Braille Readers are Leaders
For the Media
Braille equips the blind with literacy in the exact same manner that print empowers the sighted. Yet, today fewer than 10 percent of blind children are learning Braille. The National Federation of the Blind is introducing the Braille Readers are Leaders Literacy Campaign to improve Braille literacy and double the number of young Braille readers by 2015.
The Braille code, the primary system of reading and writing used by people who are blind, is a relatively modern invention that has frequently met with opposition. The code is named after its creator, Louis Braille (1809-1852), who developed and published the first manual on his code at the age of eighteen. Blind students enthusiastically took to the Braille code as until then the only means of reading independently was using embossed letters. The embossed letters were slow and difficult to use, and no easy way to write using this system existed. Essentially, the embossed letter system was invented by fully sighted individuals as a means of helping blind people to be normal. Despite the clear advantages of Braille and the enthusiastic support for the system among young blind students, using the code was challenged by sighted schoolmasters who viewed it as simply another barrier between blind and sighted individuals. The Braille code was first introduced in the United States in 1869 but faced many struggles before its adoption as the Standard English Grade Two Braille code, in 1932.
From that point until the early 1960s, many blind people were routinely taught to read and write Braille from an early age. However, by the 1980s, the Braille literacy rate among blind people was reported to be near 10 percent. This meant that the vast majority of blind people were illiterate—they could not effectively use print or Braille to read and write. A number of causes led to the decline in Braille literacy, including:
- The emphasis, since approximately 1965, on teaching children with some remaining vision to read print, to the exclusion of Braille;
- Negative attitudes toward blind people and the communication skills they need;
- Lack of standardized Braille teaching methods and of quality control to ensure high standards of teaching;
- The misguided notion that technological advances, such as cassette tapes, were a viable substitute for Braille;
- Discouragement of newly blinded adults from learning Braille under the false belief that it cannot be mastered after childhood;
- Not giving older individuals the opportunity to explore how some Braille might help them maintain their independence and manage their own medications; and
- Underestimation of and view of Braille as unusual, thus, the blind themselves are viewed in a similar fashion.
A Much Needed Shift
Led by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), a number of initiatives were undertaken, beginning in the 1980s, to change the decline in Braille literacy. These included raising public awareness about the benefits of Braille and an effort to adopt state laws that strengthened access to Braille instruction and instructional materials for blind children. While significant progress was made in the 1990s in changing public policies related to Braille and raising awareness of the importance of Braille to the blind, the literacy statistics for the blind show that far too few blind people have access to quality instruction in Braille. This is true despite the fact that research conducted during this period demonstrates a significant relationship between Braille and employment. That is, better than 80 percent of the blind people who are gainfully employed utilize Braille in their daily lives. This is contrasted with an unemployment rate among the blind that is often cited to be 70 percent. Braille, independence, confidence, success, and literacy are all tied together.
What You Should Know
Braille is equivalent to print.
- It is the only system through which children with profound or total loss of sight can learn to read and write.
- There is a significant relationship between Braille literacy and academic success, higher income and employment.
- Braille literacy = independence, confidence and success.
Today only 10 percent of blind children are learning Braille.
- While audio devices are useful sources of information for blind people, only Braille offers complete command of written language.
- The number of legally blind US children has increased due to several factors, including advances in medical care for premature infants.
- Most blind children (85%) attend public schools where few teachers know Braille.
- America would never accept a 10 percent literacy rate among sighted children.
The National Federation of the Blind is initiating a campaign to double the number of Braille readers by 2015.
- Braille Readers are Leaders is a public awareness campaign to increase support for Braille literacy among blind children and adults.
- The US Mint’s NFB Braille Commemorative Coin will be launched in 2009 to celebrate Louis Braille’s 200th birthday.
- Money raised during the campaign will be invested in Braille literacy programs.
With the passing of Public Law 109-247: The Louis Braille Bicentennial-Braille Literacy Commemorative Coin Act, the President of the United States and the U. S. Congress have recognized the critical role Braille plays in the independence, freedom, and success of the blind and the central role the NFB plays in improving literacy among the blind.
- The number of school-age children reading Braille will double by 2015.
- All fifty states will enact legislation requiring special education teachers of blind children to obtain and maintain the National Certification in Literary Braille by 2015.
- Braille resources will be made more available through online sharing of materials, enhanced production methods, and improved distribution.
- The American public will learn that blind people have a right to Braille literacy so they can compete and assume a productive role in society.