Chapter One

Literacy and the Decision to Integrate Print and Braille

Full literacy and the development of lifelong learners are core goals of our education system. When a child begins to fall behind in reading or to demonstrate a dislike of reading, we become concerned and make plans to intervene. When this occurs with a low vision student, one of the questions we must ask is whether the child is using the appropriate reading medium.


What is literacy? According to the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, literacy means “able to read and write; versed in literature and creative writing; having knowledge or competence such as being computer literate, or politically literate.”

The Workforce Investment Act (1998) defines literacy as “an individual’s ability to read, write, speak in English, compute and solve problems at levels of proficiency necessary to function on the job, in the family of the individual and in society.”

In addition to providing the ability to function in the world of school, work, and society, gaining literacy skills opens up the pleasure of reading. Carol Castellano, a leader in the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children and a renowned author of numerous books about the education of blind students, offers the following description of reading:

“Reading stimulates the imagination, stirs the emotions, and provokes thought. Books explain and entertain. They illuminate other times and foreign cultures. Stories help us develop compassion, work through our fears, and see a situation from another point of view. Heroes and heroines inspire us to dream, take courage, and overcome obstacles.” (Castellano, 2000, p.1)

True literacy means the ability to read and write throughout all aspects of life. How can parents and educators ensure that students with limited vision achieve full literacy so that they can succeed in school, function competently in the workplace, and experience the benefits of reading described above?

Literacy Expectations

Reprinted with permission from: Making It Work: Educating the Blind/Visually Impaired Student in the Regular School, by Carol Castellano, pp. 23-24.

Reading demands can be heavy in school, as they are in the world of work in our information-rich society. The blind/visually impaired student must have good literacy skills in order to handle the flow of information. Here are some specifics:



The idea of providing dual media instruction for a student usually comes about due to concerns over whether the student can achieve full literacy through print alone and after consideration of questions such as the following:

Often the decision is made when the results of a reading medium assessment, such as the National Reading Media Assessment, indicate the need for both print and Braille.

Considering Future Need: Guidance for Parents

Reprinted with permission from Getting Ready for College Begins in Third Grade, by Carol Castellano, pp. 11-12.

Make sure that the child has a reading and writing medium that will not only serve him/her now—in preschool, kindergarten, and the primary grades—but will take him/her into the future—through middle school, high school, and college. It may seem strange to think about getting ready for college when your child is so young, but the fact is that the child who has learned practical and efficient methods for reading and writing from the beginning won’t ever have to take precious time out in the future to remediate and will be able to keep up with the class throughout the school years.

Look into the near future; think about third grade, when the print gets smaller and the paragraphs longer. How about fourth grade, when the number of letters and syllables per word increase and the paragraphs become longer and more complicated? Now think about long division, fractions, and decimals. Move on in your thoughts to high school algebra and geometry. Your child needs a medium that will allow him/her to easily handle all of this math. Next, think about that darkened lecture hall with the professor who will hold students responsible for the content of the lecture. Your child will need an efficient way to take notes and review them afterwards.

Make absolutely sure your child receives instruction in the reading and writing medium (or media) that will enable him/her not only to do well when the print is large and the math examples simple, but also to keep up when the material becomes more challenging. Beware if the plan is to switch to recorded books—these DO NOT develop literacy skills. Don’t let anyone convince you that “children with visual impairments read at a slower rate,” or “it’s typical for blind/VI kids to be behind,” or “your daughter can go into the resource room where the pace is slower and she can get more personal attention,” or “we can make accommodations for your son’s eyesight—he will only have to do enough math problems to demonstrate proficiency.” Not one of these so-called accommodations will teach your child how to keep up in an age-appropriate environment. Your child deserves better, so don’t get caught in the trap!

Partially sighted children can use so much energy just trying to see that they don’t have full mental energy to apply to the academic task in front of them. For a variety of reasons, teachers of the blind/VI often do not suggest nonvisual alternatives, such as Braille, for these children. But don’t be afraid of nonvisual skills. When added to your child’s usable vision, they can make a real difference in the child’s independence, academics, and even social life. Asking our legally blind children to do one-hundred percent of life’s tasks visually when they only have ten percent or less of normal vision is just plain crazy! Instead of sentencing them to fatigue, poor self-image, and school failure, offer them the chance for competence, confidence, and success by adding nonvisual tools and skills to their repertoire.


