Future Reflections Convention 1994, Vol. 13 No. 4

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OF BRAILLE AND HONEYBEES

By Kenneth Jernigan

Reprinted from the August-September, 1994, Braille Monitor.


From the Editor: Most of the afternoon session on July 6 was devoted to a discussion of the problems and challenges surrounding Braille literacy for blind Americans today. The first speaker on the panel was Dr. Kenneth Jernigan. Here is what he had to say:


For the blind of the United States the road to Braille literacy has been long and difficult, but the dream may at last be in process of becoming a reality. There are undoubtedly still battles ahead, but the changing climate is symbolized by a meeting that was held at the National Center for the Blind on April 4, 1994. That meeting brought together major elements in the blindness field and gives promise of unprecedented accomplishments. It also has the potential for tremendous strife and disunity if lessons are not learned and commitments not kept.

In recent years Braille has become extremely controversial, but it was not always so. Until after the Second World War, almost all blind children who were to be educated, as well as a great many of the partially sighted, went to residential schools for the blind. Braille was a given. Everybody learned it, and the students with partial sight made a practice of reading it with their eyes, blindfolds and lectures from teachers notwithstanding.

With the coming of retrolental fibroplasia and the sudden increase in the number of blind children, public school education became a necessity. There wasn't anywhere else to put the increased population, and the parents were not about to permit their children to grow up illiterate. But there was a side effect, one that received relatively little comment at the time. The centrality of Braille was destroyed.

The public school teachers didn't know Braille, and the new crop of teacher trainees in the mushrooming university programs were not much better off. It is true that they received a course or two in Braille, but that is not the same as concentrated use and everyday practice.

It was only a step from not knowing Braille to the rationalization that it was unimportant, outdated, and in many instances harmful. As technology advanced, it offered the vehicle. Parents, of course, were not only willing but anxious to swallow the fallacy. If the child could see even the tiniest bit, the teachers (not knowing Braille and feeling comfortable with print) could say: "Reading print is normal. You want your child to be normal. Therefore, you want your child to read print if this is at all possible. Never mind that the magnifiers may be awkward and clumsy and that large print may be scarce. Never mind that reading print may be slow and painful. Braille is that way, too."

Almost without exception the parents nodded in agreement and settled down to a life of limited expectations for their children. Mostly they didn't know any blind adults, people who could read Braille at hundreds of words a minute and use it as flexibly and efficiently as print is used by the sighted. They relied on the "professionals," the people who were trained to know and give competent advice.

I don't mean to paint a picture that condemns the professionals of the forties, the fifties, and the sixties. In the main they were sincere and dedicated, and in many instances they coped extremely well. The problems they faced were unprecedented, and there was probably no way that a proper emphasis on Braille could have been maintained or a true perspective achieved.

I attended a residential school for the blind in the thirties and forties and had a thorough grounding in Braille, so I suffered no damage and feel no resentment. The same cannot be said of many of the children of the post-World War II era. For the most part those with any sight at all swallowed the flimflam and limped along with print. When they reached high school and college, their reading needs increased; their sight often worsened; they met blind people who were literate and competent in Braille; and their anger and frustration congealed into a cold fury. They felt that they had been cheated and lied to, and they were determined that the blind of future generations should not be similarly victimized.

This brings us to the eighties and early nineties, but before continuing the story, I think it is only fair to say a word about the changing climate among professionals. Many (but by no means all) of today's teachers of the blind have reassessed the value and necessity of Braille. Working with the organized blind, these new pioneers insist that blind children must have the opportunity for true literacy and a full life. This means Braille. It also means an understanding of the part which social attitudes play in creating or inhibiting opportunity. It means the daily reinforcement of the concept that it is respectable to be blind and that, given adequate training and reasonable opportunity, the blind can compete on terms of equality with others.

Many elements have gone into the movement for Braille literacy which has built to a crescendo and is now sweeping the nation, but few would deny that the fight has been orchestrated and led by the National Federation of the Blind. The Federation organized NAPUB (the National Association to Promote the Use of Braille). The Federation has introduced and continues to press for the passage of Braille Bills in state legislatures-laws which guarantee the right of blind children to be taught Braille and to have teachers who are competent in its use. The Federation has promoted reading contests and similar activities to stress the importance of Braille to blind children. The Federation maintains a constant drumfire of publicity to reinforce the value of Braille, and it now spearheads a campaign to enact national legislation to assure that blind children will be taught Braille and that their teachers will know how to read and write it.

