Future Reflections Sept./ Oct./ Nov.1984, Vol. 3 No. 4
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by Sharon Duffy
Yes, I do carry a Braillewriter in my pocket! And how is this possible? (They are rather larger than most pockets!) Of course, I am referring to a slate--a highly versatile Braille-writing tool. I can write a grocery list, a telephone number, a multi-page treatise, or almost anything else with it.
Yet, I have met a number of people who do not consider the use of the slate practical for children learning Braille. To the uninitiated, the prospect of punching three or four holes per letter, "backwards," and working from right to left appears complicated and tedious at best. However, in my four years of teaching blind persons from ages 7 to 74,1 have never had a student who could not master this skill.
As regards speed, I have only one thing to say -- any worthwhile skill takes time to develop. Sighted children spend years learning to color, print, and handwrite. So, a blind child should not be expected to write with great speed and accuracy to begin with. It will come with practice.
The problem of having to write from right to left, letters in reverse, is a complication that many adults mistakenly believe will lead to more confusion for children learning Braille. Although this may be true initially, the marvelous human brain accommodates this problem readily--especially for children, since their thinking patterns are more flexible. When teaching Braille, I always teach the dot numbers and then explain that the numbers remain the same but horizontally change places in writing. That is, dots 1, 2, and 3 are on the right or "first" side for the cell for writing, while they are on the left side of the cell for reading. The concept of dots 1-2-3 being the first read or written, eliminates a great deal of the problem.
To say all of this is not, however, to address the real problem in teaching or encouraging the use of the slate. The real problem is the lack of faith that many people have in using the slate. They believe that, because they cannot themselves use it efficiently, it must be inefficient for others as well. So, my best advice is to sharpen personal skills to teach better. Confidence, or rather the lack of it, will undermine the best efforts of a teacher. The child will pick this up more readily than the skill itself. The hidden curriculum! So, beware of negative attitudes.
Negative attitudes regarding the use of the slate are part of the general belief that Braille itself is difficult. The fact is that the system itself is not difficult, but it does require practice, just as reading and writing print requires practice. Many factors contribute to this attitude -- First, most people do not know Braille, and so assume it is difficult. Second, adults (sighted or blind) who learn Braille as adults must practice to achieve competence in reading and writing. Although the system can be learned quickly, and although they learn it much more rapidly than they learned print as children, the comparison of the new skill to the familiar one results in an unfair conclusion that Braille is difficult.
At first, the Perkins Brailler appears easier than a slate, so many teachers rely almost exclusively on the Perkins. If they teach the slate at all, they wait until junior high or high school, and they may regard it as mainly for the college-bound. I strongly advise against this practice for several reasons: first, it makes the student feel that the slate must be very difficult to use, second, it restricts opportunities to practice on the slate, thus greatly reducing speed and proficiency, third, inadequate practice with the slate discourages the use of Braille anywhere except at home and school where the Perkins is handy.
All this would not be so important if the relative competence in using Braille did not so directly bear on the ultimate success of a blind person. In college I used a slate because I am not strong enough to carry a Brailler all over campus, and because a Brailler is too noisy to use in the classroom. In one university which I attended, a blind person did use her Braillewriter in class. A very relieved professor greeted me at the close of my first day in his class. He told me of this other student and said that her Braillewriter was extremely annoying during his lectures, and that he worried that her friends were overworked from carrying her Braillewriter from class to class.
This brings up another issue, that of image. I am certain that this student's classmates viewed her as a person needing special treatment and cumbersome methods which were inconvenient both for her and for those around her. This belief does not foster equality for blind people in employment and educational pursuits. Had this student considered the slate to be a viable note taking method, this unfortunate situation would never have occurred.
I must digress here, however, to note that she did succeed in one vital respect, at least she did produce notes which were really useful in review. An alarming number of students attempt to use a method which, though quite, is disastrous as a study skill, namely, tape-recording lectures. This is really not "note-taking" at all. Forty hours of lecture become forty hours of tape, with no provision for quick summary or review. A rehabilitation counselor recently remarked, "Last year I knew of four students who started college expecting to tape-record lectures. Every one of them flunked out."
In emphasizing the value of the slate, I do not mean that a Braillewriter has no place. I own and use one daily. I find it more efficient for mathematical record-keeping and for editing, since what has been written is more immediately accessible for review. I also own and use a slate daily, both at home and elsewhere, because it is more convenient. Of the two, I would say it is more important that a blind person use a slate, because it is portable, quiet, and versatile. Many blind persons function quite adequately without a Braillewriter. But those without adequate slate-writing skills must rely heavily on others for note-taking. With the slate I have a, "Braillewriter in my pocket."
Sharon Duffy is a very competent, knowledgeable woman who has considerable experience in teaching and counseling blind persons of all ages. Sharon first attended a school for the blind at the age of 4 1/2, and later attended a public school at the age of 16. She reports that she became "hooked" on reading in the third grade. Later in life, removal of congenital cateracts increased her visual acuity, but not enough for the efficient reading and writing of print. Sharon is an active member of the National Federation of the Blind, and is currently employed as a rehabilitation teacher/counselor of the blind in Idaho.
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