Future Reflections Convention Report 2010
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by Stephanie Kieszak-Holloway
From the Editor: Stephanie Kieszak-Holloway is president of the Georgia Parents of Blind Children and serves on the NOPBC board of directors. At this year's convention she gave a presentation on Braille that was packed with valuable information.
My daughter, Kendra, is totally blind. I got started with the NFB right away, when she was very young. At my first convention I went to the opening session and listened to a panel of students led by Barbara Cheadle, who was the NOPBC president at that time. At the end of the presentation I raised my hand and asked a question. My voice was shaking and tears were running down my cheeks. I asked them, "How will my daughter make friends?"
Seven years later, I can hardly believe I asked. If you've ever met my daughter, you'll know that she can't stand within five feet of anyone without introducing herself. But as parents of young blind children we worry about these things, and we don't always have someone who can answer our questions.
I'm here to talk to you today because I'm Kendra's mother. In the seven years she's been on this earth I have learned quite a bit about Braille. I had never known a blind person before Kendra was born. I had a lot of misconceptions. My connection with the NFB has been very helpful to me. As parents of young blind children we get bombarded with an awful lot of negative information. We hear from teachers and therapists about all the things our kids won't do or can't do. Honestly, the only thing I've found so far that Kendra can't do is play a competitive game of tennis. Still, I take her to the tennis court, put a racquet in her hand, and tell her to bounce and hit. Now she has that hands-on experience and she knows why I'm screaming when I watch a women's match.
Some blind people may tell you that Braille is slow, hard to learn, and outdated. If that's what they're saying, they probably haven't been taught Braille in the right way. If you make learning fun it's going to stick a lot more, no matter what the subject matter. When you talk to your children about Braille, try to sound enthusiastic. Show them that you're learning it too.
Just like sighted children, some blind children have a hard time learning. Others are little geniuses. Some need extra help and some are writing computer programs when they're five. There's a tendency for educators to say, "A blind child will be slow," or "A blind child will be developmentally delayed." There is really no reason to make that assumption.
Recently a parent asked me, "When do you start exposing a blind child to Braille?" Think about sighted babies. A sighted baby is exposed to print from the moment he's born. As soon as his eyes start to focus, he sees print on the box of diapers, print on food labels, print in storybooks. The child is absorbing print whether he knows it or not. Eventually he learns to identify the letters of the alphabet and realizes that those letters can be combined into words.
Now think for a moment about what a blind baby is exposed to. The blind child is not typically born into a world of Braille. She isn't automatically exposed to the written word the way the sighted baby is. Some blind children aren't exposed to Braille until they start school. If you have a child with low vision who can read some print, you might be told that she doesn't need to learn Braille at all. Think for a moment about the disadvantages of all this for the blind child.
Then look at writing. A sighted toddler is given crayons and encouraged to scribble. Scribbling is preparation for learning to write. How often does a blind child get that same opportunity? Let your child practice punching out letters on the Perkins Brailler. Get a slate and stylus and let your child play by punching dots. Let your child hear you using those tools, too.
The good news is that a blind child who is exposed to Braille at an early age can read and write as well as his or her sighted peers who read print. The NFB, through its Braille initiative, is working to increase the number of children being taught Braille. Imagine if you had a class of sighted children and only one out of ten of them was being taught to read and write! That's what is happening with our blind children. It is estimated that only one out of ten blind children is being taught Braille. It's important for parents to know that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, contains a provision that reads, "The IEP team shall, in the case of a child who is blind or visually impaired, provide for instruction in Braille and the use of Braille unless the IEP team determines, after an evaluation of the child's reading and writing skills, needs, and appropriate reading and writing media, including an evaluation of the child's future need for instruction in Braille or the use of Braille, that instruction in Braille or the use of Braille is not appropriate for the child." According to this law, the schools have to offer Braille unless they can demonstrate why they shouldn't.
Unfortunately, the law doesn't mean you're going to get Braille for your child without a fight, especially if your child has low vision. If your child has enough vision to see some print, you might hear that Braille is unnecessary. My response is, "How could it possibly hurt to teach that child Braille?" The more tools we can give our children, the better off they'll be. My daughter's TVI says, "It's just one more tool in the toolbox." If you have a young child who is already struggling to read large print, it's not going to get easier. The print will get smaller and there will be a lot more reading to do the further he goes in school.
Since Kendra has no vision at all, nobody ever tried to tell us she had to read large print. By the middle of kindergarten she was reading above grade level, at forty words per minute in contracted Braille. She knew 121 of the 189 Braille contractions. Last year, in first grade, she was being given fourth- and fifth-grade spelling words, and she read Charlotte's Web independently. I don't know if anything we did at home contributed to her reading ability, but in case our efforts paid off, I want to share them with you.
Before Kendra could talk, we put Braille labels all over the house. Since there is print everywhere for kids who are going to be print readers, there should be Braille everywhere for kids who are going to read Braille. We used a Braille label maker, which is very simple even if you don't know Braille yet. The print letters are around the bottom so you can see the letter you will be printing out. We put labels on the refrigerator, the lower cabinets in the kitchen, the stove, the table, the chairs. When she started speaking Kendra found the label on her high chair and asked me what it said. At that point I knew she had made the connection between those bumps and words.
We also bought a Perkins Brailler for her so she could scribble and also hear us using it. We bought Braille label makers for our relatives so they could send her notes. We bought two Braillers, one on eBay and one on Craigslist.
Keep in mind that the Perkins Brailler takes a lot of finger strength. When Kendra was younger she worked with an occupational therapist to do some exercises to strengthen her fingers. There are a lot of little games to build strength in the fingers and hands, things like popping bubble wrap or squirting a water gun. It's also important to do activities that increase the child's tactile discrimination.
