Future Reflections Special Issue on Advocacy
by Melissa Riccobono
From the Editor: The National Federation of the Blind has long advocated for the teaching of Braille to students who are blind, and has championed the use of Braille as a means to literacy for the blind population. However, educators and administrators have often debated about what should comprise an adequate curriculum for Braille training and what levels of proficiency should be expected. In this article Melissa Riccobono, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland, explains how the NFB promoted the passage of the nation's first law calling for standards in Braille instruction.
In 1992, the Maryland Literacy Rights and Education Act was passed. This act guaranteed the right of blind and visually impaired students to be taught Braille. When deciding whether a student should learn large print or Braille, IEP teams in Maryland (and around the country) need to take a student's current level of vision into account and also consider the likelihood of future vision loss. This law was a great first step in advocating for blind children in Maryland to be taught Braille.
As the years went by, however, parents, teachers, and advocates became frustrated with the law's limitations. First of all, the 1992 law did not fix the problem of having Braille taught only to a select group of blind students. IEP teams still made decisions against Braille instruction, citing data from assessments that they believed showed that the students did not need Braille and/or would not benefit from learning it. (The NFB has created the National Reading Media Assessment in order to address this problem.) Even when the fight for Braille instruction was won, members of a student's team often disagreed about what teaching Braille actually meant, especially in the case of students with some remaining vision. Did it mean teaching a student the alphabet, "just in case" he or she lost more vision and needed to pick up Braille later on? Did it mean teaching some contracted Braille? Did it include teaching the Nemeth Code? And how fast should a student progress through the Braille code in order to keep pace with his or her sighted peers? If a student needed to begin learning Braille later in his or her school career, how should a teacher measure whether the student knew enough Braille to use it effectively in the classroom?
Many educators and advocates pondered these questions, and no one seemed to have satisfactory answers. Unfortunately, as a result of this uncertainty, students with some remaining vision were often taught the minimum; in many instances they learned only the Braille alphabet. The uncertainty also contributed to some teachers saying, "I've tried to teach this student Braille, but she is very resistant to it. I've taught her the basics, and she really doesn't like it. She can read print pretty well, and there are always audio books. I just don't see the need to go any further with Braille at this time."
Members of the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland saw these trends and grew very concerned. We wondered what we could do to make a dent in this problem. Sharon Maneki, NFBMD Legislative Chair and a past president of the affiliate, began to think that it would be worthwhile to advocate for Braille standards in Annapolis during the 2010 legislative session. Sharon called a meeting with educational leaders around the state, including NFBMD leaders and staff from the NFB national office, to discuss the idea and to gain support for a bill. Sharon's efforts met with an enthusiastic response, and our journey toward Braille standards officially began.
When advocating for a bill at the state or national level, you must begin with an idea. Next, and just as important, you need to identify who can help you get your bill through the legislature and onto the governor's (or president's) desk. For our Braille Standards Bill, Sharon Maneki identified Maryland House delegate Sheila Hixson and Maryland Senator Joan Carter Conway as good candidates to approach for sponsorship of our legislation. Both women chaired committees that would be hearing our bill, and they are both longstanding friends of the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland.
These relationships with legislators greatly simplified the process of finding legislative support. Del. Hixson and Sen. Conway both knew who we were. They trusted Sharon Maneki when she explained the problems caused by the lack of Braille standards, and they proposed our bill as the solution. Once we had found champions for our bill in the House and the Senate, the real work for the members of the NFBMD began.
Every year, the NFBMD holds a Day in Annapolis. This event resembles Washington Seminar, the annual event when Federationists from all over the country visit legislators on Capitol Hill. Our Day in Annapolis lasts only one day instead of being spread out over three. During the Day in Annapolis, members of the NFBMD visit the office of every state legislator. We educate the legislator, or his or her staff, about our issues. We ask for cosponsors for our bills, answer questions, and, in general, introduce each office to the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland.
This task may seem daunting, and I must admit it makes for a long day. However, there is truly strength in numbers. At least fifty members of the NFBMD attend the Day in Annapolis each year. Because of this large participation, we can divide into teams and conquer the legislature one office at a time. We enjoy a very nice dinner after our work is done, and each team leader reports on our progress. In this way, we are able to follow up with possible cosponsors. We also know which legislators may not be supportive of our bills and understand a little about their objections. This information helps us when we prepare testimony for hearings; we try to address the questions and objections before they are voiced.
As I remember, there was very little, if any, opposition to our Braille Standards Bill. We had two great champions working with us to help educate the legislators, and we had the support of other stakeholders in the State Department of Education and the Maryland School for the Blind. Furthermore, the Braille Task Force that we proposed in our bill would not cost the state of Maryland any money. These factors, along with the obvious problems for Maryland's blind students caused by the lack of Braille standards, made it quite easy for us to sell our bill to the members of the Maryland legislature.
After our Day in Annapolis, it was time to let our voices be heard in committee. Members of the NFB of Maryland, including the then president of the Maryland Association of Blind Students, many members of the Maryland Parents of Blind Children, and other NFBMD leaders, testified to the House and Senate committees responsible for our bills. (At that point we had two bills, one in the House and one in the Senate). Members of the NFBMD also wrote letters to committee members explaining the need for passage of our bills. In addition, many members made phone calls asking for a favorable vote on our bills.
