Future Reflections                                                                                         Winter/Spring 2005

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Beyond Textbooks on Time:
Is the Battle for Braille Literacy Over?

by Mark Riccobono

Mark Riccobono
Mark Riccobono

In the September 1987, issue of the Braille Monitor, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, preeminent leader of the blind and advocate for Braille literacy, responded to a letter which suggested that technology would bring a certain end to the Braille code. Dr. Jernigan wrote in part:

 "So it may be with Braille–but the jury is still out. As is so often the case, we stand at a crossroads. Braille can either slide into oblivion, or it can become more usable and flexible than ever before in history. The decision is ours, and the time is now. I think the question will be settled during the next five to ten years. For my part I think it will be a tragedy if we permit Braille to become an anachronism. I say this knowing that many of the sighted educators of blind children (not being able to use Braille themselves, being too lazy to learn it, and having all kinds of psychological hangups about it) want to see it disappear–or, at the very least, diminish very greatly in use and importance. They are not the ones primarily affected. We are. Therefore, we are the ones who should have the major voice in determining what will happen."

Dr. Jernigan's sentiments may be considered harsh if measured against the feelings toward Braille in the field of blindness today. However, they are an accurate reflection of the frustration the blind and many parents of blind children of the 1980s felt about the lack of quality Braille instruction available to blind youth. And, the blind did indeed determine what should happen to Braille within the ten-year period Dr. Jernigan predicted.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the National Federation of the Blind waged what can only be described as an all-out assault on Braille illiteracy. The Federation's war for Braille literacy had four major components:

1. Ensuring the right of every blind child to read and write at levels commensurate with their sighted peers through the establishment of Braille as the default learning-medium for blind and visually impaired students.

2. Establishing a greater level of Braille competency among the teachers charged with educating blind children.

3. Educating the public about the Braille literacy crisis.

4. Ensuring the timely delivery of textbooks in Braille by encouraging publishers to participate in the process of textbook accessibility.

In looking at this list, can we say the war for Braille literacy is over? Have we reached our objectives? Can we now sit back and enjoy the fruit of our success? Let's briefly examine each point.

The Right to Braille Instruction: The Federation began to bring national focus to the Braille literacy crisis in the late 1980s. In 1989, the Federation proposed a unified effort within the field of blindness regarding Braille at the first meeting of the Committee on Joint Organizational Effort (JOE) held at the National Center for the Blind. Unfortunately, despite the promulgation of an initial statement, crafted at the JOE meeting, which affirmed the value of Braille and the right of blind children to have it, disagreement and contention around Braille persisted into the 1990s. While efforts continued toward getting an agreement that all members of the JOE could support, the federation proceeded to create a model Braille bill and urged its adoption in each state. (To read the model legislation go to <http://www.nfb.org/modelbrl1.htm>.) Although much progress was made–32 states eventually adopted Braille legislation–it was evident that more aggressive action at the federal level was required.

At the 1994 NFB Washington seminar, the Federation made a federal Braille literacy law one of the key objectives in its legislative agenda. The vehicle for the legislation was the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). While the premise was simple–every child has a fundamental right to literacy–the road to establishing this for blind children was difficult. However, in April of 1994, the organizations participating in the JOE committee finally reached an agreement on language that demonstrated a unified front in the field of blindness around the right to Braille literacy.

Eventually, the Braille provisions were included in the 1997 amendments to IDEA and victory on this point seemed secured. The intent of the IDEA language was to make Braille the default learning-medium for any student who is blind or visually impaired, ensuring that Braille will be taught unless an evaluation by the IEP team determines that Braille is not appropriate. Implementation was, and continues to be, another matter. However, in the final analysis one thing is clear: Braille is firmly planted in IDEA '97 and there is no need for debate about Braille instruction. It is in the law, it is the right thing to do, and there are fewer and fewer excuses for not providing Braille instruction.

Teacher Competency: Central to the discussion about Braille literacy was a growing concern about the level of Braille competency among educators of blind children. As the issue was debated and solutions sought, interest began to grow in establishing a national Braille competency exam. The JOE committee endorsed the concept and requested that the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of Congress develop it and establish procedures for its administration. The national Braille competency requirement was met with vigorous opposition in many states. Nevertheless, the action brought results in other ways. Many of the university programs that prepare individuals to be teachers of blind students increased their focus on Braille competency and aggressively took steps to promote more positive attitudes about Braille in their students. While a number of issues have prevented wide spread adoption of the Braille competency exam (this is beyond the scope of the present article), the evidence demonstrates that these efforts triggered considerable momentum for raising the bar for Braille competency among educators.

Public Education: The Federation took an aggressive and creative approach toward educating the public, including the field of blindness, about the critical role of Braille and the great barrier that illiteracy places on the blind. The Federation's efforts to raise awareness through speeches, conventions, distribution of literature, the development and dissemination of the video "That the Blind May Read," creation of the "Braille is Beautiful" curriculum, and the promotion of Braille legislation in every state brought considerable focus to the crisis and turned attitudes about Braille in a new and positive direction. To be sure, the establishment of the National Association to Promote the Use of Braille (NAPUB) and the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children's (NOPBC) twenty plus year history of offering the Braille Readers Are Leaders Program, also made significant contributions toward improving attitudes about Braille.

The strongest evidence of this attitudinal shift is the Braille enthusiasm that is prevalent in the field of blindness. The greater availability of free or affordable Braille storybooks, innovative programs like the American Foundation for the Blind's "Braille Bug," and the establishment of more and more contests focused on Braille competency, are all examples that Braille is more fervently supported than any other time in its rocky history.

