Braille Monitor                                                 November 2011

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Louder and Prouder: Two More States Added to the BELL Choir

by Jackie Otwell and Natalie Shaheen

From the Editor: For three years now a few groups of lucky children in several states who have not received the Braille instruction they needed during the school year have gathered for two weeks to have fun with the code and learn all sorts of valuable lessons about being blind. Natalie Shaheen has led the Jernigan Institute team that has organized and supported these programs, and Jackie Otwell has been the teacher who has worked with the affiliate members conducting them. What follows is Jackie and Natalie’s report on BELL 2011, followed by firsthand reports from Colorado and Virginia about their experiences. Here are the reports:

The NFB BELL (Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning) Program has done it again. The choir has grown. Colorado and North Carolina joined the fun this summer. Several veteran states participated again, and some programs even grew. Utah and Maryland held one program each, Texas and Virginia held three programs, and Georgia held two. In total we conducted eleven NFB BELL Programs in seven states.

Gary Ray, president of the NFB of North Carolina and coordinator of the North Carolina BELL program, saw the possibilities of this program back in September of 2010 and wanted to bring this opportunity to children in North Carolina. But he was a bit apprehensive at the training seminar in February. He realized that the program was going to be a lot of work, and he wasn’t quite sure he was cut out to work with kids. But, when he got back home and started tapping into resources like the Friends of the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped and fellow Federationist Debbie Jackson, he began to feel that his team just might be equipped to accomplish the task.

Once the program ended, he proudly announced that he would be happy to coordinate it again. He described his involvement with this program as one of the three best experiences he has ever had with the National Federation of the Blind. At the conclusion of the program he had come to recognize that children are the future of the Federation, and, by helping the children be as independent as possible and to have positive attitudes about blindness, Gary and the North Carolina BELL team were building the Federation. At the end of the program everyone on the North Carolina team was ringing a bell for Gary. He was great with the kids, and, if it hadn’t been for the BELL program, perhaps he never would have realized he had such skills.

The students in North Carolina also experienced great success during the BELL program. After listening to the Captain Whozit skit, a story about a young girl who uses her cane at camp after receiving a surprise visit and advice from Whozit, a cane-tapping superhero, Emily used her cane at a swim meet for the first time. She even showed it off to a few friends.

Wesley, an eleven-year-old who was new to Braille, blossomed over the two weeks and developed a can-do attitude about Braille and nonvisual techniques. Before BELL he was receiving only thirty minutes a week of Braille instruction. All the positive feedback and intriguing lessons, like drawing with a Perkins Braillewriter, playing Braille Bingo, and making candy Braille, helped get Wesley pumped up.

To add to the fun, the North Carolina BELL program took a field trip to the Marbles Kids Museum. Elijah surfed and experienced ice hockey on a simulation rink, where you wear socks instead of ice skates.

Out west in Colorado, Michelle Chacon and Diane McGeorge used their expertise from coordinating other youth programs to make BELL a success. Michelle found the curriculum resources to be helpful and the lessons a fine springboard for her own creativity. She also reported that the conference calls leading up to the program provided useful information. Conference calls gave Michelle and her team opportunities to learn what other states have done for field trips, lunches, transportation, and other logistics. The NFB of Colorado team also found the conference calls to be good milestones for reporting progress on tasks and regrouping for the next wave of work.

Students use thier canes.Colorado BELL students and staff cross an intersection.
The Colorado program tapped into one of its members, Ann Cunningham, to add art to their program curriculum. For many years now Ann has taught art to blind people and has been creating beautiful tactile artwork of her own. She provided students with opportunities to create pen and ink drawings using a raised-line drawing board and clay. Braille labels were added to the students’ pieces. After that they had an art show, where students explained their pieces to one another. Sculptures included the solar system, Lightning McQueen from the Cars movies, and a princess. Not only did students walk away with improved Braille skills, they also came to the understanding that blindness doesn’t prevent a person from being artistic.

