Future Reflections        Winter 2013

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Louder and Prouder Still
Four More States Join the BELL Choir

by Eric Guillory, Jackie Otwell, Casey West, Carlton Walker, and Meleah Jensen

Reprinted from the Braille Monitor, Vol. 55, No. 11, December 2012

From the Editor: In the National Federation of the Blind, we are deeply committed to Braille and Braille literacy. Through the BELL Program (Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning) we introduce school-age children to the way blind people read and write. Here is a report from the most recent states to join the program.

Our NFB BELL Choir continues to grow. During the summer of 2012 Louisiana, Idaho, Nebraska, and Massachusetts all held Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning (BELL) programs for the first time. These four new states were joined by our seven veteran states, several of which had expanded their programs. Utah and North Carolina each held one program; Colorado, Virginia, Maryland, and Georgia each held two; and Texas held four. In all, eighteen programs took place in eleven states.

What follows are snapshots of the programs held by the four new additions to our NFB BELL choir.


Boys playing Braille TwisterEric Guillory, who serves as director of youth services at the Louisiana Center for the Blind (LCB), is no stranger to planning and running youth programs. Even with all of his years of experience, he says he still felt a bit of trepidation. However, any nervousness he felt was eased by knowing that he was leading a great team of teachers and volunteers.

Louisiana got the bells ringing in Ruston in early June. Rather than using the more traditional two-week day-school model, Louisiana opted to employ the residential capacity of the LCB in order to serve more students from around the state.

In addition to the LCB, the NFBL had help from the Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University. Students who were enrolled in the institute's training program for teachers of blind students were a tremendous asset to this endeavor, serving as wonderfully knowledgeable and caring instructors.

In addition to intensive instruction in the literary Braille code, students learned nonvisual techniques for cooking and some basic cane travel skills. These skills were reinforced in walks around the campus and on community outings. Other vital components of the program were the social and role-modeling opportunities provided for students. While skill development is critical, positive attitudes about blindness are equally so. For some students the chance to interact with blind peers was one of the most memorable aspects of the program. One grandmother said, "Being around the other kids and participating in such excellent activities has been tremendous for Baylee. She has enjoyed herself so much, as have I. Taking a tour of the Louisiana Center and interacting with the teachers and other mentors this past week has been very enlightening for me, and I look forward to Baylee's involvement next year."


Ramona Walhof, a longtime Federationist and past president of the NFB of Idaho, serves as the BELL coordinator for the state. She says, "I wanted BELL in Idaho because so many kids are not learning Braille or are not learning it thoroughly." The sound of the BELL is still reverberating throughout Idaho. Ramona says that she was told by parents of a couple of participants who attended an ice cream social that their children are still talking about the BELL Program. Not only did the kids learn Braille, but their attitudes about blindness changed during these two weeks. The students proclaimed that BELL is "blind friendly."

Carlton Walker served as Idaho's core teacher. Below is her story of the Idaho BELL Program:

"Spirits were as high as the peaks that overlook the Idaho capital of Boise as the Idaho BELL Program came to life on July 23, 2012. Full-time blind mentors Ramona Walhof and her sister, Susan Ford, took the lead in teaching classes in Braille reading and writing. These sisters live their love of Braille in their instruction, and their students made great gains in a short two weeks. Students also benefited from the expertise of a certified cane travel instructor, a teacher of blind students, and blind role models. These three ladies used a variety of activities, including hide-and-seek games with school lockers and having the students use a Braille-labeled microwave to make breakfast and snacks.

"Other activities included a rocking birthday party for Louis Braille on opening day. In addition to traditional birthday fare (decorated cookies and balloons), BELL students engaged in some serious decorating activities. Using patterned duct tape, tactile stickers, and different ribbons, BELL students individualized their canes, their BELL notebook binders, and even their sleepshades.

