Future Reflections Winter 1996, Vol. 15 No. 1



by Stephen O. Benson

Editor's note: In many ways a great deal of progress has been made by blind people in recent timesþmore jobs, better special tools and equipment, increased understanding. But in at least one critical area blind children growing up today are being badly shortchanged in a way that was very nearly unheard of fifty years ago. In recent decades most blind children have not routinely been taught how to read and write Braille. Many of these children have now reached adulthood. I talk to them by the hundreds. Almost without exception they feel they were betrayed by their teachers and the other experts their parents trusted to plan their education. We as blind people should not have to fight for blind children to have the chance to learn to read and write Braille.

Parents expect schools to teach sighted children how to read and write, and there are laws requiring that it be done. We want the laws to protect blind children, too. But the experts often fight against such laws. They seem to think deciding whether to teach a blind child to read Braille is very complicated. The truth is that it is very simple. If a child can't see well enough to read print easily, Braille should be taught. But that is not what usually happens, and the blind child pays a heavy price for the rest of his or her life.

Steve Benson does public relations and public education for the Chicago Public Library. He was trained as a high school English teacher and taught for a number of years before becoming a Braille instructor and then an administrator of a private agency serving blind people. He has much personal and professional experience with Braille. This is what he has to say:

At one and a half years of age my eye condition was diagnosed as retinitis pigmentosa, which often results in total blindness. As I approached first grade, my doctors and teachers (the team of professionals) asserted that I should use my limited vision to its maximum for as long as possible. My family was directed to enroll me in what was then called "sight saving." Print was to be the medium by which I was to learn to read.

The sight saving classroom was equipped with the best technology of the day (1948): dark green chalkboards with yellow chalk, yellow paper with heavy green lines, indirect lighting, desks with adjustable work surfaces that allowed the student to bring reading and writing materials closer to the face, and typewriters with large print. Each student wore prescription lenses and had access to hand-held magnifiers. In addition we used large-print textbooks. In third grade we learned to type by the touch typing method.

In my case and in countless others, neither equipment nor teaching techniques would or could work. The techniques and the teachers' efforts were misapplied. The prescription for sight saving class was in error. From the first day of class my limited vision prevented me from reading effectively. Over the course of the next four and a half years my visual acuity decreased while the print I was expected to read became smaller.

I remember alternately gazing out the window and puzzling over a printed page. By fourth grade my teachers had to print out my classwork by hand, using large letters and india ink. With all of that I still felt as though I was reading grey print on grey paper. Yet I remained in sight saving class until the middle of fifth grade.

The toll I paid for the professionals' decisions was high. I dreaded reading; my confidence eroded; I feared blindness; I acquired bad reading habits that carried over into adulthood. I never checked a book out of the library. Why should I? I couldn't read it.

During the summer of 1952 the professionals finally admitted that print might not be the right way for me to be getting an education. In September of that year I was transferred to what we referred to as the blind school, where I began to learn Braille. It wasn't difficult. My teacher was competent. She knew Braille. She gave me positive encouragement. My reading and writing speeds were slow at first; however, as I gained proficiency and confidence, speeds increased. In January of 1953, at age eleven, I checked out and read a library book for the first time in my life. It was in Braille.

Over the last forty years teams of professionals have continued to make the same foolish and costly decisions, probably with greater frequency as the years have passed. As a member of the National Federation of the Blind Scholarship Committee, I have met an astounding number of high school and college students who, because they had some vision, were deprived of Braille or were discouraged from learning it without regard to whether the student could read print well enough to compete with sighted peers.

One scholarship applicant, not unusual, uses taped books and a closed circuit television magnifier. Under the best conditions she is able to read for only a minute at a time, and that with great discomfort. She is enrolled as a part-time student in a community college, partly because her vision doesn't allow her to meet the reading and writing demands of full-time status. She has asked to be taught Braille, but her family and the teams of professionals with whom she has worked have actively discouraged it.

Too many parents assume that the experts must know what's best, and will necessarily do what's best for the child. Those assumptions are often wrong and prove to be quite costly to the blind child.

"What's best for the child" is a catch phrase that too often translates into decisions that are convenient for the teacher, school, or district and into efforts to make the blind child's educational needs conform to budget priorities.

Were my experience forty years ago and that of the college student I described mere coincidence? I don't believe they were. Nor do I believe that de-emphasis on literacy (Braille) was or is accidental.

De-emphasis on Braille is disgraceful, just as de-emphasis on print would be. People who have a good command of reading and writing skills tend to do better in math, science, history, languages, music, and all the rest. People who can read and write successfully have a better chance at competitive employment and every other situation in life, for that matter.

The anti-literacy/anti-Braille position taken by so many educators of blind children and adults has had wider negative impact than they might imagine. Several years ago I worked at an agency for the blind in Chicago. In support of a program to teach Braille, I submitted a grant request to the Chicago Tribune Foundation. The grant request was turned down. The reasons, according to a foundation spokesman, were that Braille has nothing to do with literacy, it is obsolete, and reading can be done by recordings.

I was disappointed that the program did not receive that support. I was disgusted by the ignorance of the foundation personnel, but I was not surprised.

For fifteen years I taught Braille for the Veterans Administration at Hines Hospital. One of my assigned duties was to supervise Western Michigan University interns (student teachers) studying to become rehabilitation teachers.

An alarming number of these interns didn't know Grade II Braille, could not write with a slate and stylus, and had to be instructed in the use of an ordinary Braille writer. One intern didn't know Grade I Braille, though he had taken and passed a Braille course.

Though I wrote negative reports regarding their poor skills, all of these interns passed the internship, and presumably all were certified by the Association for the Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER).

If future generations of blind people, children and adults, are to be literate, if future generations of blind people hope to be competitive in society, they must have access to the printed word by a method that will allow writing as well as reading. It is time for educators to grit their teeth and admit that a colossal error has been made.

Then they must bring themselves up to speed on Braille and all of its tools, mechanical and electronic. It is time for educators to join us in our effort to require that Braille be made available to any child who wants it and to participate in making sure that sufficient funding is available to make mandates and good intentions mean something.