His cane resting on his shoulder, a young boy reads Braille.
Braille, as this youngster discovers, is easy to read under any visual
conditions or circumstances—even sitting on a bale of hay during a
field trip to a farm.

Considering Future Need: The Law

State and federal law stipulate that when determining whether a student should read print, Braille, or both, the student’s future literacy needs must be considered (IDEA, 2004). This section explores future literacy needs and provides an approach to ensure that future literacy needs really are considered.

If parents are struggling with the idea that their child should learn to use both print and Braille, educators must help them think about their child’s future. Dr. Ruby Ryles, a Teacher of Blind Students (TBS), the mother of a blind son, and a former elementary school teacher, has spent about twenty years studying, writing, and teaching about the benefits of different media in the lives of blind people. One of Dr. Ryles’s studies found that legally blind individuals who read Braille fared better than those who had learned to read using large print: they had higher employment rates and higher educational levels; they were more financially self-sufficient; and they spent more time reading. In short, literacy leads to a better future (Ryles, 1999). K. Wolffe (2000), in her article on transition competencies for youth with visual disabilities, states: “Any person who has a job in which literacy is used needs to have a reading rate of at least 150 words per minute.”

The Impact of Braille on Future Employment

The following is an excerpt from a study conducted by Dr. Ruby Ryles which was published in an article titled, “The Impact of Braille Reading Skills on Employment, Income, Education, and Reading Habits,” (Ryles,1996). Here are the results and implications of that study:

It is sometimes confusing and always disturbing to read of the staggering unemployment rates of adults with visual impairments. The implications for the future of today's generation of children with visual impairments are sobering for professionals in the field. Rather than focusing on the seemingly overwhelming task of determining why so many adults with visual impairments are unemployed, this study concentrated on one possible common factor of the 33 percent who are employed.

The impact of Braille reading skills on the subjects' employment rates was significant—with qualifications. Having a knowledge of Braille, even as a primary reading medium, did not increase a subject's chances of employment, but those who had learned to read Braille as their original reading medium and used it extensively were employed at a significantly higher rate. Thus, the extensive and early acquisition of Braille reading skills were the two factors that had a strong impact on employment rates. The subjects who had been taught to read Braille as children were employed (either full time or part time) at more than twice the rate of those who were taught to read print. However, the subjects who learned Braille after they learned to read print did not have a higher employment rate than those who had not learned Braille.

In this society, the ability to read well is highly valued. It is an ability to which school districts devote copious amounts of funds and resources. Classroom teachers spend countless hours coaxing children to develop the lifelong habit of reading. In this study, the BR [Braille] subjects demonstrated those positive reading habits at a significantly greater rate than did the PR [print] subjects. They spent substantially more time reading, read more books, and subscribed to more magazines. This finding is particularly noteworthy when one considers the comparative availability of print and Braille materials. Because higher education depends to a great extent on a background of reading skills and habits, it is not surprising that the BR group also had more graduate degrees.

Not only were the BR subjects more prolific readers, but they perceived their reading abilities, both as children and as adults, in a more positive light than did the PR subjects. Whether those who were taught to read Braille were actually more fluent, skilled readers as children than were those who were taught to read print is an issue for further study. The point of interest here is that the overwhelming majority of the BR subjects (eighty-one percent) had elevated perceptions of their abilities compared to only twenty-nine percent of the PR subjects.

Rehabilitation is also affected by the inability of visually impaired children to read. Excessive rehabilitation dollars are spent annually on visually impaired young adults who are recent graduates of public (and residential) school programs for visually impaired children. Rehabilitation programs that were originally designed to retrain adventitiously blind adults designate a large portion of their annual budgets to congenially visually impaired adults who, in theory, should have been "habilitated" in childhood education programs. But in reality, many visually impaired young adults are not sufficiently accomplished in literacy or alternative skills to complete higher-level degrees or obtain employment.

