Future Reflections Winter 1996, Vol. 15 No. 1


The Value of Learning Braille as a Child

by Mary Hartle

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 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 also 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. 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, although I did 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 that of 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 with a little useful residual vision become blind adults with little or no ability to read print. Although I use Braille in my day-to-day life and on the job, I do not read with the speed I could have if I had 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 than I had. In fact, the need to read as efficiently as possible is more crucial today than ever before. Without Braille the chances of these children's getting through high school, much less going beyond it, 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 know how important Braille is for children today who can barely read standard print or who rely on large print. School does not have to be and should not be torture. I believe visually impaired children must be given the opportunity to learn Braille if:

1. they cannot read print at speeds comparable to that of their classmates;
2. they cannot hold reading material at a normal distance from their eyes; or
3. they cannot read print for long periods.

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.

That was Mary Hartle's description of growing up and being educated without an efficient tool for reading and writing. Contrast her experience with that of Jana Schroeder: