Braille Monitor                                             February 2016

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Introducing Braille—Begin with a Positive Experience


by Doris Willoughby

Doris WilloughbyFrom the Editor: Doris Willoughby has provided a number of articles for the Braille Monitor about the education of both sighted people and blind people. This topic has also caused her to write several books that are fixtures in many classrooms in which teachers of blind children toil daily. In the article below, she and her sister describe examples of positive introductions to Braille and to blindness:

Ever since I met my husband Curtis, who is blind, and ever since I started teaching blind children, I have observed that when people are shown the Braille alphabet, they tend to react by saying, “Wow! That looks hard!”

I wished for a way to illustrate that Braille is no harder to learn than print.  While the whole Braille alphabet may seem daunting, it can be learned in a measured and organized way.

Now, when I speak to a group about blindness, I like to give out cards that display just a few symbols that are very different from each other.  Each card only has one symbol on it.  Good examples are the letter “a” (one single dot), the letter “g” (four dots together in a square), and the letter “l” (three dots aligned vertically). I make sure that participants rely on their sense of touch when they examine the dots.

My sister, Margery Herrington, who is a volunteer Braille transcriber, has provided a positive introduction to Braille to many people through the college anatomy classes she taught.  Here is her description: 

Margery HerringtonIn the seventeen years I was on the biology faculty at Adams State University in Alamosa, Colorado, I taught over 2,000 anatomy students to read the Braille letters “a,” “g,” and “x” by touch as part of one of the laboratories for the course.  I got many positive comments such as “This is really cool,” and “This is easy; I thought it would be a lot harder.”

At the beginning of the period I gave a short introduction to Braille and wrote the patterns for “a,” “g,” and “x” on the blackboard.  The dark dots indicate raised dots.

I gave students three-by-five-inch cards with two rows of Braille letters that I had made using a slate.  The upper row had four a’s, followed by four g’s, and four x’s, with a space after each letter.  The lower row had a total of ten letters (a’s, g’s, and x’s) in random order with spaces between the letters.  Each Braille letter had the corresponding print letter written below it. 

Students used the top row of letters and their fingers to learn how the letter patterns felt.  They then used touch but not sight to read the second row, while their laboratory partners checked their accuracy.  After recording the number of right answers (usually ten out of ten), the students read the second row again, using their elbows instead of their fingers (remember that this was an anatomy class) in order to compare the sensitivity of different regions of the body. Students recorded the number of correct answers for the elbow (usually zero, one, or two) and then wrote down some possible reasons why the fingers were easier to use than the elbow.  Typical answers were that the elbow had rougher skin, fewer nerve endings, and a larger surface area.  

A full Braille cell.Before students could turn in their laboratory reports with results from all the activities done that day, I had them take an exit test using a card with four Braille letters on it (for example, agxg, gaax, or xgax) with spaces between the letters.  Students enjoyed showing that they could read quickly and accurately, and most of them got the required grade of 100 percent on the first try. A few students missed a letter and needed to try again on a different version of the test, but I never had a student who had a difficult time passing.  After a student had read the four letters, I made a comment such as “One hundred percent!  You’re an efficient Braille reader.” A number of students also did the optional Braille activity during the laboratory, writing their names in Braille on cards using a slate and stylus with minimal guidance.

So there you have my sister, teaching anatomy, and finding yet another use for Braille. Unfortunately, in contrast to the above examples, people often “simulate blindness” through an exercise that actually is much more harmful than helpful. A person is given a challenging task such as eating an entire meal in complete darkness or navigating a complicated path while blindfolded without adequate instruction or meaningful practice. This actually tends to mislead people about blindness and to make attitudes worse instead of better. Arielle Silverman discusses this problem in detail in her article in the Journal on Blindness Innovation and Research.*

Exercises that incorporate mastery of blindness skills can be helpful in showing the way alternative techniques provide effective ways to do things that are usually done visually. If you have wished you could help give sighted students a positive introduction to Braille, you might want to do an activity similar to the ones that my sister and I have used.

*Silverman, Arielle. The perils of playing blind:  problems with blindness simulation and a better way to teach about blindness.  Journal on Blindness Innovation and Research, Vol. 5, No. 2, 2015.

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