As Koenig and Holbrook (1989) noted, the ten to fifteen percent of visually impaired children who are totally blind should present little concern to educators regarding whether they should be taught to read Braille since those children who are cognitively and physically capable of reading will be taught to read Braille. It is the remaining eight-five percent of visually impaired children with various degrees of residual vision who present the "print or Braille" dilemma to their multidisciplinary teams. The results of this study suggest that teaching Braille as an original primary reading medium to children with visual impairments may encourage them to develop the positive lifelong habit of reading as adults, enhance their later employment opportunities, and thereby increase the possibility of financial independence.


Future Need Literacy Inventory

Here is an inventory of questions that parents and the TBS should discuss and consider at every IEP meeting. If the answer to any question is no, a change in the IEP is indicated. Perhaps the student needs more service hours for Braille instruction. The student might need extended school year (ESY) services to develop emerging skills or to prevent a loss of progress.

  1. Can the student read steadily and comfortably for a sustained period of time (an hour or more for older students)? Can he/she read aloud fluently?
  2. How many books does the student read for pleasure in a year? What medium does he/she use?
  3. Can the student read efficiently from a computer screen, even when there are densely packed and unusual symbols or characters?
  4. Can the student efficiently look back-and-forth between two different documents, such as a passage from a play and a corresponding list of questions?
  5. Can the student communicate with him/herself? For example, write a name and address, phone number, or grocery list and read it back later with ease and accuracy.
  6. In speaking to audiences, will the student be able to make eye contact and also consult notes without having the paper right up to his/her face?
  7. In postsecondary education, will the student be able to write notes in a poorly-lighted lecture hall, and then reread those notes quickly enough to keep up with his/her studies?
  8. Is the student on track to achieve a level of reading and writing so that in the future he/she can handle a job such as teacher, lawyer, salesperson, computer programmer, information specialist, clerk, etc.?
  9. In a future job, could the student quickly and accurately read and locate errors in, for example, columns of numbers or symbols such as computer program codes?
  10. With the student's medical condition and prognosis, is it realistic to expect that vision will remain the same in adulthood?

My Braille Story:
A Promising Beginning, a Muddled Middle, and a Happy Ending

By Kelly Coleman

I started learning Braille at age five. At this time I was also learning to use print along with every other kid in school. At the time I enjoyed both reading and writing Braille, thinking it perfectly normal to do so. I could read some print, but found it hard on my eyes after short periods of time.

My family strongly pushed me to read Braille, but only for school purposes. To them, print was just as good if not better than Braille. Soon I was asked by them to use print more than Braille because they would say "You're not blind!" As a result I grew up very confused as to whether or not it was okay to use Braille.

In the seventh grade I began wearing special glasses which made it much easier to read print. My TBS began providing my school work only in print. I grew accustomed to holding books very close to my face. Month by month I grew slower at reading and writing Braille from lack of practice. By the time I was in my junior year in high school I hated Braille. I was no longer fast at it and thought it made me look abnormal. My parents were all for me reading print exclusively, which didn't help my views on Braille at all.

Finally, I had a new TBS in my senior year who showed me how much easier it was to read with my hands rather than my eyes, bringing back fond memories of early childhood when my head didn't ache from reading. My posture improved dramatically. For the remainder of high school I worked on reading and writing Braille every day until I grew from 30 words a minute to about 125.

After leaving high school I went to the Colorado Center for the Blind in Denver where after months of practice I graduated reading at 480 words a minute. I was able to make this progress because of my early exposure to Braille and because I was in an encouraging environment. I was immersed in Braille.

I fully believe in the use of both Braille and print. My experience in school would have been better if I could have made the choice about when to use print and when to use Braille. Braille is easier on the eyes and teaches the child that reading and writing does not have to be a painful experience. Braille also helps the student to understand that it’s okay to be blind. I had to take a year out of my life to learn skills that I should have learned in school. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to attend the Colorado Center for the Blind. It is an opportunity that many students will never have.

