Future Reflections                                                                                           Convention 2004

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Getting the Words Down in Braille

by Bill Kaufman

Reprinted from Newsday, Inc., November 17, 2002. See <www.newsday.com>.

Editor’s Note: We had the good fortune to have Sheila Amato and two of her sighted high school students from the program described below come to participate in the activities of the 2003 NFB National Convention in Louisville in July. Amato, winner of the 2003 Distinguished Educator of Blind Children Award was the guest of the NFB. Her two students, Sara Hovestadt and Erica Zampardi, were sponsored by the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC). Both students plan for careers in Braille transcription. Here is a description of the unique program that motivated these students to take this career path:

Sarah Hovestadt and Erica Zampardi made presentations  to the NOPBC and NAPUB meetings at the 2003 NFB Convention.
Sarah Hovestadt (left) and Erica Zampardi made presentations to the NOPBC and NAPUB meetings at the 2003 NFB Convention.

With the goal of providing the blind access to a wider scope of learning materials, students at East Islip High School are enrolled in a course in literary Braille transcription, believed to be the only such high school program in the nation.

Literary transcription refers to transcription of books versus other materials such as brochures or signs. The course, which is being taught by its originator, Sheila Amato, focuses not only on the long-used mechanical Braille-writing machine but on emerging technology using computers and special printers to transcribe material into the traditional system of touch-sensed symbols.

Amato explained that there’s a shortage of Braille transcribers to produce textbooks, and “many schools are not able to obtain the increasingly wide variety of new textbooks they need.”

“In addition to learning the Braille code, students in this course are being exposed to the college and vocational opportunities that are available to them upon high school graduation,” said Amato, who was brought in for the course and holds a doctorate in blindness and visual impairment education from Columbia University.

The elective full-credit high school course runs for a school year, with a follow-up year in advanced Braille transcription available. Currently fifteen students at the high school, all sighted except one, are enrolled in the course. Amato said she designed it not only to offer transcription training “but also the opportunity to learn about people who are blind and to develop a level of comfort with them and respect for their capabilities.”

Students who complete the advanced course can go on to receive certification from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, which will boost their chances of finding a job in the field.

Mary Ann Siller, co-chairwoman of national education programs of the nonprofit American Foundation for the Blind in Dallas, said the East Islip course is “as far as I know the only one being taught in a high school for credit.”

Siller added that her organization has teamed up with Verizon in a three-year campaign “that promotes the new career ‘Braille textbook transcriber’ at the federal and state levels and raises general awareness of the needs of blind and low-vision schoolchildren for timely access of textbooks and learning materials.”

The course has attracted national attention. Recently, Barbara MacNeil, program manager for students with vision impairments of San Diego’s public schools, visited East Islip to observe the training. She said that her school system plans to implement a similar program next year.

A transcribing student, Michael Conlon, nineteen, who is blind and hearing impaired, said in a typed note that he learned Braille when he was four-years-old, “just like the other children in my class who were learning print.” A junior, he said he enjoys reading books in Braille, “especially adventure stories or stories about animals,” adding, “I try to read a chapter in my book every night before I go to sleep.” Conlon does all his homework in Braille, “and I hardly make a mistake,” he noted. He’s attending the course to keep abreast of developments for the blind.

Another student, Erica Zampardi, sixteen, a junior, said via a typed message, “I took this class because I’m deaf and am friends with a boy who is blind. I want to learn about their culture.”

Some of the students take the class for sheer pleasure. “I love Braille,” said Shannon Brew, sixteen, a junior. “My favorite part of the day is Braille and sign language classes. I go home and show my family and they are so proud. It’s amazing and I’m so happy I’m learning it.”

Schools superintendent Michael Capozzi hailed the two-year curriculum developed by Amato. He said she has “created a wonderful environment for children to learn Braille transcription. This is a tremendous opportunity for our students to learn a world-class skill.”

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