Future Reflections Winter 1996, Vol. 15 No. 1
by Jody W. Ianuzzi
Editor's note: Let us begin by conceding that there really are some legally blind children who are appropriately being taught to read print. If the child can truly engage in sustained reading of normal print in most light with comfort, and if the strong likelihood is that the youngster's vision will remain stable, there is no sensible argument for insisting that Braille be taught unless the child or parents wish to have it done. But there are thousands of blind adults today (and our numbers are growing) who deeply regret that no one required us to learn Braille at a period in our lives when mastering it would have been relatively easy.
Many parents and children, wrestling with the denial that is an inevitable part of coming to terms with significant vision loss, cling to the presence of whatever tiny amount of residual sight there may be as an indication that their worst fears at least have not come to pass. To the public mind blindness is synonymous with helplessness, hopelessness, and incompetence. Facing their children's blindness for the first time, parents, who are after all members of the general public, can be forgiven for reacting out of ignorance and on incorrect information.
The betrayal of blind children that is harder for knowledgeable blind adults to forgive is that of many special education teachers who should know better. But even here we must remember that they too are the product of their past inadequate education and their current environment. These educators are not the first professionals to confuse correlation with causation: given a choice between learning print and Braille, children with residual sight will usually choose print. The conclusion to which virtually every teacher incompletely trained in Braille is eager to jump is that the cause of this behavior is the difficulty and complexity of Braille. Or again, offered the chance to be excused from doing assignments in Braille, blind children will almost always opt for less work. The conclusion is that Braille is slow and inefficient. The actual cause in both these examples is that blind youngsters are normal kids, who like to be a part of the gang and who are delighted to get out of homework whenever possible.
A little honest reflection about this situation suggests that the real culprit here is the inadequate and inappropriate education of the special education teachers, most of whom are not competent or confident themselves in using Braille and who also believe that their students should not be expected to compete successfully in school or in life.
We of the National Federation of the Blind know just how damning and demeaning such a wholesale dismissal of blind students really is. There are too many studies of children's conforming exactly to their teachers' expectations for us to observe this phenomenon with unconcern. Recognition of what is happening to today's blind students fuels the Federation's state-by-state effort to require teacher competence in Braille reading and writing for those educators devoting their careers to teaching blind and visually impaired students. We must take every opportunity to educate and encourage good teachers about what they can do to assist and support their blind students, and we must confront those who would dismiss our efforts to improve the educational possibilities for these youngsters.
Jody Ianuzzi is the President of the Monadnock Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of New Hampshire. She knows first-hand about limited opportunities and disappointed expectations. She is articulate and outspoken, and her message is compelling. Here is what she has to say about teaching Braille to children with a little residual vision:
Literacy has become a fashionable issue in the United States today. So many people have slipped through the educational system unable to read that it has become an embarrassment to their educators. Most of these people hid their illiteracy from their teachers or simply dropped out of school at an early age. This situation exists all across the country, but what about the one student population illiterate due to the decisions and actions of their teachers? These students are the blind children of America.
I would like to address the resource and itinerant teachers with the adult voice of their students:
I consider myself to have been functionally illiterate for most of my life! When I was growing up as a blind child in the public school system in Connecticut, I didn't have to learn Braille; I could read print. I was a high partial, and with my nose in the book I could read my first grade primer. It was work, but I could make out the letters. By the fourth grade the print began to get smaller, so I had to try even harder. In the seventh grade I was assigned to remedial reading classes because my reading speed was still at the third grade level. In high school I got all my work done; it just took me four times as long as my classmates. I loved learning, and I wove wonderful dreams for myself of academic success after high school.
I went off to college, but instead of succeeding, I fell flat on my face! There was no way I could keep up with the work load using the reading skills I had been taught. My totally blind friends had little trouble taking notes, reading, organizing their readers, etc. I told myself that I should have done better than they; after all I had some vision. But the fact was that I couldn't study as a sighted student, and I didn't have the skills to study as a blind one.