Today, I am a sophomore at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, majoring in elementary education. My primary reading medium is Braille. I read print when needed, but I can only read for about a half hour. As the years progress, I find that I need more light to read print and my difficulty with small print increases. I am glad I had the opportunity to gain speed in Braille reading.

Parents who wonder if Braille is right for their children should ask themselves, “Will my child be able to read print comfortably and quickly enough to keep up with their sighted peers; and even if they can now, will they be able to keep up in the future?”

I am glad I learned print; however I would find it very hard to compete in life without Braille.


Food for Thought: As a child Kelly was totally blind in one eye and had a diagnosis of Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP) and nystagmus in her good eye. Today, she also has cataracts.

The path to literacy can be complex for dual media readers. Kelly’s future literacy needs were not considered consistently throughout her school years, and less than positive attitudes about Braille interfered. There is a happy ending to Kelly’s story because of an enlightened and skilled TBS, and the availability of a good rehabilitation program.


It is important to recognize common obstacles which can interfere with the decision-making process.

Literacy and Low Vision Aids

Reprinted with permission from Handbook for Itinerant and Resource Teachers of Blind and Visually Impaired Students, by Doris Willoughby and Sharon Duffy, pp. 58-59.

Low vision aids are generally defined as optical aids other than conventional eyeglasses or contact lenses.  Examples include telescopic lenses added onto eyeglasses; separate telescopic lenses; hand magnifiers; closed circuit television (CCTV); and special lighting.

Low vision aids can be helpful to some persons when used appropriately.

However, low vision aids often are misused to keep blind persons from learning efficient techniques such as Braille and cane travel. As with the “vision stimulation” programs, low- vision aids are easily sold to vulnerable parents. Many eye doctors (encouraged by many educators) put forth high-priced low vision aids as cure-alls, exaggerating their benefits without explaining their weaknesses.

Disadvantages include:

The overselling of low vision aids tends to build up false hopes, promote inappropriate use, and discourage the use of alternative techniques which could be faster and more efficient.

Furthermore, overselling can prevent the appropriate use of low vision aids which could be valuable if used appropriately and in conjunction with other methods. For example, some persons usually read regular print easily without aids, but find a low vision aid helpful occasionally. Others ordinarily read Braille and recorded materials, but sometimes use a low- vision aid for brief items.

The key is efficiency.


Food for Thought: The TBS should not put all of her eggs in one basket. The low vision student needs many tools to achieve literacy. Low vision aids are just one set of tools that may help the student. The parents, the TBS, and the rest of the IEP team must always be thinking about the future as they make each decision.

Listening Skills Are Essential, but not a Substitute for Literacy

The following professionals outline the role of audio books and live readers while underscoring why and how these skills are not a substitute for Braille and literacy.

Doris Willoughby (1989):

“As part of a multi-sensory approach to learning, students with limited vision should also develop listening skills. All low vision students should be exposed to audio books. As the student progresses through education, he should become versatile in using all reading media. In order to overcome the barriers to obtaining information, students with limited vision must be able to use all reading media. Students should also be introduced to the use of human or live readers. Despite advances in technology, a human reader—a real, live person—is still essential, especially in tasks such as research. A live reader can save time for the student by skipping to the next paragraph, etc. The high school student with limited vision should have IEP goals requiring the use of all reading media including live readers.

The student should understand the advantages and limitations of each reading media form. He should be able to determine when to use each form. Braille is essential for math and science while audio books are suitable for novels. Exclusive use of audio books limits the development of literacy skills.” (pp. 149-150)

Penelope Zag (1996):

“Unlike audiotape, Braille empowers students to play with words. Such play helps children feel comfortable with words and enjoy them in creative ways, thereby enhancing both their prior knowledge and their attitudes about Braille. Braille also allows students to keep journals to record the events in and thoughts about their lives and review them at their leisure.” (p. 276)


The Role of the Doctor

Reprinted with permission from Handbook for Itinerant and Resource Teachers of Blind and Visually Impaired Students, by Doris Willoughby and Sharon Duffy, pp. 28-31.

