Future Reflections Winter 1989, Vol. 8 No. 1

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by Bettye Krolick

Editor's note: This article is reprinted from the National Braille Association newsletter, the NBA Bulletin, Summer, 1988 issue.

The following is excerpted from the address given to the general session of the CTEVH/NVA conference, March 18,1988 in Irvine, California, by Bettye Krolick, president of the NBA.

When Bob Stepp, my husband's music student who knew nothing about Braille, wrote the first Braille editing program in 1980 from our Apple computer, we had no idea that in 1988 there would be over 700 teachers and transcribers using computers as a Braille tool. Nor could we have envisioned in 1988 a new industry to manufacture computer-driven Braille embossers would be in full swing or that paper companies would be turning out continuous- form paper just for our use.

The miracle of this technology was very simple, but exceedingly important. For the first time, I could ERASE Braille! I could erase, make a correction, and continue Brailling. To the Braillist's world, that was a real miracle.

My next experience with this technology was when my friend, Georgia Griffith, who is blind and deaf, ordered a paperless Brailler not intended for the deaf-blind. Bob Stepp devised a way for her to use it. He also taught her about computers. Before long Georgia had a job working for a computer service, using her computer from her own home. It brought this deaf-blind woman immediate, fruitful employment in addition to the Braille music proofreading she had been doing for years.

David Holladay has devised programs for direct use by the blind. He and his blind wife, Karyn Navy, work together in a successful business producing programs that visually impaired people can use directly and that help typists prepare reading materials in Braille.

Such technology has been a real breakthrough in the employment opportunity for the visually handicapped. Blind people are using computers, repairing computers, and building computers as well as writing software programs for them.

I see two major challenges in this otherwise rosy picture. One is to help prepare visually impaired children to use the technology that suits them best as they grow up. The other is the challenge to make computer technology available to every visually handicapped person who wishes to use it, not just the chosen few.

With a computer, visually impaired students can prepare lessons and papers independently. In addition to speech output, they have the capability to get their hands on the finished copy. Braille readers know how to read, write, spell, punctuate, and handle language in detail. Now they can erase, make corrections, and do the things that are exceedingly cumbersome in Braille alone. Material they turn in to a teacher and, later on to a publisher or business contact, is theirs, and thknow it is accurate. They are truly literate.

To help more students take advantage of computer technology, simply teach them Braille. Only a small percentage of visually impaired children are learning Braille skills. I find that in many public schools Braille is taught only to the totally blind and only to those unusually intelligent or who have parents who are demanding it be taught.

Today we face the major challenge of influencing public schools to put greater emphasis on teaching the Braille language not only to the bright totally blind child, but to the slower learner and, as an alternative language, to many of the partially sighted as well.

The second major challenge is that of making technology available to every visually handicapped person. You are undoubtedly ahead of me in identifying some of these problems. There are the schools with many computers and those with a precious few. There is the money needed for special equipment. And there are the attitudes of the teachers responsible for our mainstreamed students.

In many schools, computers are used in the first grade. Is that the time when the teacher sends the visually handicapped child back to the resource room for special help or a chance to work on other assignments? It takes more time, you know, to show a visually handicapped person how to use a computer. And besides, they can't see the screen.

Meet that challenge! Send the children right back at eighth grade level. Explain that exposure to computers is very important. Suggest learning up with sighted children who will read what it says on the screen. That is one reason for mainstreaming-to provide opportunities for blind and sighted children to work together.

School budgets are being cut back. How about recruiting volunteers to help work with students on computers? We members of NBA and CTE VH believe strongly in volunteerism, and we know it works. A volunteer who knew nothing about computers or Braille, that did understand kids, was a tremendous help to a Braille youngster. And how about Norman Blessum (author of the Braille program for the IBM PC) and Ken Smith who retired from their professions, but are working full-time now, helping produce materials in Braille?

To meet any of these challenges, you don't have to be a computer programmer or back-room hobbyist, you just have to have one--or know somebody who knows one. Encourage people to try. You never know who will come through. A man who thought Braille must have 26 characters to represent each letter of the alphabet, made a terrific breakthrough. That was Jack Hoefer, who wrote the program for transcribing Braille on a Commodore computer.

The automatic translation programs are taking care of a lot of the recreational reading needs. That scares some volunteer transcribers, but it doesn't scare me a bit. We want all the materials in Braille we can possibly get. Furthermore, we can't keep up with requests for textbooks, math, music and other technical materials.

This is the big challenge for transcribers--to learn the advanced technical codes. We now have the computer code, and we need people to learn it and use it. It can be used by people who do not know Nemeth code. Did all you transcribers hear me? You do not need to know the Nemeth code before you learn to do computer code. There is your challenge. Attend workshops and learn to be one of the people who transcribe computer books.

Another challenge is to get programs written for teaching Braille to transcribers or to the blind, such as programs to teach transcribers the advanced codes or to teach slow learners to read Braille. Projects like this could go to computer teachers looking for class projects or serve as ideas for a master's thesis. The results would be of extreme value to the handicapped.

There is no question that computer technology has opened fantastic possibilities to the visually impaired community and to those who help prepare their reading materials. Braille is vital if a child is to take full advantage of computers, and I believe many more children could be learning Braille than are now being taught this language that provides true literacy.

Let's work with classroom teachers to help our kids have the same chance as sighted kids to learn about, to use, and to have fun with computers. Be aware of and meet the challenges of attitude, of money, or of special needs to adapt computers for use with speech or Braille output.

Last, but far from least, we must meet the challenge of learning advanced codes and preparing materials in Braille that will help students and adults as they advance in the use of technology, with its effect on their potential employment.

Computers seem almost like a dream. Dream on, and make all your dreams come true.

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