This brings me back to the April 4 meeting at the National Center for the Blind and the events that preceded it. At the first meeting of the Committee on Joint Organizational Effort, held in 1989 at the National Center for the Blind, the Federation pressed for a policy statement affirming the value of Braille and the right of blind children to have it. After considerable discussion and negotiation, such a statement was drafted and agreed to by those present, including the representatives of AER (the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired). However, AER subsequently said that its board had decided not to support the statement. This led to considerable controversy and no small amount of bad feeling.

The question of Braille literacy was discussed at subsequent meetings of the Committee on Joint Organizational Effort and also at regional meetings of the World Blind Union, but without agreement. The Federation constantly pressed, and AER just as constantly found problems with the language and some of the concepts. Although less vocal about it than the Federation, the American Council of the Blind supported the emphasis on Braille literacy. The American Foundation for the Blind (though frequently having problems with specific language and particular requirements) tended to do likewise.

At a meeting of the Committee on Joint Organizational Effort in January of 1992, I pressed hard for the adoption of a simple statement recognizing the right of blind children to have Braille instruction, and such a resolution was adopted. I don't want to make it appear that the AER representatives who were there were grudging in their acceptance of the resolution or that they opposed the concept of the value of Braille literacy. Such was not the case. However, they were reluctant to have unambiguous, straightforward language.

They said that the federal requirement for an IEP (Individualized Education Program) for each disabled student prohibited the blanket requirement that blind children should have Braille available to them. Such an argument concerning the teaching of print to sighted children would be laughed to scorn, but the world of disability and blindness has peculiar norms. In any case I want to give you the entire text of the January, 1992, resolution. It was unanimously adopted by the Committee on Joint Organizational Effort, with representatives of AER present and voting affirmatively. I intend to give you the full text of other documents as I proceed, and although some of them will be repetitious and characterized by the arcane jargon of professionalism, federalese, and bureaucracy, I urge you not only to give attention to them but to concentrate on their every word. We as blind people should become intimately familiar with the details of the resolutions, policy statements, and proposed Congressional enactments which vitally affect our lives and the lives of the blind of coming generations. Here is the text of the January, 1992, resolution:

RESOLUTION ON BRAILLE

Recognizing that ongoing assessment and due process are requirements of the law, the members of the Committee on Joint Organizational Effort endorse the principle that in planning the educational program for a blind or visually impaired child, these guidelines be followed:

If reading and writing are to be taught and if the parent or parents and the decision makers for the school want the child to be taught Braille, this should be done.

If reading and writing are to be taught and if the parent or parents and the decision makers for the school want print to be taught, this should be done.

If the parent or parents and the decision makers for the school cannot agree, then both Braille and print should be taught.


Unanimously adopted by the Committee on Joint Organizational Effort, January 16, 1992

Although the AER representatives participated in drafting the final language of this resolution and voted for it, they made it clear that they could not commit AER to its support until and unless they received approval from their board. Subsequently the AER board rejected the resolution.

Meanwhile, Federation Braille bills continued to be introduced and passed in state legislatures throughout the country. More often than not these bills were opposed (witness Wisconsin) by AER representatives. Certainly this was not universally the case, and in some instances there was and is collaboration.

Another element was the Braille competency test developed by NLS (the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of Congress). The members of the Committee on Joint Organizational Effort requested NLS to develop the test, and it was painstakingly and competently done. It was released for use in January of this year, but a number of the teachers of the blind throughout the country said that the test should not be used since it had not been, to use their terminology, "validated." Never mind that the Library of Congress has been giving competency tests by the thousands to certify Braille transcribers since the 1940's, and never mind that the NLS test was developed by the most knowledgeable professionals in the blindness field, including leaders of AER. There were those who said that the opposition to the test was from people who did not know Braille, even though they were supposed to be in a position to teach it, and that in the name of professionalism they were simply trying to protect their jobs and cover their nakedness. Regardless of how vehemently such statements were made, they were just as vehemently rejected.

At its Washington Seminar in January of this year, the Federation made a federal Braille literacy law one of the prime objectives of its legislative program. The vehicle was meant to be the IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), which must be reauthorized before Congress adjourns this fall. To this end hundreds of Federation members went to Capitol Hill and contacted every Senatorial and Congressional office.