Marty was failing third grade. Even with his face almost touching the pages of a large-print book, he read so slowly that he only completed half of his assignments, and made many errors. Finally everyone agreed that Braille (along with some use of large print and audio) would be best for Marty.

While studying Braille and receiving some individual help, Marty moved on into fourth grade and things got better. He learned quickly and soon found that, despite his initial objections, he could already read faster and more easily in Braille than in print. His grades rose, and a timetable was set for him to start completing all the same assignments as the others.

In February Marty’s mother called the Braille teacher, nearly in tears. “What shall I do?” she cried. “We all thought that Braille would help Marty, and he’s doing so much better. But the eye doctor says he can’t have it! We just went in for a checkup, and Marty was practicing his Braille in the waiting room. The doctor was very upset.  And he wrote a note saying Marty should use large print in school. Now I don’t know what to think!”

Doctors Are Not Educators

Why does this kind of thing happen? There are several reasons:

(1) The doctor’s evaluation was very short, and in a limited situation. Using his standard chart, he observed that Marty could see print of a certain size, and thought, “Why should this child use Braille?”

Parents and educators, on the other hand, saw the child struggle day after day with long pages of print, and came to feel that Braille would be very helpful.

The doctor’s test had a few isolated letters; provided no need to read quickly at a glance; was set at 20 feet; was quite short; and had some potential for memorization or guessing. Classroom materials, however, have long sentences and paragraphs closely spaced; require quick and efficient reading; are used at close range; are very long and get longer in the higher grades; and are not subject to memorizing or guessing.

An educator who sees a student only occasionally may fall into this same trap. Asking a student to read a short passage for “educational evaluation” is only a small sample. The student’s total functioning over the long term should be carefully considered.

(2) Visual acuity itself varies. It varies for all of us, actually, although with good vision we usually don’t notice. Acuity may decrease considerably as the child grows tired, if he is not feeling well, etc.

(3) Acuity only partially reflects other problems which interfere with the use of vision. Nystagmus, for instance, causes letters to seem to “jiggle” and blend together, especially if they are closely spaced. A field restriction may make it impossible to see even a whole word at one time.

(4) Doctors tend to keep hoping for improvement in vision, even when results show a clearer and clearer trend of decline. They may be less than candid about the real likelihood of improvement.

(5) Some eye doctors seem to view a blind patient as an indication of their own failure, and react defensively and emotionally. They may show this by resisting helpful educational measures. They may feel threatened by the presence of Braille in the waiting room.

(6) The traditional role of doctors has placed them on a pedestal. This view has encouraged both doctor and patient to expect the doctor to be knowledgeable about everything, and to see a medical component in anything the doctor says. It makes it hard to separate the educational aspects from the medical aspects of planning for a child’s future.

(7) Doctors can be subject to the common misconceptions about blindness, since they are human and a part of the population as a whole.

What Can a Teacher Do?

Help everyone distinguish between medical and educational considerations. The teacher can say, “This is a complex problem, with a medical aspect and an educational aspect. Let’s analyze what we have on each aspect, and see what we can work out.”

Conduct a careful evaluation of functional vision, from an educational standpoint. An educator should not attempt a medical evaluation; however, it is appropriate and essential to examine practical visual functioning in a normal setting over a period of time.

Set a time for relaxed discussion. Arrange for a time and place where careful and reasoned analysis will be possible. It may be wise to include other parties, such as the nurse or principal.

Find out what the doctor really said. Try to reach the doctor by telephone if written reports are unclear or insufficient. If everyone seeks with good humor to find out what the other parties actually meant, major misunderstandings are usually prevented. Be humble enough to recognize that someone else may know something that you don’t. Enlist the help of the school nurse, who should be an excellent intermediary.

Explain your suggestions carefully, and try to demonstrate that they do not really conflict with the doctor’s medical recommendations. Talk with the parent about how he or she can handle a doctor’s apparent disagreement with educators. Explain how the medical test is quite a different situation from that of schoolwork, and how issues may have both a medical aspect and an educational aspect.