"As terrific as the facilities and instruction were at St. Joe's, BELL could not be contained in one building. Field trips included an afternoon trip to the pool at the Boise YMCA and a hands-on, ears-open trip to the Discovery Center of Idaho. On the penultimate day of BELL, we all traveled to the heart of downtown Boise to explore above-ground parking garages, elevators, escalators, busy traffic intersections, and ice cream."


Boys use Perkins Braillers under sleepshadesWhen the Nebraska affiliate began to explore the possibility of bringing the BELL Program to its state, affiliate president Amy Buresh sent out an email in which she illustrated Nebraska's need for BELL. She cited a phone call from a parent who had come to the NFBN for help getting Braille for her three-year-old child. She ended her message with an enthusiastic call to action: "Let's do this thing!"

Although the excitement of the team was evident, several challenges and obstacles threatened to silence Nebraska's BELL. Fortunately, in true Federation spirit, each of the obstacles was surmounted, and the Nebraska BELL Program was a success. Casey Robertson traveled to Nebraska to serve as the core teacher. Here is what she has to say:

"Let's play ball! Nebraska's very first BELL Program was a grand slam hit. On the second day of the program BELL's very own student, Rachel Rockemann, threw out the opening pitch for the Nebraska Storm Chasers minor league baseball team. That was just the start of the excitement for the six students who participated in Nebraska's BELL Program. Each day was filled with entertaining ways of learning Braille, such as Braille beach ball, Braille Twister, and Braille baseball. The students enjoyed activities such as making bird feeders and learning to cook using nonvisual skills.

"Students also enjoyed interacting with blind role models who dropped in to help with various activities or to share story time. By the third day of the program, students decided to remove the word "can't" from their vocabulary. They decided that "blindness" and "can't" should not be in the same sentence. Participants spent a lot of time encouraging one another to push beyond what they originally thought possible. By the end of the two weeks, the students had accumulated over 150 "BELL ringers," or accomplishments, to show off to their families on the closing day.

"One student decided by the second week that he wanted to try Braille again at school because 'it can be fun and I can read with it.' Another student wanted to teach her friends about her cane and why she needs it. Each student developed more than just Braille skills over those two weeks; they each developed a sense of being okay with their blindness. They felt better about themselves and believed they could do anything they wanted to do in their lives."


Kristina Constant is working on a degree to teach blind students. As a future teacher and as a lifelong Braille reader, she understands the necessity for blind students to have access to quality Braille instruction. Although Massachusetts had the smallest BELL Program, make no mistake--its BELL was ringing just as loud and just as proud as the BELLs in our other new states. Jackie Otwell was the core teacher for the Massachusetts BELL Program. Here is what she has to say:

"Although Springfield, Massachusetts, had a small cohort, consisting of two marvelous middle-school students, each one walked away having increased Braille knowledge, nonvisual techniques, and daily interactions with positive blind role models. These teens also became well-versed in the kitchen, making fudge, cookies, and Cheerios treats. Zahra learned how to Braille the entire alphabet. Brandon increased his knowledge of contractions. For example, he learned the saying, "Drop it like it's hot!" for the contractions i-n and e-n, and that a-r is the pirate contraction. Although such crutches are corny, middle-school students liked them, and we had a lot of laughs.

"Zahra and Brandon had the opportunity to take the knowledge they acquired from the "Money! Money! Money!" lesson to a local Royal Farms store. The pair used their cane techniques to cross a busy intersection to get to their goal of candy. The team also learned how to play and refine goalball skills from expert Nancy Bazanchuk, director of CHD Disability Resources. Brandon, familiar with goalball, showed off his throwing skills, and Zahra caught on to the basics quickly. Kudos to Christina Constant for taking on this new BELL Program!"

Interested in joining the NFB BELL Choir? We are looking for three new host states for the summer of 2013. If your affiliate is interested in enriching the lives of blind youth through increased access to Braille instruction, contact Natalie Shaheen at <[email protected]> or visit <https://www.nfb.org/bell-program>.

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