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Braille Opens World for Mentally Impaired Child

by Denise Mehlenbacher

Editor's Note: Ms. Mehlenbacher is an enthusiastic, some might even say die-hard, Braille teacher. This is the second article she has submitted to Future Reflections. The first, 'Can Braille Change the Future' under the name Denise Staulter, was published in Volume 16, Number 4.


A student was placed in my caseload last Fall, 1996. She was nine years old at the time, did not speak much, and was labeled severely mentally impaired. No Braille instruction had been attempted until the 1995-1996 school year, and even that was with little success. My colleagues know that I love Braille and teach it with great enthusiasm, so I was given the chance to teach this child.

The first few months were very challenging, as this child has no sight and knew nothing of the written language and spoke little. The printed world held little meaning for her. I do not believe she really knew what I was trying to do, as I taught her the fingering on her Brailler and then placed her fingers on those all too elusive bumps that were supposed to hold meaning.

Every time she learned a letter I would rhyme it with an object I knew she could relate to, such as A for apple, B for bunny and so on, hoping that she would make a connection between Braille letters and the fact that they go together to make words. I practiced a lot on the letters that spelled her name, Ya Wana Fields, as I knew that would hold great importance for her if she could place them all together and that word would mean her name. By springtime she knew all the letters of her name and we started placing them together. I would tell her over and over that this was her name. Less than a week went by and the light bulb went on and she spelled it all by herself, over and over. Her classroom teachers couldn't believe it. A child who knew nothing about letters and words, was nine years old, and rarely spoke (which had changed dramatically by this point; she wanted to talk all the time now), could spell her name! The administrators and other teachers came around to see this miracle also. The excitement was so incredible that I still feel the chills of that moment.

Ya Wana is unstoppable now. At this point, February 1998, she has learned her whole alphabet, many new words, and wants to Braille as much as she can during our lessons. She has learned how to sound out words and spell them on her own. She has progressed so quickly for her abilities that I have placed her on an IntelliKeys board (a keyboard that has letters placed in alphabetical order, and adapted with Braille letters on top) with talking software. She is now working on spelling words and when the other students come up to find out what she is doing, she exclaims, Shh, go away, we're working.

These are the moments teachers live for. To see a child advance from a true world of darkness, having no literacy skills at all, to reading and writing and wanting more. Braille has made this child's world come alive with all the possibilities of learning new words and being able to read them back for herself. She is always ready to learn what I have planned for the day and rarely wants to quit when her time is up. Her other teachers practice these skills in her classroom, but she knows when she is with me there will be something new to learn. It will be wonderful to see where she will test out cognitively now that she is speaking, reading, and writing. Such potential that was hidden away now has been tapped into and is overflowing with possibilities.

This is what educators should do: unlock the potential with every tool that needs to be taught, reaching the child that was given up for lost, teaching them the possibilities of life.

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