Affiliates who host NFB BELL Programs have access to several resources and supports to ensure that they are able to run a successful program. Interested in joining the Braille-teaching BELL Choir? We will be looking for three new host states for the summer of 2012. If your affiliate is interested in enriching the lives of blind youth in your area through increased access to Braille instruction, contact Natalie Shaheen ([email protected]) or visit

BELL students walk on the grass.Here the group has the chance to practice using their canes on grass.
Diane McGeorge: The NFB of Colorado conducted our very first BELL Program this summer, and what a great experience it turned out to be! I want to begin by saying that, if you are thinking of doing BELL in your state, jump in in 2012. The first thing we did was to go to the Jernigan Institute for a weekend training session, which was absolutely one of the best I have ever participated in. Some of us were just starting to do BELL Programs. Veterans gave us much good information from their past experiences, and the folks from the Jernigan Institute were top of the line. We came home with great ideas and a book full of everything you could ever want to know. There is no way to fail doing BELL in your state with all the help and support you get from the Jernigan Institute.

Now on to the program itself. I could write pages and pages about it, but I promise I won’t. We had seven children: six who were ages five, six, and seven, and one girl who was eleven. We were a little worried about the eleven-year-old since the others were considerably younger, but it worked out fine. She became everybody’s big sister. She also came away with the most important thing we can give in our programs: more confidence in herself as a blind person after getting to meet and interact with adult blind role models. Her feeling of accomplishment came from increasing her own blindness skills and from helping the two children who had not even started kindergarten yet.

All of the children came in with white canes, which surprised me. They also came in with some Braille skills, even the littlest ones, who were not yet in school. But while we were with them during that two-week period, they all developed better skills and certainly an appreciation of how helpful Braille will be, not just in a textbook, but every day. That was one of our goals.

We incorporated Braille in everything we did. One example was our bus trip. Our eleven-year-old called our transportation service, got the route and time schedule for the bus we needed, and wrote the information in Braille. And that was what we used. We wrote out Braille directions for the lunch foods they prepared for themselves--every way we could use Braille we did. Our curriculum included the basic skills, including journaling, travel using a longer white cane than they came in with, and, one of my favorites, blindness skills. Yes, it's all about blindness skills, but in this center we had the kids do things like identifying coins, talking about what people should expect from the public, and how we should deal with the public when we are offered too much help. When you read this, you might think that those things are far too advanced for a five-year-old, but believe me they are not. Those kids jumped in and were terrific.

I promised not to write a book, but we did one particularly interesting thing. At the time BELL started, the Colorado affiliate was holding a demonstration at the office of Senator Michael Bennet about the minimum wage issue. All of us who were working in the program believed that we should be contributing. So we discussed with the children what the minimum wage is and the fact that blind people can be paid less than minimum wage. Then we asked them what they thought. Each one wrote a letter in Braille to Michael Bennet expressing in their own words how they felt. Then we had Buna Dahal, an NFB member who was going to be at the demonstration, present all the letters to his staff. We also got the letters transcribed into an accessible format for the sighted. I thought that was one of the most fun-filled and educational things we did.

It was a great two-week program. One last thing I want to emphasize is the importance of getting the seven families involved with the NFB, which we certainly did. Two families already knew about us, but five did not, and now they do. One parent has called me to go with her for her daughter's IEP next month. Another parent called because the school her child was entering told her they couldn't provide the services her child needed. Neither family had known about us, and we were able to help in both cases.

Mike and Angela
A teacher and student in the Virginia Bell Program, Mike and Angela, hold a Hula Hoop while Mike teaches Angela about personal space.
If you are thinking of doing BELL in your state, go for it. Any of us who helped with it will be glad to talk with you about details, but Natalie Shaheen and her crew will also support you. Are we doing BELL next year--Why not? I cannot say enough good things about the experience. All our chapter members were happy to help out and did. Good luck to you all. It is the best two weeks you can have.