In case of a serious disagreement, handle it professionally. If the parent tends to agree with you but is worried about the doctor’s comments, suggest firm insistence on separation between medicine and education, and/or getting a second opinion. If the parent strongly disagrees with your ideas, it becomes a matter of handling such disagreements in a professional and appropriate way. Avoid acting as though everyone who disagrees with you is either stupid or uncaring.

What Can Parents Do?

Parents can distinguish between medical matters and educational matters. On several previous occasions the family had asked the doctor’s advice about reading material, and he had always suggested large print. It would have been better for them merely to ask the doctor for a written medical report and say, “Thank you. This will help us to work with the school in planning his education.” If the doctor volunteers an opinion about school programming, the wise parent will analyze how much is an actual medical statement, and how much is a personal opinion about education. They will also insist that the doctor not confuse a young child by criticizing the school when the young patient is listening. (We teachers owe the doctor the same courtesy, and should hold controversial discussions with the parent alone unless the student is mature enough to participate.)



Sam was an eleven-year-old student in the middle school program at the school for the blind. His eye report stated a measurement of OD—20/400 (right eye) and OS—16/400 (left eye) with both eyes exhibiting nystagmus. The doctor advised that Sam’s retinas may not remain stable. Sam used glasses, a handheld magnifier, a handheld monocular and a computer with print enlargement software. He also used large print and audio for reading. Academically, Sam functioned at the kindergarten to first grade level with the use of these low vision interventions.

In preparation for the yearly IEP, a TBS conducted an evaluation of Sam’s reading medium. The evaluation stated that Sam preferred a dimly lighted room with direct lighting from a nearby lamp. Sam seemed to see better when materials were placed on a black background. He needed materials presented to him without clutter and with high contrast.

Sam’s reading efficiency was evaluated using the Johns Reading Inventory. He was given the passages in large print at a viewing distance of six to eight inches. His word recognition and word decoding skills were at the primer level or slightly above. His silent reading rate was 6 wpm. Sam used print for written tasks with the modifications of bold line paper and a Sharpie felt tip bold marker. The evaluator concluded that Sam’s primary sensory channel for learning was vision. Sam should continue to use the same low vision accommodations.

The parents asked for an independent evaluation. This evaluator recommended Braille for the following reasons: Sam had a degenerative eye condition; in order to see the materials, he needed numerous environmental accommodations which would be difficult to control; most importantly, Sam was not making progress in reading.

Under the leadership of the TBS, the IEP team created a reading remediation plan for Sam which included the use of Braille. Once Braille instruction began Sam’s reading and writing ability improved. After two years Sam was reading at a level closer to his classmates and was expected to be on grade level soon.


Food for Thought: Unfortunately, the IEP team had low literacy expectations for Sam. Sam’s parents’ insistence on an independent reading media evaluation was a wise decision. This is a right that every parent has. This case study also illustrates how an over reliance on low vision tools can impede student progress. Why was Sam’s lack of progress in reading considered acceptable and why did it take so long for the IEP Team to address it?

Nine students sit around a large table; each student is writing on a Braille writer. A teacher helps one student.
These low vision students are attending a special Braille-enrichment summer program. The goal of the program is to boost Braille skills and encourage the use of touch as a valid learning modality.


Reprinted with permission from Getting Ready for College Begins in Third Grade, by Carol Castellano, pp.22-23.

To create a reading remediation plan, the school will collect baseline data in areas that affect the child’s reading performance—reading skills, Braille skills, reading medium, and materials and classroom issues.

If the data that are collected point to the need to change the reading medium from print to Braille, or to use a combination of print and Braille, a schedule will need to be created for beginning instruction in Braille. The teacher of the blind/VI will suggest a plan for incorporating the new medium into the child’s classroom work and homework.

Next, address any classroom issues identified in the assessment process above.
Then plan the three sections of the reading remediation plan: planning content, determining who will teach the content, and creating a timeline for the plan.


First, decide on what material needs to be taught. This is usually a combination of Braille and reading skills. A specific, sequential plan will provide the best chance for the student to catch up.

Who Will Teach?

The person who works on reading with the child will probably need to work closely with the teacher of the blind/VI so that the student can make the most progress.

