by Denise Mehlenbacher
Editor’s Note: What can teachers or parents do if a child resists learning Braille? Denise Mehlenbacher, a teacher of the visually impaired and an avid advocate for Braille, recently sent me this article about her experiences with a low-vision child who balked at learning Braille. Ms. Mehlenbacher, by the way, has written other articles for Future Reflections under the name of Staulter. She currently works in Washington state as a teacher in a school district that, she reports, “supports my endeavors to create literate individuals.” Here is what Denise Mehlenbacher has to say about a child who resists Braille:
Last year one of my first grade students fought learning Braille from the day I began instruction with him. He had started Braille lessons in kindergarten with my colleague, but he failed to retain any of his Braille skills from the prior year. The former teacher told me that he began to resist learning Braille toward the last few months of school. Consequently, I had to start over with Grade I Braille. He is a very bright boy and has the potential to stay up with his classmates, but continually fought the idea of learning this skill. He wanted to prove that his eyes were good enough to see and do the work. He ended up with many back and neck aches from leaning over his work, and he became depressed because he could not finish it.
Much of last year, when he came to me for his Braille lesson, he would be upset about something that had occurred in class. He would start to talk about what happened, but then he would end up talking about how he was losing his sight, how that bothered him and made him a “bad boy.” We could not even begin our lessons until he got this off his chest. His classroom teacher would call me and tell me how he was laying his head on his desk, refusing to do his work. He was often depressed, and although he could talk about his situation, he could not pinpoint why he was always getting into trouble.
This student has been losing his sight since the age of three and knows many of the details. However, he still cannot understand completely why he is losing it and why it cannot be fixed. He knows that I went through a similar experience of losing my sight and how I was able to have surgery to regain the majority of it back. Of course, he wants the same surgery. He cannot understand the differences between our visual problems and why mine can be fixed and his cannot.
He fought everything I needed and wanted to teach him. He did his lessons fairly well while with me, but when he returned to his class he would refuse to do his work. Behavior problems arose quickly. His parents were distressed about his lack of progress and his fighting in school. They sought out and began counseling. This little boy needed to learn how to deal with losing his sight before he would ever want to learn Braille, adaptive technology, or any other blind skill. He needed to realize that there is an abundance to learn and experience without vision. He needed to know that it is okay to be blind.
After only a few months of family counseling I can see an incredible difference in this little boy. I taught summer school, and Mom came to class periodically. She also learned Grade I Braille and now races her son on the Brailler. She also lets him check her work after she completes it. This gives him great joy. His attitude toward Braille has changed. I think he believes he is not alone in this new skill. His peers are not learning it, but Mom is learning it. This makes an incredible difference in how he feels about himself and Braille. Mom and Dad also have him read Braille to them almost every night, and his skill has increased ten-fold.
He has started the new year with a different attitude. I just began chapter books with him. During class silent reading he reads aloud to me so I can help him with the new contractions. Now, when the teacher says it is time to “Put your books away,” he is always trying to sneak in a couple more lines. He can also participate in class when the class is doing dictation, reading sentences, and trying to find the correct answer. His Braille reading is still slow, but he is gaining quickly. I see great strides taking place for him now that his parents are learning Braille and constantly encourage him to read to them at home.
If blind children do not frequently have their fingers in a Braille book, they will not pick up the skill. Sighted children see the printed word constantly and can pick up words indirectly just by looking around. It is so important for parents to realize the impact they can have on their children with visual impairments. If parents take an interest in and learn the skill of Braille, their children will realize that Braille matters and that learning it matters. This attitude will follow the children into school and their reading skills will increase, making for a much more successful person.