by Denise M. Robinson
From the Editor: Dr. Denise Robinson is a gifted and experienced teacher of blind children in Washington State, who teaches virtually around the country thanks to the miracle of modern technology. She is generous with her time and advice to parents and teachers. The following article was inspired by a post she made on an NFB listserv and, at the request of the Monitor, expanded upon for this article. Here is what she says:
Using many methods to encourage students to sharpen their blind literacy skills is vital for them to reach success. One is using the synchronicity of Braille and technology. When I set up elementary classrooms and my resource room with the necessary equipment, I arrange two desks in an L so that the child can read Braille books facing one side and then pivot to the other to type information on the computer. This is a perfect arrangement for the elementary school classroom. By the time students reach middle school and have mastered the foundational blind skills, they can read almost all electronic books except for texts using Nemeth Code, which must be in hardcopy Braille.
When beginning with preschoolers, we focus on one topic at a time--Braille lesson followed by technology--before integrating the two using favorite stories that their parents have been reading to them. If they already love the story, they will want to read it themselves, and the print/Braille books that their parents have been reading will entice them to want to read them as well. The dots will begin to make sense. In the Braille lesson they learn the contracted signs and uncontracted letters and Brailling on paper. While I teach them contractions such as “the,” I ask, “How do you spell ‘the’ on the computer?” and they answer, “t-h-e.” Conversely, when they are typing a word on the computer, I ask, “What is the contraction for `the’?” and they tell me, “dots 2, 3, 4, and 6,” and so on. If the student is fortunate enough to have a Braille display connected to the computer, this lesson is reinforced by feeling the display. If no display is available, we refer to the hardcopy Braille that we did during the Braille lesson so that the synchronicity of Braille and technology is continuously under our fingers and in our minds.
It is important for children to write Braille using hardcopy paper so they can observe formatting and can practice fluency in Braille reading. To demonstrate the concepts of bold, italics, and underlining in print, I help students write a print letter using Draftsman, a tactile drafting board from the American Printing House for the Blind (APH). By going over the letter several times, I can mimic bold. Drawing the letter at a slant shows italics, and, when I draw a line under the letter, the student can grasp underlining. Since Braille represents bold, italics, and underlining with dots four and six, Braille readers need to understand how text looks in print on the computer screen so that they will be able to relate to the experience of their sighted peers. Blind children need to understand both the blind and sighted worlds. If they do, they will have an advantage over other blind students who do not, and they will achieve higher levels in school as well as get great jobs later on.
When working with elementary students, I teach Braille contractions using the books they are reading in class. I use the techniques described above, but now a Braille display is hooked to the computer, and the child moves between typing on the keyboard and feeling the display or Brailling using the Braille display (especially for math) on one hand and on the other hand listening to the screen-reading software. But I use only the material the classroom teacher is using. I do not use outside instructional materials unless the child is cognitively impaired and needs supplementary materials in order to learn. The advantage of teaching from regular class work is that the child is working on actual assignments. I no longer hear complaints about Braille instruction being additional work. My students can talk with their peers about the stories, which draws them into the social life of the class. When my students return to class, they can join class activities because they are working from the same materials. If the teacher of the blind is absent, the blind child can manage in the classroom for a day or two because he or she is already familiar with the class material from instruction in the resource room.
In my resource room the students have an electronic notetaker such as a BrailleNote or a computer Braille display in front of them along with the computer keyboard with a screen reader on one side of the L and Braille work on the other side of the L. Since this is exactly the way things are set up in the classroom, everything is familiar. The child brings the reading book from class and reads a line of Braille from the book, then Brailles it on the notetaker cabled to the computer or types on the computer keyboard, and the text then appears on the computer screen. We go over the contractions, and the student Brailles the sentence several more times on the notetaker. Then he or she moves to the computer keyboard to touch type the sentence. Students easily understand the interaction between Braille and touch typing. This is how you create a great speller. Back in the classroom, when the child takes a spelling test, he or she has an earphone in one ear to check what is being written on the computer and is listening to the teacher with the other ear. The Braille display reinforces what is being heard. When the test is finished, the student emails it to the teacher.
Students who have equipment and materials organized in the same way in both the classroom and resource room find it easy to stay organized. Each side of the L-shaped desk has slots or drawers for storing tools. Organization is key to blind students so they can find their tools when they need them. Children who are organized and ready can follow classmates and do what everyone else is doing. Since the students have and know about many tools, they can choose the best one for any task. They learn the joy of reading using Braille and the satisfaction of finishing computer work as rapidly as or more rapidly than their sighted peers. Using key commands is far faster than trying to locate a mouse visually, even for sighted people. Many of my older students are far faster on the computer than sighted kids. When the sighted students get stuck, they turn to my students, who can get them out of trouble by suggesting a keystroke. Sighted students recognize this and are very impressed with their blind peers’ speed and agility using technology, even while they watch them read those beautiful dots with their fingers.
A BrailleNote or similar piece of assistive technology is small and light enough to take anywhere, often in conjunction with a light laptop. As convenient as Braille notetakers are, they often do not allow production of complicated formats--hence the need for a laptop and its higher quality word processor. Many of my older students have their notetakers on their laps taking notes, while they simultaneously complete work on their laptops on the desk. These tools allow them to carry home classwork they must complete. They can then email their work directly from the notetaker, or, if the formatting is complex and they must include pictures, they can send the information to the laptop, use Word and other traditional tools for document creation and proofing, and then turn in the completed document from the laptop.
Today’s iPad, iPod, and iPhone are even smaller than the notetaker or laptop. Some children take advantage of the small Refreshabraille display from APH, use the built-in screen reader on Apple devices known as VoiceOver, and complete their work with the smallest tools now available. More sophisticated writing and Brailling can be done with these devices using iA Writer or Pages, two more sophisticated word-processing apps. I have a student who uses an iPod with the built-in app called Notes and a Refreshabraille that she can stick in her pocket. She can take it home, complete her homework, and then email it that evening--fast and easy--once again demonstrating the synchronicity of Braille and technology.
Every parent and teacher needs to figure out what works best for their child. If your child is just a regular kid who happens to be blind, teaching using the above method just may help him or her reach full potential faster than you would believe.
Side note: Many excellent instructional Braille materials are available, such as Building on Patterns and Mangold. If you are just starting out as a teacher and do not know how to teach Braille, by all means use these materials. I did when I started out over twenty years ago because no one in college taught me how to teach Braille—typically it is a learn-as-you-go thing for teachers of the blind. I very quickly discovered that the blind students using these materials always lagged behind their sighted peers. When I or the other teachers of the blind were out sick, our blind students would be kept in the classroom, had no idea about the stories their peers were reading, and could not join the social aspect of discussing information. The blind students understandably felt left out. They reasonably asked why they couldn’t read the same stories. They felt that they got different and more work because of learning Braille.
That’s why I changed my practice and started using the same materials the class was using and integrating blind skills into my lessons so that my students always felt that they were part of their classes. They were also able to keep up with their peers, depending on what grade they began acquiring blind skills. If they began Braille later in elementary school, it could take up to a year and a half for them to get to grade level. But that is far better than the four to five years it takes to go through the other Braille instructional programs. There are many options; find the one that works best for your child.