Early on we found all of the companies that offered Braille books for children, and we started to create a home library. If you're not familiar with the Braille Book Flea Market here at convention, I highly encourage you to attend. There is a huge room full of Braille books for the kids to select. All of the books are given away free; they just ask you to make whatever donation you choose. If you want Twin Vision® books, the ones that have print and Braille on the same page, get there early! It's like a feeding frenzy! Everyone finds out where they are, and they go really fast!
When Kendra got a little older we started to teach her the Braille alphabet. We made a game of making the letters by putting tennis balls into six-hole muffin tins. The six holes are arranged like the six dots in the Braille cell. To make the letter “a” you put a tennis ball in the top left hole. This game doesn't help with the tactile learning of Braille, but it works at the cognitive level, helping the child remember the dot positions. As Kendra became more familiar with the dots we started to play timed games. We'd call out a letter and see how fast she could put the tennis balls in the right position.
Kendra loves tactile graphics, and there aren't many books out there that include raised pictures. One that she enjoys is Humpty Dumpty and Other Touching Rhymes, which you can purchase from National Braille Press. A six- or seven-year-old sighted child can find plenty of picture books, but for blind kids that age there are very, very few. To help fill that gap we started to make story boxes to go with some of Kendra's books. You find small objects that go along with the story. A great program is Dots for Tots. Four times a year they send you free Braille books for your child, and they always include one Twin Vision book with a matching audiotape and a stack of objects.
We wanted reading to be fun, so we were always on the lookout for toys that incorporated Braille. eBay is a great place to look for them. We found several items, including the Alphabet Annie talking dolls, the Spelling Bee with both print and Braille letters, and the Elmo Phone with Braille numbers on it. When Kendra was in kindergarten I started creating a Word of the Day that I would put into her lunch-box. It began as a simple word on an index card, and it morphed into a tactile arts and crafts project. For instance, one time I made a harp out of cardboard with rubber bands for strings, and the word harp Brailled on it. It was a great way to help Kendra get interested in reading and a great way for me to practice my Braille.
As soon as she started learning contractions, Kendra had very little tolerance for me writing in uncontracted Braille. I found a Website where you can type in a word and it shows you the dot positions. I'm still taking the introductory Braille class through the Hadley School for the Blind. The Hadley School offers free correspondence courses for parents through the Family Education Program and you get to keep all of the materials they send you. When they have extra materials available, they will send those, too. Recently my teacher sent me a set of Brailled wooden blocks that unfortunately aren't always available.
We wanted to introduce Kendra to other Braille readers so she wouldn't feel she was the only one who was not reading print. When she was younger we enrolled her in the Braille Reading Pals program, a free program sponsored by the NOPBC. When she got a little older she signed up for the Braille Readers Are Leaders Contest, a ten-week contest where kids keep track of how many pages of Braille they read.
The NFB is a great place to look for role models, especially if you're like me and didn't know any blind people until your child came along. In addition to the adults we've met, we have also met a blind college student who has become a mentor for our daughter. When Kendra was in kindergarten, this student went to her school and read two Braille books to the class. It was good for all of the kids to have that exposure.
Last year I wrote an article for Future Reflections about all the things Kendra's teachers did to make the classroom accessible and ensure that things ran smoothly for her. It was in the special issue on Braille, which contains a lot of good articles and is a great resource. I've also written a follow-up article about Kendra's first-grade year. Things are so much easier when you can get the teachers involved and get them excited about introducing Braille into the classroom.
I want to close with a piece of advice that is relevant whether your child reads print or Braille. Read, read, read! Make it a family activity. Make it fun. Reading enriches the whole family.
Future Reflections: Special Issue: A Celebration of Braille; Volume 28, number 1, 2009.
Curran, Eileen. (1988) Just Enough to Know Better: A Braille Primer. Boston: National Braille Press.
ISBN: 9780939173150. <www.nbp.org/ic/nbp/JETKB.html>
Castellano, Carol and Dawn Kosman.
The Bridge to Braille: Reading and School Success for the Young Blind Child.
Sources of Braille Books
Braille Institute of America, Inc.
741 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90029
(800) 272-4553 or (323) 663-1111
American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults (AAF)
Kenneth Jernigan Lending Library Service
18440 Oxnard St., Tarzana, CA 91356
National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS)
1291 Taylor St., NW, Washington, D.C. 20542-0002
(202) 707-5100 or (800) 424-8567
American Printing House for the Blind (APH)
P.O. Box 6085, 1839 Frankfort Ave., Louisville, KY 40206
(502) 895-2405 or (800) 223-1839
National Braille Press (NBP)
88 St. Stephen St., Boston, MA 02115
(617) 266-6160 or (888) 965-8965
Seedlings Braille Books for Children
P.O. Box 51924, Livonia, MI 48151-5924
(734) 427-8552 or (800) 777-8552
Equipment (label makers, slate and stylus, etc.)
National Federation of the Blind, Independence Market
200 E. Wells St., Baltimore, MD 21230
Independent Living Aids (ILA)
Braille Education and Resources for Parents
Hadley School for the Blind
700 Elm St., Winnetka, IL 60093
(847) 446-8111 or (800) 323-4238
Braille Contraction Dictionary
Perkins School for the Blind
175 N. Beacon St., Watertown, MA 02472
Toys (check eBay or Craigslist)
Alphabet Annie Doll
Braillin Braille Learning Doll
V-tech toys (Buzz the Spelling Bee, others)
Fisher Price Elmo phone
National Braille Press Reading Caravan
Playskool Alphabet Magnets with Braille
Uncle Goose Braille Alphabet Blocks
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