The Timeline

The timeline for a reading remediation plan will have two parts. The first part will define when the student will receive the instruction in reading and in Braille each day and each week. The second part will use the “work backwards” approach: Look ahead to the goal, figure out how much time there is between then and now, and then plan what has to be taught when, in order to cover all the material by the goal date.

Here is an example for reading. The child is in fourth grade; it is the month of March; the child is reading at the beginning second-grade level; and the goal is for the child to be caught up by the end of fifth grade. Look ahead to the end of fifth grade and figure out how many months are left until then. For this child, there would be fifteen months, if the child would be able to continue catching up over the summer This means about twenty-four months’ worth of work would have to be made up in about fifteen months’ time. The team would then have to determine what content would have to be covered each week and each month in order to make the plan work.

How fast the remediation can proceed will depend on factors such as the child’s learning ability and style, the amount of material to be studied, and scheduling possibilities. A timetable that pushes the child along, yet takes into account a realistic learning pace, will generate success for both teachers and child.

Reading Problem Surfaces diagram showing remedial plan. See foot note 1 for text description of this graphic organizer.


Food for Thought: When considering the reading remediation plan, the TBS should keep the advice from Koenig and Holbrook in mind: “Logistical and administrative matters must be handled separately from the development of the literacy instructional program and cannot be allowed to influence the configuration of services that a student receives. When designing literacy instruction, the IEP team must focus solely on the needs of the student.” (2000, p. 688)

Print or Braille? I Use Both!

By Charles Brown

Reprinted with permission from Future Reflections, vol. 14, no. 1.

As a leader in the National Federation of the Blind, I am an enthusiastic participant in our Braille literacy campaign. I know how important Braille is to me, even though I have a good deal of usable vision. Low vision blind kids are primary victims in today's crisis in Braille literacy.

Yes, Braille is important to me, but I also use print. I use it a lot.

Even totally blind folks need to know print. Print is all around us—raised letters and numbers are on everything from kids' blocks to restroom doors. Our language assumes knowledge of the print alphabet. Like sighted folks, blind folks need to know what a T intersection is, or an S curve, or a U turn. Blind folks need to know why O is used synonymously with the number 0 (in Braille zero corresponds with the letter j). How does Zorro make the "mark of the Z" on the chest of his victims?

My totally blind friends routinely sign their names, make out checks, and type letters to their friends. I strongly believe that the schools must teach blind kids to read, write, and touch-type (keyboard) print. Print is part of living in the world even if you never see a word of it.

Many blind people, like me, can see print. Does knowing Braille mean I should ignore what I can see? Nonsense! My office is full of print, and I use it every day.

I've always been able to read ordinary sized print with decent lighting, provided I held it right up to my face. If I were in school today, there would be a good chance that I would not be taught Braille. My print skills would probably be judged as "good enough." But, thankfully, when I was starting school in the fifties, my parents and the others responsible for my education realized that I could not read print fast enough or long enough (comfortably) to compete as a true equal with sighted folks my age. So I also learned Braille; and I competed pretty well in school. I did well enough to get through Harvard College and the Northwestern University Law School—using mostly Braille, tape recordings, readers, and my typing skills.

Just after I graduated from law school, the closed circuit television (CCTV) was invented. I got one of the first models and have used CCTVs in my career as a lawyer ever since. With a CCTV, I can read print faster, longer, and more comfortably than I could before the CCTVs came along.

I use the CCTV in my office to read all the papers and files that come across my desk, to read cases and articles in books and periodicals sitting in my bookcases, or for items checked out from the law library. I also use the CCTV to fill in forms and prepare handwritten notes.

As so many other working Americans do these days, I constantly use a computer. Some blind folks use speech output devices to gain computer access, but I use screen enlargement software. I use my computer to write legal opinions and memoranda. I use it to handle my electronic mail and for so much more. When it became time for me to become computer literate, I had a real leg-up on most of my sighted colleagues. I was already an excellent touch-typist.