One of those contacted was Congressman James Traficant of Ohio, one of the Federation's longtime friends. In February of this year Congressman Traficant called the Federation's National Office and said that he intended to introduce a Braille Literacy Bill and that he would like proposed language. Although Federation representatives had talked to Congressman Traficant at the time of the Washington Seminar, his call was unexpected. In the circumstances (even though the time frame was short and the drafting necessarily hasty) the language was provided. Any other course would have been ill-advised, risking bad will and being counterproductive. The introduction of a Traficant Bill could do no harm since there would be plenty of time to refine the language and get consensus.

In a letter to members of the House of Representatives dated February 24, 1994, Congressman Traficant said in part:

    The numbers of the blind who can read at all are declining. In 1968, out of 19,902 blind students enrolled in elementary and secondary     education, 40 percent read Braille, 45 percent read large type or regular print, and 4 percent read both. In January, 1993, out of 50,204     blind students, fewer than 9 percent could read Braille, 27 percent could read print, and 40 percent could not read at all. In other words,     while there are 40,000 more blind children in school today, only 30 percent can read-a far cry from 95 percent in 1968.


This is what Congressman Traficant said, and it graphically emphasizes the problem. There are those who claim that these statistics are misleading since many of the blind children who were counted in the 1993 census were multiply-handicapped while most of those listed in the 1968 computation were not, but such an argument fails to take into account two important factors. With the shifting of most of the educable blind children to public schools, the residential schools have correspondingly become the collecting place for children with multiple handicaps. This has inevitably meant a declining emphasis on Braille even for the educable blind children remaining in the residential schools. At the same time, as already noted, the public schools (with their thinly scattered population of blind students and their inexperienced teachers, who have no necessity to use and practice Braille on a daily basis) have been unable to fill the gap. Therefore, there is no place left where a blind child can be assured of receiving competent Braille instruction in a friendly environment.

Without any consultation or delay both AER and the American Foundation for the Blind sent letters and telegrams to Congress opposing the Traficant Bill. Upon reflection, leaders of both organizations say that they think they were mistaken in such impulsive action-action which created the very impression that the blindness field has been trying to avoid: namely, that the field is characterized by dissension and total disarray. Likewise, (and for those of you who are hasty to condemn I ask you to consider) we of the Federation should have found the time to alert AER and AFB to the step we were taking.

However, the negatives of the situation may have been more than balanced by the positives. The Federation called a meeting to be held in Baltimore at the National Center for the Blind on April 4 of this year. Present were Carl Augusto, Susan Spungin, and Scott Marshall of the American Foundation for the Blind; Paul Schroeder of the American Council of the Blind; Michael Bina, Tuck Tinsley, and Kathy McGivern of AER; and Marc Maurer, Jim Gashel, and I representing the National Federation of the Blind. We spent the day negotiating about Braille literacy and reached consensus on two documents-a statement of principles and proposed amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

But before giving you the language of these documents, I must go back to two other events. At the American Foundation for the Blind's Josephine Taylor Conference held in Washington on March 3 of this year, Carl Augusto, Susan Spungin, and I discussed in graphic and straightforward language the Traficant embroilment. We kept our tempers, but we made our feelings clear. It was obvious that all concerned wanted to find a solution and that we were in basic agreement on most of the issues. It was at that time that we agreed that the Federation would call the April 4 meeting.

At the regional meeting of the World Blind Union held at the American Foundation for the Blind building in New York on March 18 I presented a proposed statement of principles concerning Braille literacy. The statement was discussed and unanimously adopted. Again, by saying that I presented it, I do not mean to imply that the others at the meeting opposed it or were grudging in their acceptance of it. Everybody there was cooperative and engaged in give and take. At the end of the session it was not my statement but the statement of the entire group. Here is what it said:
    If a child is totally blind or has such visual impairment as to be unable to read print, and if literacy skills are to be taught, the child     should be taught to read and write Braille by a certified teacher competent to teach Braille literacy skills to the blind.

    If a child has a visual impairment and if literacy skills are to be taught, the child should, if the parent or parents want this to be done, be     taught to read and write Braille by a certified teacher competent to teach Braille literacy skills to the blind.

    No teacher should be considered competent to teach Braille literacy skills to the blind unless such teacher has passed the Braille     competency test developed by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of Congress. The     passing of the Braille competency test should not be considered a substitute for or an alternative to regular training and certification of a     teacher but should be in addition to such training and certification.

