Future Reflections Special Issue: Low Vision and Blindness 2005
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by Alison Mckee
Brian Kelley and his Braille teacher, Alison Mckee.
Editor’s Note: The decision to teach Braille to a low vision child is only the beginning of a series of choices that must be made. And those decisions and choices may continue for years after the initial Braille lesson. That’s what Alison Mckee, a teacher of blind students from Wisconsin, discovered. She first shared her story in response to another teacher’s post on the NFB teachers of blind children listserv, <firstname.lastname@example.org>. I was so impressed when I read the correspondence, that I emailed Mckee and asked for her permission to edit and print it under her name. Not only did she agree, but also she graciously got permission from the student’s family to use his name (Brian Kelley), and she even sent me some pictures. Mckee also sent, at my request, a short biographical sketch about her personal introduction to Braille; a most unusual story which I’ve included at the conclusion of this piece. Here, now, is—from one teacher to another—Mckee’s story about Braille and a low vision student. It begins with a post from a teacher in the Southwest:
As a teacher of blind students, I am constantly trying to educate others about blindness and the benefits of Braille. But I need some help. I need some personal experience stories to share with resistant teachers and parents.
We have a few elementary students in our district who can read
print material but who also, in my professional opinion, would benefit from
Braille. These students have a variety of eye conditions, some of which are
If you are a dual (print and Braille) reader, please share your experience and the benefits of learning Braille. I would also like feedback from other teachers about teaching Braille to kids who can read print, even regular-size print.
Too often people just look at what’s happening right now and
don’t look to the future.
Thanks for your input and help.
I cannot respond to your question as a Braille/print reader myself, but I am a teacher of the visually impaired who works with such a student, Brian Kelley. When this young man was first assigned to my caseload (he was in first grade at the time) it was immediately apparent to me that he read print with great difficulty. He hunkered down on the page, his nose to the print, and held one eye shut (to control the nystagmus) while he read with his better eye. I was puzzled. Should a child such as this learn Braille or be allowed to continue on as a print reader? By mid-year I decided that we had better give Braille a try, even though he saw no need for it. By year’s end Brian was doing all of his reading lessons in Braille and most of his writing in Braille. (He was unable to maintain neat, legible writing in print, no matter what I tried.)
We continued with both Braille and print in second grade, but he only used Braille for reading lessons. In third grade he decided he’d prefer to use print one-hundred percent of the time, although he would continue to use his Braille ´n Speak for written work. He enjoyed doing his work in print, but there were problems. He could not write out his math work (which is his strongest subject), he could not readily remember his Braille contractions when he was using both modalities, and there was a limited number of print books he could read given the fact that he needed well-spaced larger type. (This also limited the classroom teacher’s ability to select reading material for the entire reading group.)
In the fourth grade he continued using the Braille/print system we had devised. Mid-year he was assigned a research project. It was extremely trying for him. Everyone had to read to him because there were limited print resources that he could manage on his own. At the end of this assignment, I talked to him about the experience. We discussed how things had gone for him and I raised the question about whether or not it may have been easier for him to work entirely in Braille. He admitted that using Braille would probably have made it easier. We talked about how he still required a scribe (a live person working under his direction) to write his math out and how frustrating this was for him. He acknowledged the truth of this, too. By conversation’s end he was saying that he should “probably” use nothing but Braille the upcoming school year. Once he said that, I then asked him if we should talk this over with other teachers and his parents. He thought that was a good idea, too.
Needless to say parents and teachers agreed with this young man’s assessment of his situation. Brian and I then proceeded to develop a plan of action. He was already doing all of his social studies lessons in Braille, so we decided to slowly add on math and then reading. Our goal was to be one-hundred percent Braille by the final weeks of school. We almost made that goal. I worked with Brian on his Braille skills in the summer months and he was ready to do one-hundred percent of his work in Braille when he started school in the fall.
The differences his teachers and I have seen in Brian’s academic
work are astounding. Although he is not yet reading as fast as he would like
to be, he is able to keep up with all academics and do all of his writing independently.
Presently he is doing a research project on Louis Braille and the quality of
this project is ninety percent better than last year’s project. He was able
to read all the books on Louis Braille independently, do some of the Internet
work independently (he is just learning keyboarding and JAWS), and work with
the district Braillist when he needed specific articles Brailled. His energy
level and stamina has improved, his sense of humor has re-emerged, and he is
able to sit up all day long rather than bend over and try to follow along in
the print. He uses his electronic notetaker (the BrailleNote from HumanWare)
efficiently to keep organized (a folder for each subject with files for each
worksheet), to read books and worksheets that have been downloaded into it,
to spell check his work, to print his assignments out for his teacher, do mathematical
calculations, and much more.
I can understand people’s reluctance to have print readers learn Braille. I have been there. This year though, with all that I have seen improve for this young man, I feel confident that my initial hunch was right. Braille should be the first choice when students with low vision are taxing themselves to keep up. This student can still read print and, with luck, will be able to do so for quite some time in the future. But the difference, now that he has switched to one hundred percent Braille, is that he is quite independent, can read for hours at a time without fatigue, and he has time to enjoy himself.
Alison Mckee: My initial acquaintance with Braille is an interesting story. In 1958 my family traveled from San Francisco, where we lived, to New Jersey, where my mother had been raised, for our summer vacation. During that trip our family spent a day at Perkins School for the Blind. My mother had worked there before and during World War II. She wanted to introduce us all to Dr. Gabriel Farrell, who was still there. Dr Farrell gave us the grand tour of the campus. At the end of it he gave all five of us a Braille alphabet card. I was enthralled. I wanted to become a teacher of the visually impaired—a TVI—and work at a place like Perkins.
When we got back to San Francisco my mother showed me a slate and stylus and some old Moon Type books. She also showed me a picture of Helen Keller, inscribed “To Janet Holloway Cairns, with fragrant memories of a glorious day in Honolulu.” My own mother had actually spent a day with Helen Keller! I was hooked. On and off, during the years that followed, I tried to write Braille using my mother’s slate and stylus. Standard binder paper didn’t hold up too well, but I had fun anyway.
As I got older I began the process of learning more about the work of a TVI. In 1973 I did an internship in a resource room as part of my college experience. The TVI there told me about the Braille transcriber certification program offered through the Library of Congress. She also loaned me a Braillewriter. Soon, when I wasn’t studying for my regular classes, I was trying to teach myself the basics of the code.
That summer I married and moved to Minnesota. In 1974-75 I became certified as an elementary school teacher. In the meantime my husband found himself sharing an office with someone whose wife was a TVI. She had told her husband of the shortage of trained teachers in the area. By means of a phone call or two, I soon found myself interviewing for a job. Even though I had no TVI classes under my belt, the fact that I was a certified elementary school teacher and a certified Braille transcriber was enough for them. I was hired and given a provisional license.
I was well qualified for the work with one exception. I had no driver’s license and was being hired to be an itinerant teacher. Sometimes I wonder whether or not I would have been hired if that had come up. Luckily my husband was a good driving instructor and I was a quick learner!
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