by Jana Moynihan
(Editor's Note: This article is reprinted from the Blind Missourian, the National Federation of the Blind of Missouri newsletter.)
My personal experiences and those of many blind persons I know have given me some very strong feelings about the need for teaching Braille, cane travel, and other skills to all legally blind children. I have seen too many such children damaged as adults because they lack these skills.
I believe that this reluctance to teach Braille to a child with some usable reading vision comes from a feeling on the part of many parents, teachers, and students that to be, act, or appear sighted is the most desirable thing. Thus, it would be best to read regular print. If that isn't possible, then it is better to read large print or use a closed circuit T.V. than to read Braille. Reading Braille makes one "look blind." Of course, few educators will admit this. So we hear that "less is available in Braille," or that "the new technological advances are making Braille obsolete." We hear that "with all the subjects students must absorb in school today, the addition of Braille will create too much stress."
If you listen closely to some of the other statements of parents and teachers, however, you can detect that a premium is being placed on ability to read print because it makes the student seem more normal (sighted). For example: "Mary can read print, but John has to read Braille," or "My son isn't blind, he's just visually impaired." I know a number of blind people who had some reading vision while attending a school for the blind or special classes in public schools. Several of them have realized as adults that they or their parents resisted the idea of learning Braille in school because they wanted to read like their sighted classmates. They wanted to "FIT IN."
I was born totally blind with congenital cataracts. I was one of the rubella babies of the mid 1940's. I had three operations on my eyes by age three which resulted in my having vision of about 10/200 with correction in my best eye. If I strained, I could read large print in sight saving class. My parents, Bill and Jana Sims of Kansas City, felt that I would receive a better education in the Kansas City public schools than -I would in the Missouri School for the Blind. They felt that I needed Braille, but the public school didn't offer it. So, until they could bring enough pressure on the school board to establish a Braille class, they allowed me to remain in sight-saving.
Eventually, in fifth grade, I began learning Braille. After two years of instruction, during which I learned the basic skills well enough to read and write passably in Braille, I was placed in my neighborhood school full time in regular seventh grade. At that time, I wanted to "FIT IN," and had a definite preference for reading print.
About the end of my sixth grade year I had been fitted with reading glasses with microscopic lenses. I was so excited; for the first time I could read out of a regular book. It was a real thrill for me at that point in my life. I think if I had had to continue using large print that I would have had a definite preference for Braille because the large print books were heavier to carry around and hold. As it was, I liked the idea of using regular books so much that I started neglecting my Braille reading; of course, it didn't matter that it took me fifteen minutes to read one page, or that I had to hold the material so close that I couldn't participate in oral reading in class because I could not be heard through the book. I couldn't read out loud fast enough to make what I read interesting to myself or anyone else, but I was reading regular print, wasn't I?
I think I picked up this attitude mostly from my peers. My parents, fortunately, were not pleased. They knew I could read more efficiently in Braille, and they knew I might have to depend solely on Braille someday. My mother suggested, scolded, and finally forced me during the summer to sit down and read to her every day out of my Braille books to make sure I kept up my skill. This took place the summer before my eighth year. Eventually, I got the point that I could read faster and that I could enjoy reading without having a constant headache from the eye strain.
Despite my original teen-age reluctance to use Braille, there came a time when I was very grateful to my parents for having insisted that I learn and continue using it. At age twenty-six, I developed glaucoma, (it is not unusual for a child's partial vision to be lost in adult years due to a progressive eye disease or a secondary illness or injury.) Within a few months I lost my ability to read any print except that on the front of cereal boxes. Presently, I no longer have any vision in what was once my better eye. I have very little vision in the other eye. At the time I lost my reading vision, I had been a teacher for about nine months. If I had not already known Braille, I would have had to quit my job and get rehabilitation training. At that time, our state had a long waiting list for adults needing training in Braille and mobility. I might have had to wait over a year before training could begin. My chances of getting back into the job market after that time would have been dim. I could have become so frustrated that I might have given up and gone on welfare. I know many people who have followed just this pattern.
My husband knows of many partially sighted children he went to school with who are now totally blind. He attended a Catholic school for the blind on the east coast where all students learned Braille regardless of the degree of sight loss. He compared his friends from this school to those who attended the state schools for the blind which taught Braille only to students who were totally blind or who were expected to lose their sight within a few years. The friends from his school who lost their vision as adults were usually able to continue their jobs and other activities with minimal disturbance in their lives. Those who had not learned Braille as children found it harder to adjust to the loss of sight. They had a higher incidence of unemployment or need to change jobs.
This happened to our friend John, who had R.P. (Retinitis Pigmentosa). He grew up as a partially sighted child with limited ability to use large print. Whenever you asked his parents about John's vision problems, they would tell you, "Our son isn't blind, he's just visually impaired." They told that to everyone, including John. Although John could not read efficiently, he continued to use print. He had quite a struggle in college, getting poor grades although he was a good thinker. Eventually, as an adult, John lost his remaining sight. At that point, he learned Braille, but he never really mastered it. He did finish professional training and has a good job. However, he is totally dependent on a reader. He can't type and his Braille is limited to the extent that his reader must not only read material to him, but must take dicatation, writing up every report he is required to turn out. He admits that his productivity is less than that of others in his office. John is so dependent on his reader that I doubt he would be able to perform many of his job functions should government cut-backs eliminate his reader's position, he would then have to spend a large portion of his own salary for a reader's services in order to continue working at that job. This situation not only hurts John, it gives the employer a poor image of all blind persons.
For blind children a more immediate consequence of not knowing Braille is that they are limited in the amount of material that they can read in a given amount of time. Their reading speed is often less than fifty words a minute, one-fifth the reading speed of a sighted person. In addition, they will often strain, causing headaches and fatigue. Children usually will not tell you that they can't see something, especially if they think it is important to you that they do see it. They would rather strain because they usually want to please. This puts the child at a tremendous disadvantage.
My friend Mary never lost her limited reading vision. She can read print if she struggles. Mary found, however, that she could not keep up in college by reading print. She spent two frustrating semesters getting D's and F's because she couldn't complete the reading assignments. Finally, Mary learned Braille, but the experience cost her. She was not readmitted to the university until she had proven herself at a junior college. Because of her poor record, she had difficulty getting help from her state agency for the blind.
The emphasis on being able to read a little print regardless of cost gives the student the false impression that blindness is something about which to be ashamed. Students who get this idea have a hard time accepting the skills which would make their lives easier. We know many persons with vision low enough to make traveling difficult or dangerous, who won't use a cane because they felt they must not "look blind". My husband knew a girl who would wander in stores for hours because she could not read posted notices and didn't want to ask directions because someone would find out that she was blind. She was embarrassed to sign checks publicly because she put her nose on the checkbook to see the line. She didn't read much because she could only read print for fifteen or twenty minutes at a time and she wouldn't get books on record or learn Braille because that was "for blind people and I'm not blind."
Please don't misunderstand what I have said. I'm glad I learned print. I think children who have the ability to use it should know how to take advantage of it. No blind person denies that more is written in print than in Braille. I used my print reading for reference work and proofreading. However, I was able to minimize strain and speed up my work by being able to Braille notes and outlines for speech classes, Braille standard information for use on my job, and use Braille in english literature and foreign language classes where oral reading counted as part of my grade.
If today's child has too many things to learn, I would suggest teaching Braille first and print later...Technological advances such as tape recorded books, the optacon, and the closed circuit T.V.," are very helpful. However, for most legally blind persons, I believe there is no satisfactory substitute for Braille, both for efficiency and for full participation in the reading process.
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