This is the statement we adopted on March 18 of this year at the regional meeting of the World Blind Union, and although the AER representatives who were there made it clear that they would have to go to their board for final approval, surely it was reasonable to expect that the approval would be forthcoming. After all, the concepts (and even the details of the language) were not new. They had been kicking around for several years. Nevertheless, when we came to the April 4 meeting at the National Center for the Blind, AER had a counter-proposal. Before commenting on it, let me give you the exact text. Here it is:

It is absolutely imperative that blind and visually impaired students receive appropriate special education services to meet their current and future needs. The ability to read and write Braille is one skill which is critically important for independence and success. Failure to provide Braille instruction in the frequency and intensity as required in a student's Individualized Education Plan will inexcusably result in a student who has unrealized potential and who is unprepared to achieve and compete in school, work, and society at large. Without literacy skills and accessibility and availability of Braille, blind students are more seriously handicapped to achieve, succeed, and function by this illiteracy, inaccessibility, and unavailability than by their visual disability.

A student must be provided Braille instruction by qualified, competent staff as required by an Individualized Education Plan based on various considerations not limited to the student's visual capability, literacy potential, and input from parents and service providers.

A student must be provided Braille instruction who is capable of learning literacy skills, and who is either totally blind or who, in spite of appropriate low vision interventions, has a serious visual impairment to the degree as to be unable to read print efficiently as determined by a comprehensive assessment. In addition, parent rights, safeguards, and input must be respected and considered as provided in the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and respective state laws and rules.

Teachers of blind and visually impaired students must be graduates of comprehensive teacher training programs and must possess specialized certification to work with blind students. As an integral required part of the coursework to graduate from a teacher training program and to qualify for certification, teachers must pass the Braille Competency Test developed by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of Congress. Individual state certification requirements should be strengthened to require additional coursework in the teaching methodology of Braille reading and writing over and above the current coursework which predominantly emphasizes the Braille code. Refresher opportunities should be made available to ensure that previously trained and currently certified teachers remain current and competent in teaching Braille.

The federal U.S. Office of Education Special Education Programs (OSEP) in its monitoring of individual states, and in turn the respective state monitoring of school programs should include specific criteria to ensure compliance with regard to provisions of 1) quality Braille instruction in local education agencies and state schools and 2) appropriate teacher certification.

In addition, consumer, advocacy, and professional organizations of and for the blind in the United States must work cooperatively with federal, state, and local officials and agencies to alleviate the critical personnel shortage and meet the significant demand for qualified and competent teachers of blind students in the United States.

This is the document which the AER representatives brought to the April 4 meeting at the National Center for the Blind, and it is clear that we were moving toward consensus. However, the document also exemplifies certain problems which have characterized our negotiations with AER not only about Braille literacy but about most other things as well. Among the involved phrases and the commendable sentiments, the crispness begins to fade, and there lurks considerable leeway for wiggling. What we have been trying to get from the very beginning is an unequivocal commitment that every blind and visually impaired child shall have the right to be taught Braille and that the Braille should be taught by somebody who is competent in its use. It is that simple and that uninvolved.

Again, I want to be sure that I am understood. Many of the leaders of AER say that they are firmly committed to the necessity of making Braille available to blind and visually impaired children and to having competent teachers, but the organization is so loosely structured that the leaders cannot with any certainty speak for the members who elected them. This must be frustrating to the leaders and doubtless also to many of the members. Perhaps the Braille literacy negotiations and other recent events will cause AER to rethink its procedures and give more authority to its officers. Otherwise, the organization will have difficulty coming to the table as an equal in the negotiations and partnerships of consensus which are beginning to emerge in the blindness field. AER has many strong leaders and a vital role to play in the new reality. If it cannot achieve discipline and purpose, it will lose-and all of us will lose.

The April 4th meeting at the National Center for the Blind was characterized by good will and detailed exactness. The documents that emerged were unanimously approved by those present, and later by the AER board and the other organizations involved. Here is the final wording of the Statement of Principles:

If a child is unable to read print by reason of total blindness or visual impairment, and if literacy skills are to be taught, the child should be taught to read and write Braille by a certified teacher competent to teach Braille literacy skills to the blind, unless by reason of multiple disabilities it is impossible for the child to read Braille.

If a child has a visual impairment and if literacy skills are to be taught, the child should, if the parent or parents want this to be done, be taught to read and write Braille by a certified teacher competent to teach Braille literacy skills to the blind. If a dispute arises between the parent(s) and the local educational agency regarding appropriate reading media, both print and Braille shall be taught.

No teacher should be considered competent to teach Braille literacy skills to the blind unless such teacher has passed the Braille competency test developed by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of Congress. The passing of the Braille competency test should not be considered a substitute for or an alternative to regular training and certification of a teacher but should be in addition to such training and certification.

