Braille Monitor                                                February 2013

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My Love Affair with Braille

by Sandy Halverson

Sandy HalversonFrom the Editor: Sandy Halverson is a Federation leader who now lives in Virginia. Braille has been an integral part of her working and recreational life since she first learned to read. She established the positive tone that characterized the Braille Symposium by describing her use of the code throughout an active and useful life. This is what she said:

I am totally blind and always have been. I am literate because teachers like some of you in this room made me learn, sometimes ad nauseam, that the i goes uphill and the e downhill, and, no matter how many tears I shed on any given day, I would learn the differences between f, d, h, and j. I knew things had come full circle when I observed my sighted son’s frustrations as he was learning handwriting--printing and cursive, upper and lower case letters. I figured I had had it easy because of that little dot six [the capital sign].

In elementary school, if I couldn’t be the best at anything, I didn’t bother with it. For example, I hated making my bed. There was just too much sheet. Today I would probably be signed up for occupational therapy to strengthen my hands so that I could grasp the sheet, give it a proper fling over the bed, and make all those trips around or over the bed to make sure the sheet was even, tuck it in, and do the next piece of the job. But I loved Braille and became the fastest reader and writer with the Perkins Brailler. However, imagine my annoyance at poor, innocent Judy Brisbine, a new fourth- or fifth-grade student who came from Iowa and could write faster with a slate than I. How dare she. My only excuse was that I was exhibiting normal adolescent behavior. She wrote those dots so quickly that I just had to work harder so that she wouldn’t be better than me! The slate and stylus became my pen and paper, but I was also building literacy skills. Judy and I did become friends because I remember her showing me her slate with the four-line section that can be opened so you don’t have to take the paper out to read what you have written. Of course I had to buy one, and I thought of her whenever I used it.

During my high school years I remember newly blind students who came to the Maryland School for the Blind. Their initial experiences with Braille were not nearly as much fun as mine. My regret is that I lacked the maturity to have a positive impact on the development and strengthening of their literacy skills.

Yes, I used a slate and stylus with regular, cheap spiral-bound notebooks for note-taking. I got really fast at removing the slate from the bottom of one page, flipping the next page to the left, and clamping the slate to the top of the new sheet during my four-year college psych degree and court reporting classes. My battery never ran down, and I didn’t have to worry about that cussed power cord or use structured discovery to find the nearest electrical outlet.

During my work as a rehabilitation teacher, I used Braille to label client files, and, as good as I am at problem-solving, I cannot figure out how an iPhone would help with that. I also have some pretty well-used Braille knitting patterns, and I just can’t see keeping my Braille Sense in my knitting bag. During my employment as both a court official and a freelance court reporter taking depositions, I had to maintain Braille notes. My steno machine was connected to a computer which was connected to a Braille display for read back purposes when requested by judge or attorney. If you’ve ever spent time in court, you know how quickly cases are called. I was lucky to have time to write on my Braille notetaker the last names of the defendant and his attorney and the time the case was called. It was easier and faster to maintain this separate list for my records rather than trying to search across the computer task bar looking for my list and trying to get back to the transcription document in time for the first question. Braille was a much better tool in my tool box.

In my current work as a medical transcriptionist, there are conflicts between the Word Clone transcription software we use and Microsoft Word, so during transcription Microsoft Word documents may not be accessible. I have a Braille Sense notetaker file with orthopedic, cardiac, and neurosurgical terms and the names of specialty knives, saws, needles, hemostatic agents, and related data so I won’t have to remember all that vocabulary. That’s my hardcopy medical dictionary, pharmaceutical reference, etc. It’s all in one file, no need for volumes and volumes of hardcopy Braille that cannot be updated.

The only job I ever had in which I did not have to convince my employer of the benefits of Braille was when I worked as the receptionist at the National Federation of the Blind headquarters, but I still had to figure out how to keep track of who was in the building, take and deliver phone messages, and do related clerical tasks.

Thirty years ago some parents of blind children among others (I was not a part of the group then) designed the NFB Braille Readers Are Leaders children’s reading contest. Teachers and parents were concerned that the only Braille materials to which their children or students had access were textbooks, and they probably weren’t on time unless they came through APH quota funds for residential schools. In the early 1990s I was asked to serve as a judge for that contest. Imagine my surprise when I came home from work one day to find a post office mail bag with hundreds of pieces of print and Braille contest-related correspondence. I’m sorry I didn’t get a picture of that because it was a most impressive obstacle blocking my front door.

