by Natalie Shaheen
From the Editor: Efficiently reading and writing Braille is crucial for blind people, so determining a way to get quality Braille instruction is essential. Helping a motivated student become a competent and enthusiastic teacher of the blind who believes in Braille requires coordinating the work of many organizations and those members who set policy. Too often there is a lack of critical communication among all of the parties required to bring Braille to literacy-hungry blind students, so one of the reasons for the symposium was to bring together blind consumers, teachers of the blind, college professors, and K-12 school administrators.
Much of this issue is devoted to covering the Braille Symposium that took place in the fall of 2012. Here is what Jernigan Institute Education Director Natalie Shaheen, who organized the conference, has to say about the participants, the reason for conducting it, and the strategies agreed upon to increase both the quality and quantity of Braille instruction:
Thanks to the efforts of knowledgeable and enthusiastic teachers, some blind children and adults in this country have access to excellent Braille instruction; however, this is not good enough. It shouldn't be just the lucky students like those who attended the Braille Symposium who have access to great Braille instruction; all blind students, young and old, should have such opportunities.
To encourage progress towards this end, the NFB Jernigan Institute hosted the 2012 Braille Symposium to promote the promising practices used by creative educators, to develop solutions to long-standing problems that create barriers to providing quality instruction, and to share the daily life experiences of blind people who use Braille. This event, which was held in late September, was unique in format and diverse in audience. A discussion-based model was adopted for the Symposium to allow all participants—blind people, teachers, university faculty, parents, and librarians—to share their knowledge and experience. The goal was not only to communicate information but to come together to create new knowledge and understanding.
The sessions offered at the Symposium came in three varieties: promising practice sessions, problem/solution sessions, and vignettes showing the way Braille is used daily by blind people. The sessions and the related discussions were moderated by Mark A. Riccobono, executive director of the NFB Jernigan Institute, who urged and ensured that conversations go beyond defining problems and remain focused on solutions.
The Symposium was effective in creating greater understanding among diverse groups of people passionate about Braille and in developing plans for systems that can provide high-quality Braille instruction to blind students of all ages. Some highlights of the innovative ideas that were born of the conversations at the Symposium follow.
Many blind people around the country are fluent Braille readers, and some of them hold the National Certification in Literary Braille (NCLB). It would be advantageous for teachers and Braille-literate blind Americans to establish connections so that they can impart knowledge and communicate with each other to strengthen instruction for blind students. Blind people could serve as Braille tutors and mentors for struggling and beginning readers or provide enrichment for students who excel in reading Braille.
Federationists from several affiliates already successfully work with teachers and students in this way; expanding this work would be beneficial to all parties. One idea for facilitating connections between Braille-literate adults and teachers would be to ask a question on the NCLB test about whether the test-taker is interested in being a resource to teachers of the blind. When trying to make these connections, both parties, the blind adult and the teacher, must remember that relationships are easier to build in neutral spaces with no conflict. That is to say, it's hard to build a relationship in a conference room during a contested IEP meeting.
Many educators are required to take an introduction to special education course that covers all areas of disability, including blindness. The professors who teach these courses frequently know little about blindness and as a result do not like to lecture on the topic. A Blindness 101 YouTube video or lecture on iTunes U could be created for this purpose. Then information about it could be disseminated to university faculty. This would help raise general awareness and foster a positive attitude about blindness and Braille among the general teacher population.
Mainstream literature and research about reading almost never mentions Braille as a means for literacy. Working with authors and researchers to increase the discussion of Braille in mainstream texts about reading would help raise awareness about Braille. Much time is spent debating what percentage of students are not getting Braille. Let's stop debating and instead focus on doing something about the outrage that many students who should be taught Braille do not have that opportunity. Enrichment programs like the NFB Teacher of Tomorrow program are helpful in providing future teachers of the blind with rich experience interacting with blind people of all ages.
Directors of special education frequently oversee teachers of the blind, yet they rarely know much about blindness and the critical role of Braille. Making an effort to get to know directors of special education programs and teaching them about blindness, the importance of Braille, and the amount of time needed to provide quality Braille instruction will significantly improve the instruction blind students receive. Knowledgeable administrators are more likely to provide their teachers with adequate supports and listen to those teachers when they argue for for hiring additional teaching staff to ensure that the school is providing adequate support to its blind students.
Many high school students and college underclassmen who are considering education as a profession don't know about teaching blind students and what a difference good teachers of the blind can make. Additionally short lessons about Braille taught to elementary school classes by a teacher of the blind or a blind person are great for sparking early interest.
Laws that govern the size of a class in a given grade exist in many states. Similar statutes that regulate the maximum number of students a teacher of the blind may have on his or her caseload would make it easier for school administrators to justify hiring badly needed teachers of the blind.
The articles that follow address a good deal of the material that was covered at the Braille Symposium. To educate yourself on the latest research on Braille and the promising practice, be sure to read the other articles from the Symposium.