After we had adopted this Statement of Principles, we proceeded in the spirit of the document to draft proposed amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. We said that the Individualized Education Program for a child who is blind or visually impaired must include a Braille Literacy Plan, and we then adopted the language to make it happen. Here in pertinent part is the wording of the proposed amendments:

The term "Braille Literacy Plan" means the components of an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for a child who is blind or visually impaired which are designed to enable the child to communicate effectively using Braille either exclusively or in combination with other skills.

The plan shall:

(a) be individually developed after the child's present literacy performance and future literacy needs have been evaluated, or independently assessed if the parents or the child, as appropriate, disagree with the results of the evaluation;

(b) be based on the presumption that for the child who is blind or visually impaired effective communications skills commensurate with ability and grade level will often require Braille instruction and use; and

(c) in the event that Braille has not been found necessary for the child's present educational progress or future needs, assure that all members of the team responsible for the IEP have concurred, provided that if any member or members have not concurred, Braille instruction and use will be included in the child's IEP along with other appropriate literacy skills.

STATE PLAN REQUIREMENTS
-set forth assurances that in the expenditure of federal funds for the purchase of textbooks or other educational materials, the state, a local education agency, or an intermediate educational unit, as appropriate, will obtain such materials in electronic text versions appropriate for producing Braille.

APPLICATION REQUIREMENT
. . . provide satisfactory assurances that the local educational agency or intermediate educational unit will:
(a) establish or revise, whichever is appropriate, a Braille Literacy Plan which shall be incorporated into the Individualized Education Program of each child who is blind or visually impaired as defined in Section 602;
(b) assure that Braille instruction under each such plan is provided by appropriately trained and certified personnel who have demonstrated Braille competency at a level consistent with the National Literary Braille Competency Test adopted by the Library of Congress;

GRANTS FOR PERSONNEL TRAINING
There shall be. . . pre-service and in-service training of special education personnel and other personnel in Braille to a level of competency consistent with the National Literary Braille Competency Test developed by the Library of Congress.

This is the substance of the agreements reached at the April 4 meeting and later approved by the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired, the American Council of the Blind, the American Foundation for the Blind, and the National Federation of the Blind. At long last the principal organizations in the blindness field of the United States have reached consensus on a major issue. That achievement is momentous. The credit does not belong to any single organization or individual. It belongs to all who participated, and all can share in the pride of accomplishment.

If the commitments that have been made are kept and if the unity of purpose can be expanded to other issues, an unprecedented era of harmony and progress may be opening before us-but before we settle down to celebrate, let us keep in mind that the new partnerships will be difficult to maintain. The building of trust takes time. It requires care, forbearance, and enough sense to understand long-range benefits and self-interest.

And there is something else. We have not won the battle for Braille literacy yet. We have only agreed to join together to fight it. We must negotiate with the Administration and Congress, and we must keep our ranks together and present a common front.

On one thing, however, there can be no doubt. The National Federation of the Blind is absolutely and irrevocably committed to the achievement of Braille literacy for the blind of this country. On this issue we will not equivocate; we will not compromise; and we will not quit. It must-it will be done.

We are demonstrating our commitment by raising tens of thousands of dollars to restore the birthplace of Louis Braille in France-and we are doing it not only as an organization but also as individuals: blind men and women throughout the country with our dollars and dimes, our love and belief. We are continuing to introduce Braille bills in the state legislatures, and we will keep at it until every blind child in the United States has opportunity and hope for the future.

We want no strife or confrontation-but we will do what we have to do. Those who negotiate and engage in diplomacy without the willingness to fight are simply rationalizing their weakness and lack of purpose and will. But those who fight and are not willing to negotiate or engage in diplomacy are rationalizing barbarism and their lack of commitment to constructive objectives. As Harold Stassen said, "The man who kindles the flames of hate and violence lights a fire under his own house."

We know these things, and we are also aware of Dag Hammarsjkold's often quoted statement. He said, "Like the bee, wedistill poison from honey for our self-defense. What happens to the bee if it uses its sting is well known. It dies."

Yes, we know that. But we also know something else-something which Hammarsjkold failed to mention. The individual bee may die if it stings, but the whole hive dies if in proper circumstances it refuses to sting. Through long experience and no small number of exercises in survival, we have learned our lessons well. We will sting if we must, regardless of the cost to each of us personally-but we will survive as an organization and a movement. And we hope to enjoy the honey and live in peace with others and ourselves.

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