Future Reflections Fall 1994, Vol. 13 No. 3



by Julie Hunter

Editor's Note: In April, 1994, Colorado joined the ranks of the 25 states which have passed Braille literacy legislation. The following testimony was given by Julie Hunter, mother of a blind teen-age daughter and president of the Parents of Blind Children Division of the NFB of Colorado, on behalf of this legislation. As our regular readers know, model Braille literacy legislation was developed and promoted by the National Federation of the Blind. These laws assert the right of blind children-including those with partial sight-to learn Braille. This legislation is a significant part of our campaign to eliminate illiteracy among our nation's blind and visually impaired population. Here is what Julie Hunter said about the need for this legislation:

Mister Chairman and members of the committee: Thank you for the opportunity to address you this morning. I am here in support of House Bill (HB) 1148. I am the parent of a blind child and the president of the Parents of Blind Children Division of the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado. In that role I receive phone calls from parents asking for advice and support on many different issues. I would like to tell you about two of those phone calls which I believe will help to clarify why this bill is so important to the future of visually impaired children.

First, I would like to tell you about Mrs. Smith and her visually impaired son Robert. Robert is one of those children who is legally blind and has some usable vision. Three years ago, when Robert was eight years old and in the second grade, his mother called to ask for help in getting Braille instruction for her child. Robert was being provided with several types of magnification and a special light at his desk so that he could read print. He hunched over his reading so that his eyes would be within two or three inches of the page. The option of Braille was never discussed with Mrs. Smith. In fact, the mother brought up the possibility herself. I quote from the mother:

"As early as kindergarten I repeatedly asked about Braille but the teacher would say, `Why do you want to do this to your child? Look at this big machine he would have to use [meaning the Braille writer]. Why do you want your child to be different?'"

As you can well imagine, this mother was torn. On the one hand she didn't want to argue with this teacher. She felt intimidated and insecure. On the other hand she had a gnawing feeling that her son was not going to make good progress while straining to read at close range and fatiguing very quickly. To make a long story short, Diane McGeorge [the blind Director of the Colorado Center for the Blind, a Federation training center] and I went to the IEP meeting with Mrs. Smith, and Braille was written into the plan.

However, the story does not end here. During the meeting it became clear that the teacher of the visually impaired was not comfortable with teaching Braille. He said that he had not taught it for some time and would have to "review as we go along." In fact, I handed the teacher a page of Braille belonging to my daughter who was in middle school, and the teacher was unable to read it. That teacher decided to leave the school district and a replacement was not found that year. The next year another teacher of the visually impaired was hired, and she began Braille instruction with Robert. At that point I lost touch with Mrs. Smith. I had an occasion to talk to her recently and asked how things were going. She told me dejectedly that she had given up, she had lost the fight. It seems that Robert got contact lenses and reading glasses which somewhat improved his reading vision. Now he could read without magnification. The teacher said that Braille was no longer necessary; he would be a print reader. But, says his mom, he still has to hold the page four inches from his eyes, and he still fatigues easily. In fact, his reading speed is slow, and he is behind his classmates. The teacher has recently mentioned that they will be using more taped material in middle school because his speed is slow.

Mrs. Smith still feels that Robert would be better off if he could have both reading modalities, print and Braille, but she has given up. The teachers and school personnel have Robert on their side now. They say, "He doesn't want to learn Braille." She feels intimidated and powerless against the professionals and a pre-adolescent son who now doesn't want Braille because it would make him look different.

Here is a mother who has more good sense than the people trained in education. She can see the trend: slow, laborious reading; more and more taped material; and the probable decline in Robert's education in general. But, she has given up because a teacher has made the decision that he will read print, period. She just got tired of fighting for something in which no one else believed.

The second story is much shorter. This is an opposite situation and one that supports the good job that many teachers are doing in determining reading modalities. I had a call this week from a mother who has a child who also has a lot of usable vision. Her child is in kindergarten and is being taught Braille and how to use a cane. This mother's call had to do with the fact that she was having a difficult time accepting the fact that these alternative skills were being taught. She always thought that her child could see pretty well and that she wouldn't have to "look blind." Intellectually she recognizes that Braille and canes are good things, but it's hard for her to accept. She recognizes that she needs to work on her own attitudes about blindness in order to support her child.

Here is an example of how the system should work. The teacher of the visually impaired jumped in early and got this child started. The mother would have gladly accepted large print and magnifiers for her child. She could have postponed dealing with her own insecurities and prejudices about blindness and blithely gone along for the ride. There are hundreds of parents like her. Without guidance they do not know enough about what consequences lie ahead when their child reaches high school or college and can't keep up, or what the consequences can be in lowered self-esteem.

There are teachers of the visually impaired who are adequately assessing reading modalities, who believe in the efficiency of Braille, and who are very competent teachers of Braille. There are also teachers who are not bad teachers, but they believe Braille is a "last resort," that it is a symbol of blindness to be avoided if there is remaining vision, even if that means you hold the book in front of your nose and tire after reading two pages.

We need HB 1148 to provide the framework on which to build regulations which will guarantee every legally blind child a fair chance to learn.