The children who were not winners in their grade categories were probably not as excited about the contest as the winners, but the teachers and parents had finally identified something that would motivate their students and children to want to read Braille for fun. Reviewing book lists and other contest data made me want to go to my nearest library to read long-forgotten favorites, but the real message was that there simply was not enough Braille for blind kids.

I served as a judge for several years. It was exciting to observe gains made as students increased the number of pages read and demonstrated through community service projects how their knowledge of Braille was helping with their integration in their local communities. Several participants recognize this contest as having encouraged them to become excellent Braille readers and writers. They recognize that the high expectations of teachers and parents led to their academic and employment successes. Two of my colleagues this weekend were participants in that contest and are now proficient young adults recognized for their Braille reading prowess. Our contest will soon have a much different look, and the hope is that parents and teachers will find it easier to involve their Braille-reading students and that the students will network in different ways with their peers from other parts of the country.

Some of you in this room have either been involved in or heard of our Braille Enrichment Through Literacy and Learning (BELL) programs in several states throughout the country. This program continues to grow. For two weeks each summer blind and low-vision students spend a minimum of six hours a day learning Braille using a combination of reading, Perkins and slate writing, games, contests, Braille musical chairs, body Braille--which has nothing to do with piercing--and field trips organized and led by blind role models, where students look for Braille in public places like restroom signs, elevators, McDonald’s cup lids, and the DC metro. The self-confidence these kids gain in two weeks has to be seen to be believed. I live in Virginia, and teachers have commented to me on the gains some of our BELL participants have made.

While our BELL programs are great for the youngest among us, we still have a lot to do, and I want to be a part of making positive change in the literacy rates of blind students and helping to get them motivated to see the importance of reading and writing Braille, not only to do well academically, but to increase their employment opportunities. Our National Association to Promote the Use of Braille listserv can make you weary because of the volume when you open your inbox, but the discussions are thought-provoking. Recently a blind man has asked how he can increase his slate speed, admitting that he did not do well in college because he didn’t have access to hardcopy math and foreign language materials and was not fast enough to create his own. A woman sought suggestions regarding Braille access technology to use with her iPhone, or there may be a request for foreign language Braille instructional materials for use with ESL individuals. It’s free, and our moderator does a wonderful job limiting posts to Braille-specific topics.

Six years ago I was contacted by the grandmother of a legally blind child. She was a retired public school teacher, and the mother had taught for a couple of years and decided she preferred being a stay-at-home mom. The child who was then four, could recognize large print letters, was inquisitive, and loved books. The mom and grandmother thought that was all well and good but recognized that she would not succeed with print only; at four, she was slow, so I was asked if I would tutor this child during the summer. Both adults knew I have no teaching credential, but I do know Braille, have a sighted child who is fortunately a literate adult, and they liked what I proposed to do for short, thirty-minute lessons. The child liked flash cards and silly sentences, and, if she did really well, I would let her write things on my BrailleNote with the speech on so she could listen to the speech and check her accuracy on the Braille display. It was simply a way to make Braille fun.

Imagine how surprised I was to get a call from her first teacher of blind students who said I had done everything wrong. I didn’t insist on proper posture with feet on the floor. I didn’t use the Sally Mangold series or any other Braille teaching curriculum. And what could I possibly have been thinking to let this child get her hands on a BrailleNote. Our conversation ended after I politely replied that my chairs are no longer child-friendly; they’re adult chairs. Neither of my parents was an educator. They introduced my sighted siblings to letters and words through cereal boxes, signs observed while driving down highways, and lots of other places where print is abundant. No one told them they shouldn’t be teaching their children print. After I hung up, I thought about how fortunate I was not to have had her as a Braille teacher.

One of the things I do in Virginia is work with parents who find the IEP process frustrating and service delivery abominable. They want help getting the proper services to meet specific educational goals. We do have some great teachers in Virginia, and my regret is that there simply is not enough time to talk with them long enough or often enough for me to learn what they do and how I might be able to help.

I’m glad to be here this weekend. By Saturday evening we’ll have identified more resources than can be Tweeted—I hope that’s the correct verb tense, so you now know something else I don’t do yet. We won’t solve all the issues we will be considering, but what a great beginning! Thank you.

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