When I was a child, I had an itinerant teacher. She came to visit once or twice a week to help me with my class work and to evaluate my progress. I remember that she spent the majority of her time tutoring me when I fell behind. My mother was upset because the totally blind students always had priority over the partials. We got the teacher's left-over time. We weren't really blind, but we weren't really sighted either.
I am thirty-eight years old, and I am now learning Braille. It isn't a difficult task; memory is reinforced by using the signs. I love Braille! My reading time and speed are not limited as they are in print. I find Braille to be a refreshing experience with endless possibilities.
Reading print has always been like trying to listen to music on a distant radio station: the sound is so faint and there is so much static that it is hard to appreciate the music itself because listening is so much work. Reading Braille is more like sitting in a symphony hall. The music fills you without your even having to work. My well-meaning teachers thought they had made the right decision for me. Oh how I wish I had learned Braille as a child.
My story is not unique or exceptional. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of blind adults now recognize that they missed out on a proper education. Perhaps this is because the retrolental fibroplasia generation (people born prematurely after World War II and exposed to too much oxygen in incubators) was the first to attend public school in numbers, and the methods of educating blind children who did not attend residential schools had not been established. Itinerant teachers of blind children were pursuing a brand new specialty. Now the next generation of blind students is attending public school, but the methods of teaching them haven't improved over the years. Instead, some of the misguided attitudes and ideas that were born in the infancy of this new profession have been institutionalized as established methods. When I was a student, fifty-two percent of blind students were learning Braille; now less than ten percent of blind children are doing so. Clearly illiteracy is increasing.
I was recently a speaker at a conference for itinerant teachers of blind children, where I attended a seminar on the subject, Braille or print for low vision students. I left this seminar feeling bitter, not for my own experience (I am changing that), but for the blind children of today. There are blind children with less vision than I have who are being taught print only. Their teachers believe that they are making the right decision. These children will be able to get by using their vision, but they will never be able to compete successfully with their peers.
The impression I got from listening to these teachers of blind children is that they perceive Braille to be a difficult system to learn. Imagine what would happen if music teachers decided not to teach their students to read music because they had come to believe that musical notation was too difficult to learn, much less to teach. How much music would students learn to play if their music teachers couldn't read the notes? Unfortunately, not very many teachers of blind children are fluent in reading and writing Braille themselves. No wonder so few blind youngsters are mastering the code.
Blind children are like all others; they don't want to appear different. If they are given a choice, they prefer print because their friends read print. But a low-vision child already looks different while struggling to read with his or her nose inching across the page, collecting printer's ink. Wouldn't teachers do better helping to instill confidence in their blind students as competent Braille readers instead of insisting that they become poor print ones? Sighted children are delighted to learn about Braille, but they have little understanding or compassion for the poor print reader, who can't keep up with them. The sooner the blind child realizes that it is no big deal to be different, the easier his or her life will be.
At this conference I was also told that the low-vision child might not want to learn Braille and that it is impossible to teach these kids what they don't want to learn. Suppose a sighted child didn't want to learn print, or the music student didn't want to learn musical notation; what would the teacher's response be? how much can any children be expected to learn if they are permitted to impose their own preferences on their early instruction in the fundamentals?
I believe that unconsciously teachers of blind students give children a choice posed like this: which will it be? the easy, acceptable, right way to learn, using print, or the difficult, different, old-fashioned way of reading, using Braille. Given any choice in the matter at all, which would any child select? Why can't teachers make Braille special in a positive way? Braille was originally based on a system devised by the French army to send secret messages at night. The night writing was later perfected by Louis Braille for use by the blind. Why not give children the feeling that they are learning a secret code? The blind child can read in many places where his or her sighted friends can't: under the covers without the use of a flashlight, in the car traveling at night. You can read Braille books without people reading over your shoulder. You can even read your Braille book in your desk without your teacher knowing it. Why not make Braille fun!