Timely Textbooks: The effort to secure textbooks in an accessible format in a timely manner has consumed the bulk of the Braille literacy effort since the adoption of the IDEA '97 amendments. Finally, with the 2004 reauthorization of IDEA, the long fought-for provisions to ensure that textbooks are delivered on time have been put into the law. (The long road to ensuring "textbooks-on-time" is reviewed elsewhere in this issue.) While there are bound to be bumps during the implementation of these new provisions, we can say with confidence that one more significant barrier to Braille literacy has fallen thanks to the NFB and other supporters of the initiative within the field of blindness and the publishing industry. The excuse that it is too hard, too expensive, and takes too long to produce Braille books will soon be a thing of the past.

In this brief examination of our accomplishments in the Braille literacy efforts over the past twenty years, one is tempted to view Dr. Jernigan's letter of September 1987 as a foregone conclusion. However, the Braille literacy crisis was anything but predictable; it took concentrated effort to change the trends and bring us to where we are today. Yet, Dr. Jernigan had no doubt about our ability to achieve this end, he also wrote in his letter, "I have no doubt what we will decide and what we will do. Braille is not only here to stay but also in the early stages of a renaissance. I am convinced that by the time the twenty-first century is well under way, we will look back with a smile at those who said that Braille was finished." This statement is true but we are still left with the question, "Have we achieved our goals? Is the Braille literacy crisis over?"

I suggest that the toughest battle still lies ahead. The laws are clear, attitudes have shifted in favor of Braille (at least in the blindness field), but too many blind children in America are not receiving early, adequate Braille instruction. This is so despite the fact that recent research confirms that Braille literacy is critical for achievement and competitive employment. This is especially true for children whose residual vision is over-utilized and, thus, their potential is under-realized. In the 1990's, Dr. Ruby Ryles conducted groundbreaking research studies on Braille literacy. The studies led to the inescapable conclusion that "low-vision kids need to be taught Braille…" and that "early Braille education is crucial to literacy, and literacy is crucial to employment." ("New Research Study: Early Braille Education Vital in Establishing Lifelong Literacy," Future Reflections, volume 18, number 2, Summer/Fall, 1991.)

There is a significant gap between policy and practice related to the education of blind children. Few young blind children are receiving Braille instruction that is commensurate with the reading instruction that sighted peers receive. Isn't Braille literacy the same as reading, shouldn't the two be equal? Likewise, only very recent innovative efforts have begun to establish standards for Braille reading literacy skills. The goal of the No Child Left Behind act is to raise the bar of academic performance and establish accountability for performance for all children. Shouldn't we have a standard expectation for reading in Braille as we do in print? At least one state has made progress in this area. To learn more about California's innovative creation of Braille reading standards, go to <http://www.cde.ca.gov/sp/se/as/ab2326.asp>.

Yet, California is an exception, not a rule. There is a chronic struggle in local school districts throughout the country to get an appropriate frequency and amount of Braille instruction into the individual education plan (IEP), and then to ensure that the instruction is carried out. Many problems and circumstances–a lack of qualified teachers of blind students, a lack of understanding about Braille, and a long list of core and expanded-core curricular skills to be learned–make the effort to receive appropriate Braille literacy instruction a constant balancing act.

 Which is all the more reason we must begin to bring focus to the practical problem of getting timely Braille instruction to blind youth. Braille instruction need not be spread over many years if we find a way to provide an appropriate level at the front end. Advocates, parents, and educators need to come together to find an innovative solution to this puzzling problem. We have been successful in establishing the policies to ensure that need "could" be met. Now we need to develop the practice that will guarantee the need "will" be met. The excitement over our recent victory with IDEA 2004 should be channeled into a collective effort to develop innovative ways of increasing and improving the quantity and quality of Braille instruction to blind youth. As the capacity to deliver textbooks on time is put into place, we need to ensure that blind youth can read those textbooks with fluency, comprehension, and speed.

How can we increase Braille instruction in schools? How can we better prepare parents to reinforce Braille skills at home? What role can Braille advocates and blind, Braille literate adults play in improving instruction? How do we go beyond policy into effective practices with the resources available to us? These are all questions that need answers, now.

The National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute intends to be at the forefront of developing practical solutions to these questions, and we invite you to participate in that discussion. We recognize that pockets of innovation, as evidenced by the California standards, exist across the country. The first step to developing a nationwide solution is to stop reinventing the wheel, that is, to bring all of the innovative strategies to a central place. When we have a good picture of the approaches that are working, we can craft a model to disseminate across the country. This is the leadership role of the NFB Jernigan Institute.

We encourage you to send us articles, reports, descriptions, curriculums, and other materials about innovative and effective models for delivering Braille instruction and increasing early Braille literacy. Once we have this information, we can bring together leaders in the field to discuss the strengths and weaknesses in current approaches to Braille instruction in order to stimulate development of a national model for Braille excellence. This model will leverage the policy and attitude shifts we have brought about and will help bring Braille to children earlier and more effectively. No, the Braille literacy campaign is not coming to an end. In many ways the most important stretch awaits us. We can feel confident that another of Dr. Jernigan's dreams, the research and training institute he challenged us to establish before his death, will lead the way in completing the final steps of this important journey. Through the NFB Jernigan Institute, and with your help, the day is coming when no blind child will be left unable to read the Braille books that await him or her on the first day of school. v

Please send materials, descriptions, and first hand stories about innovative models for Braille instruction and early Braille literacy to:

Mark A. Riccobono
Manager of Education Programs
Jernigan Institute
National Federation of the Blind
1800 Johnson Street
Baltimore, Maryland 21230
Phone: (410) 659-9314, extension 2368
Email: mriccobono@nfb.org

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