teachers College today.

Oh, yes, I did get those eighteen credits under my belt to receive my teaching certification. But I didn’t stop at that. I continued in the program to earn a Master of Education and a doctorate in blindness and visual impairment. Following in the footsteps of one of my university professors, Dr. Stuart Wittenstein, (who is now the Superintendent of the California School for the Blind) I became an adjunct assistant professor of education at Teachers College. (I also teach at Dominican College as well; both institutions are in New York.) I have been teaching courses in literary Braille transcription during the fall semesters, and courses in Nemeth Code and technology in the spring semesters since 1996.

For the record, the title of my doctoral dissertation is, “A Descriptive Study of Standards and Criteria for Competence in Braille Literacy within Teacher Preparation Programs in the United States and Canada.” The majority of successful blind adults who read and write in Braille had a teacher who taught them the intricacies of this code. These teachers must possess a level of competence in both Braille transcription and teaching strategies. But, what about the teacher-trainers: the university personnel who taught these teachers? After all (at least in my opinion) we teacher-trainers have an awesome responsibility. We are, at least partly, responsible for starting this learning process. I wanted to know about their training, their philosophies, how they created their course, the standards they set for their future teachers, and how they evaluated them. What did they require their students-soon-to-be-teachers to know, and to what degree of competence? Two years and 173 pages later, this information is available to all interested parties and is being used today to effect changes in our teacher-training programs.

Fast-forward only a few more short years (gee, they seem to go faster as I get older). A shift has gradually occurred. I am now teaching blind children who have concomitant hearing impairments and, to my absolute delight, these students read and write Braille. I now find myself in a public high school working with a young man who is congenitally totally blind, has a hearing impairment, and is pursing a high school diploma by taking challenging academic courses. My job description includes facilitation communication and Brailling all of his course materials. He is a proficient reader and writer in the literary code, and his skills and knowledge of the Nemeth Code continue to develop. And, we are a team—a well-oiled twosome. Then the other students in the school started asking me, “What is he doing, and how does he do that?” to which I replied, “Ask him!”

Thus, it became evident that there was much interest in these six dots by sighted students in our high school. An idea was born! I designed a course in literary Braille transcription that is patterned after the NLS certification process and is almost identical in standards to my university graduate courses; after all, the Braille code is the Braille code, and either one knows it, or one doesn’t. I arranged for the loan of fifteen Perkins Braillers, the donation of Braille paper, and permission to copy instructional materials. Then I petitioned the school board for permission to conduct a new course for high school credit. With a vision for the unique (I told them we would be the only high school in the USA with such a curricular course) and the dream of future vocational and educational opportunities for the high school students, the course was approved on a pilot basis.

The first year course in Literary Braille at East Islip High School started with six students and ended with fifteen students in the class. Activities included a visit by a successful blind adult who uses Braille daily, the showing of videos such as “That the Blind May Read,” and discussions about the importance of Braille in fostering independent literacy. University teacher-trainers who prepare future teachers of the blind came to share information about their college programs and to recruit students. Organizations such as the Helen Keller National Center and the Helen Keller Braille Library sent representatives who offered employment opportunities. In fact, one of our high school Braille students is presently employed as a Braillist with the Helen Keller Braille Library and another student was recently interviewed and offered a job upon high school graduation in June. (She had to take a Braille proficiency test as part of the interview, with no advance notice.) Two of the students in the class are in the final proofreading stages of their trial manuscript and hope to become the first high school students at East Islip High School to achieve the coveted NLS transcriber certification. As a culmination to this year’s program, we spent two months Brailling children’s storybooks into uncontracted Braille. We set a goal of collectively Brailling one hundred storybooks. We celebrated book number one hundred and eight last Friday with a class pizza party! These books will be shipped to the school for the blind in Pohnpei, the Federated States of Micronesia, to be used to start a Braille library at their school. Last year, we shipped our one hundred plus Braille children’s storybooks to the Salvation Army School for the Blind in Jamaica, West Indies.

This year, for the first time, two East Islip High School Braille students will attend the NFB National Convention for the purpose of learning more about blindness-related issues, to present workshop sessions on their Braille-related achievements, and to work as volunteers with various branches of the organization. We thank the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children for this gracious invitation and for the financial support that makes this trip possible.

So, how does all this tie-in to my beliefs and approach to teaching blind students? We have a documented nationwide shortage of teachers of the blind and of Braille transcribers. This model—affectionately named “Braille Goes to High School,” is proving to be a viable system to share valuable educational and vocational opportunities with high schools students. High school students are at an impressionable age. They also have a strong desire to contribute to their world and to make a difference for others. This is a unique opportunity to share my passions with them, and to introduce them to Braille. I am honored and challenged daily to inspire my students (and I interpret students to mean all of my students—my blind student, my university graduate students who aspire to be teachers of the blind, and my sighted high school students who are curious about Braille) to gain proficiency in Braille transcription, and also to appreciate, respect, and value the Braille code as an indispensable tool for assuring independence in literacy and in life for blind people.

Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share the many roles that Braille plays in my life.

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