The debate at this conference included discussion of the question whether or not a blind child could learn print and Braille at the same time. Wouldn't the child become confused? But the two systems don't compete for the same space in the brain. Can a child learn to use a calculator and a touch telephone at the same time? The two keyboards are reversed, but children don't find this confusing. The child knows that one is a phone, the other a calculator. I know a two-year-old who is learning English and German from her bilingual parents. She is having no difficulty learning the differences. If children can learn these things simultaneously, why should educators draw the line at learning Braille and print at the same time?
Many teachers believe that there are so many new high-tech aids available for blind children that it is no longer necessary to teach them the out-dated system of Braille. But how practical are some of these expensive, bulky devices like the closed circuit television when a child has to use it in a very limited and special environment? Will such devices be useful for obtaining all the information the child needs? Braille is portable, lightweight, and versatile.
The slate and stylus and the Brailler are simple, low-tech devices, but if you want to consider high-tech, portable equipment, the Braille 'n Speak and the Braille Mate are excellent note-taking and computer interface devices. These aids were never mentioned at this conference. The only aids discussed were those that depended on some limited sight.
There are many tools available for use by blind people, and none should be relied on exclusively or ignored. Each has its own place. Just as a carpenter needs many tools to build a house, a blind person can use many tools to acquire information. The Optacon, for example, is a slow but useful device for reading mail, and there are many other technical aids to assist a child who cannot use print efficiently and comfortably. But just as a carpenter can't be expected to build a house using only a hammer, no one tool should be used as the single device to help a blind child.
Conducting an evaluation to determine the reading method for a child is usually done under ideal reading conditions and in short periods of time. Is it reasonable to expect that a child will always have ideal lighting for reading and writing? How long can the child read before headaches or eye strain make it impossible to continue? Does the eye strain of reading contribute to increased eye problems? For example, when I was growing up, we didn't realize that my straining to read was inducing acute glaucoma attacks which have further decreased my vision. First and foremost a reading method should be comfortable and enjoyable to the reader. How much would you read if it always hurt or was always work?
When selecting a reading method, it is natural to think of the primary use to which we put it, reading books. But there are many other applications for reading and writing that have to be considered in choosing the most efficient method. Taking notes in class, doing research, labeling, maintaining recipes, filing addresses: these are all examples of the way we use reading. Thus, someone who can read print to a limited degree might not use print for note taking because of the amount of time it takes to write legibly or to decipher the notes later. In this example Braille would be faster. Labeling in Braille is more practical in many cases simply because it is impossible to get close to the labeled items to see them or to shine enough light on the print to read itþthe back of an appliance or an array of canned goods on a storage shelf, for example. Blind children may not be dealing with these problems now, but they will as adults. The very purpose of education is to prepare youngsters for what they will face in the future!
One can reasonably ask whether today's older blind students are being taught how to order their own books from Recording for the Blind and whether they are learning to hire, supervise, and use readers for study and research in preparation for college. Blind students must know how to balance their schedules to accommodate their special study needs, whatever they happen to be. If blind students are to compete successfully in college and in life, all these are necessary skills.
I told conference participants about my experience as a low-vision student and about how I was learning Braille as an adult. Without thinking of the implications of her statement, one itinerant teacher turned to me and said, "If you're learning Braille, then good luck!" Too many teachers of the visually impaired are limited by their own visual perception of the world. If they woke up tomorrow with low vision, many would try to funnel all the information they need through woefully inefficient eyes rather than learning to maximize their unimpaired senses. It is past time for them to think blind and not be limited by their vision.
If I could speak directly to open-minded teachers, I would say to them: when you evaluate your students, don't just think of how they are coping at the present; think ahead. What will happen to your students in college and as adults? Are you giving them all the skills they need to prosper in life, or will they have to be content with just getting by? Remember, if that is their fate, it will not have been because of their blindness but because they lacked the skills they needed to conduct their lives effectively as blind people. Ask yourselves this question: in twenty years will your students be grateful to you for teaching them the skills they needed, or will they be learning them on their own and trying to make up for lost time?