Sandy Halverson: The NFB of Virginia conducted our first BELL Program in 2010, and I, the coordinator, was as skeptical as a person could be. The biggest challenge was finding a location, which took us so long to do that I feared we would not have time to recruit students, obtain materials, choose lesson plans, etc. All of those things came together, and our program was so successful that this year we conducted three programs.

Ms. Nancy and Ms. Casey show the younger kids what it is like to be in a traffic jam while remaining in their own bubbles formed with Hula Hoops. Kylie, Batya, and Lydia use their canes and their bubbles to learn about personal space.Each was funded from a different source. We were fortunate to be awarded a $5,000 Imagination Fund grant, which, supplemented with affiliate funds and funds received from parent registrations, met the costs of two of our programs. The Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired (DBVI) has an endowment fund, and its board liked our request for $10,000 for a BELL program in one of the most rural parts of the state.

Bells began ringing in Virginia on Monday, July 11, 2011, and continued through Friday, August 12. Our northern Virginia program had four students (ages four to eleven); our Exmore program (very rural) had four students from seven to ten; and our six Virginia Beach participants ranged in age from five to twelve.

The first-day and closing ceremonies were probably the only similar elements in the three programs. All the students enthusiastically celebrated with Louis Braille birthday parties, decorating their canes (NFB, of course), and decorating their journal folders. However, the expectations in all three programs were the same with each child using his or her cane (sometimes under sleepshades) to walk to the designated snack spot and going to a serving window or separate room at lunchtime, carrying his or her lunch tray with food and drink to the tables where the other students were sitting, and cleaning up afterward--properly disposing of trash and returning the trays. Some students were given the opportunity to make their lunches independently for the first time. A seven-year-old who became upset at the idea of putting mayonnaise in tuna and initially refused to eat it because it wasn’t the way his mother made tuna sandwiches decided after tasting it that it really was all right and in the end concluded that it was the best lunch ever. Another child, who became hysterical when she missed the trash can, dumped her tray on the floor and then learned the techniques we use to clean up after ourselves.

Braille was in everything—lots of hands-on reading, writing, craft projects, slate pictures, Perkins Brailler pictures, games, and body Braille, where your left arm raised high is dot one, left hip out is two, and left leg out is three; and the right side of your body represents the right side of the Braille cell in identical fashion.

Group lessons designed to teach coin- and paper-money identification were implemented with field trips to a farmer’s market, Wal-Mart, McDonald’s (where the students individually placed their orders, paid for them, and took their trays to tables, cleaning up afterwards, of course), the zoo, and the Virginia Air and Space Museum. We used public transportation where we could and other conveyances when there was no public transportation, and using sighted guides was not acceptable. When walking outside, a blind adult held the hand of every blind child as any parent would do, with each person using a cane. For the trip to Wal-Mart to purchase closing-ceremony supplies, each student had a card with the item to be purchased written in Braille, used shopper assistance to find the item, and then paid for it.

In the beginning the parents weren’t sure what to expect, regardless of how much we told them. One of our students was a four-year-old autistic girl who screamed the minute she heard her mother’s voice because she knew her mother would pick her up. Mom agreed to follow the bus we took to the farmers’ market and observe from a distance to get some ideas for getting her daughter to use her cane and interact in a more positive and constructive way. The mother was awe-struck.

The kids enjoyed building friendships, and the parents were thrilled that their kids were using canes, which they had resisted before, and wanted to try things in the kitchen at home that they had done during the day. As the program progressed, the parents began to think differently about the idea that their kids should be doing age-appropriate chores at home.

Our teachers were phenomenal, and it was exciting to see their passion on display—convincing kids that Braille could be fun, sleepshades weren’t used just because you might become completely blind, they should take pride in their accomplishments, and even the blind mentors and role models can grow in confidence too.

The curriculum provided by the Jernigan Institute staff, parent referrals generated by our NFB website, excellent BELL team training, and availability to help each state run a successful program are some of the best things we do. All our parents will be invited to our upcoming state convention and added to our Braille Monitor, Future Reflections, and local chapter lists; but none of that is as valuable as our ongoing personal contact with these families.

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