A number of screen-enlargement software packages are on the market, and they are mostly pretty inexpensive. Many members of the NFB use screen enlargement programs. One of the great fringe benefits of being a Federationist is the ability to check out each other's packages and exchange demos. We talk about color contrasts, letter shapes, cursors, Windows compatibility, etc. I need to know what's out there in order to know what will work for me. It's almost as if no two partials see alike. What works fine for me may be frustrating or even useless to someone else.

When I leave my office, Braille looms larger in my briefcase and in my life. I use a Braille slate to take notes at meetings. It is one of the fastest, least disruptive, and most efficient notetaking devices I know, at least for me. I like to get periodicals in Braille because, unlike print, I can read Braille rapidly and comfortably anywhere; on the bus, for instance.

I still use recorded materials, too. For example, I get the American Bar Association Journal on tape (produced by the National Association of Blind Lawyers, a division of the NFB).

Like most lawyers, I must often make prepared oral presentations. For one thing, each year I teach about thirty seminars on government ethics rules to employees of my agency. I design the lesson plans, write the case studies and other handouts, and conduct the classes. The participants get the materials in print, but I Braille all of my materials, outlines, quotations, slides, etc. This way I can have these items literally at my fingertips. I cannot credibly do the essential teaching part of my current job in print. I'd hate to think of trying to teach hiding behind a CCTV, or holding papers up in front of my face. Eye contact and rapport count so much in effective and convincing teaching. That's why I use Braille.

I use Braille outlines for my speeches (including any quotations I'll be using). Braille is also my primary medium for meeting agendas when I am chairing. I cannot afford to let a struggle with print get in the way and distract from my messages.

Sometimes I need to make a very formal address, and I write it out completely in Braille. This way I can concentrate on my delivery, without worrying about phrasing. I can focus on voice modulation, gestures, and eye movements. Remember, lawyers are supposed to be convincing.

As a lawyer, church leader, and civic activist, I use Braille when it is the best medium, and I use print when it works best.

It all seems so obvious and second-nature to me that I am shocked when some so-called experts talk so loosely about the "choice" between print and Braille. Did learning Braille impair my ability to learn and use print? Not at all! Some people even say that learning print and Braille is comparable to learning two languages. No way! It's all English. I can fully attest as I recall my struggles with four years of high school French—that learning both Braille and print is nothing at all like learning two languages.

Parents often come to me looking for advice about the education of their children. The advice I give is basically pretty simple. Their children need, I tell them, to find alternative techniques for reading, mobility, and the like. These techniques need to be, on the whole, as effective as those used by sighted peers assuming they want their kids to be prepared to compete on terms of equality. Braille and print are just two parts of the total mix.

Print or Braille? It's a silly question not worth asking, as far as I am concerned. Most blind kids need to learn both.



Blind and low vision students should be able to handle the amount of reading required and to read it at a fast enough pace to keep up with the class.
Blind and low vision students should be able to take and read their own notes.
Research demonstrates that those who are fluent in the use of Braille are significantly more likely to experience successful outcomes such as employment, higher education, and the habit of lifelong reading.
Review annually a student’s future literacy needs.
Life experiences of low vision adults demonstrate the importance of literacy in print and in Braille.
Efficiency is the key to determining appropriate use of low vision aids.
Low vision students should have listening skill goals throughout their education program; however, the exclusive use of audio books prevents the development of literacy skills.
Doctors should not make decisions about a student’s reading medium because doctors are not educators.
Parents should not be afraid to ask for an independent reading media evaluation.
The TBS and the parents must guard against literacy expectations that are too low.
When a reading remediation plan is required, develop a timeline to achieve the goal of grade-level literacy. Use the “work backwards” approach from the targeted completion date.

[1] Diagram Reading Problem Surfaces: First, evaluate reading skills. (If suspected, test for learning disability (LD). If LD found, add accommodations for LD.) If remediation is needed, plan reading content, decide who will teach the content, and create a timeline. Second, assess reading medium to determine the appropriate medium. Third, evaluate Braille skills. If remediation is needed, plan Braille content, decide who will teach the content, and create a timeline. Fourth, check materials and classroom issues. If needed, make improvements. Then give the child an opportunity to practice. If all of these elements are addressed, the student should experience school success.

[Preface]  [Contents]  [Chapter Two]