All of this advocacy paid off. In May of 2010, HB413 and SB230, Maryland Standards for Instruction in Braille Reading, Writing, and Mathematics, were signed into law. These bills mandated the creation of a Braille Task Force. This task force was comprised of teachers, transcribers, and other stakeholders (including myself, as the president of the NFBMD, and two parent representatives from the Maryland Parents of Blind Children.) The mission of the task force was to recommend standards in mathematics and English/language arts to the Maryland State Board of Education. These standards needed to be approved by the board by September of 2012.
In addition, the task force was charged with looking at the certification and recertification requirements for teachers of blind students in Maryland. These requirements have not been updated for several years, and they need to be changed in order to ensure that teachers have the knowledge and skills to teach students under the new Braille standards. These requirements will be submitted to the Maryland Board of Education by September 2013.
The Braille Task Force began its work in the fall of 2010. The task force agreed that the Braille standards were for students, teachers of blind students, classroom teachers, paraprofessionals working with blind students, administrators, and parents of blind children. All members agreed that high expectations were critical to the success of all students and to the standards themselves. Therefore, the task force defined its role as creating standards that identified the skills students would need in order to succeed, given the broad guidelines of the Common Core Curriculum, which have been adopted in forty-five of the fifty states. Therefore, the Maryland standards are actually applicable in any other state using the Common Core Curriculum.
The task force quickly recognized the need to concentrate on three areas in order for students to be successful in mathematics and English/language arts. These areas are Nemeth Code, tactile graphics, and literary Braille. The task force developed standards for students in all three of these areas. The task force did not simply go through the curriculum and replace the word "print" with the word "Braille." The members discussed each part of the curriculum and had to come to an agreement regarding what, if any, changes needed to be made to state clearly the skills a Braille-reading student would need in order to meet each standard. Some of these discussions were short and easy because everyone agreed. Others took much longer; they were fascinating to me and other task force members due to the different points of view that were passionately represented. The work of the task force was reviewed by experts in the field, and their feedback was taken into consideration when the final draft of the Braille standards was created.
The task force met its deadline. By September 2012, Maryland's Braille standards were approved by the Board of Education. They are being implemented across the state during the 2012-2013 school year.
The Maryland Braille Standards have many wonderful attributes. For the first time, teachers, parents, administrators, and other stakeholders have clear guidelines regarding what skills a Braille reader needs at each grade level in order to keep up with his or her sighted peers and fully participate in the Common Core Curriculum. These skills include standards for tactile graphics--an area that has not always received much attention when children are taught Braille. Although the document itself is quite lengthy, the actual Braille symbols and concepts needed for each grade level in mathematics (Nemeth Code and tactile graphics) and English/language Arts (literary Braille) are nicely laid out in chart and checklist form in one of the document's appendices. Parents and teachers can easily see what a child should know. Parents can ask questions about whether their child knows each Braille symbol and concept, and teachers can use the checklist to record each child's progress. Students should be the overall winners. They should be given a true education in Braille and should become competent Braille readers as a result.
Because there are now standards that must be met, parents and teachers will have more "teeth" in the IEP process. Parents or teachers can argue rightfully that students need more than thirty minutes a week of instruction in order to meet the Braille standards. Teachers can argue that their caseloads are too big and that they cannot give their students adequate instruction time. Eventually this should lead to more teachers being hired so that all Braille readers can be taught adequately. Parents now can advocate more easily for extended school year services, especially for older children learning Braille. They can cite the standards and prove how much a student should know in fifth grade in order to be ready for sixth grade as a Braille reader. If a student is truly considered a Braille reader, then he or she needs to meet the Braille standards, period. He or she should not simply be taught the alphabet "just in case." If a student does not meet the Braille standards, parents will have the evidence they need in order to argue for a different teacher for their child if necessary--one who knows the Braille code well and has the skills to teach it effectively.
The work of the Maryland Braille Task Force has been followed by advocates and curriculum developers around the country. For example, the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) is updating its Patterns series, which is used to teach many beginning Braille readers. APH is using the Maryland Braille Standards as a guideline in order to match the changes in the Patterns series to the Common Core Curriculum. There is no doubt that other organizations and states will look at this document for guidance in the years ahead.
Unfortunately, as with all things, the Maryland Braille Standards have their limitations. One limitation is the fact that some blind students still may not get the opportunity to become Braille readers, especially if they have a good deal of residual vision while they are young. Teachers may look at these standards and say to parents, "Your child might benefit some from learning Braille, but look at the amount of information he would have to learn in order to become a Braille reader. It is a lot. I just don't know if it is worth all that effort if he will be resistant to Braille and will probably be a print reader anyway." The National Reading Media Assessment should help assuage this argument.
A second limitation is the fact that there is no true vehicle, as of yet, to measure whether students are meeting the Braille standards. Yes, there are checklists, but will teachers use them? Certainly a student's academic performance and results on standardized state and/or national assessments will be good indicators, but these measures have their own limitations.
The best remedy for these specific limitations is parent education and involvement. Parents need to know that the Braille standards exist. They need to know where to find the standards and how the standards can be used as a tool to help keep track of student progress. The National Federation of the Blind of Maryland is doing its part to provide this education, but this is a huge job that will truly never be done.
Should the NFBMD and/or other states pass legislation to mandate that certain assessments be given to Braille readers to ensure they are meeting the Braille standards? Is it right to subject blind students to yet another standardized assessment? Do standardized tests really measure student knowledge accurately in all cases? These are questions that should be pondered, and to which there are no easy answers.
Professional development is also needed in order to ensure that these standards have the most favorable impact. All teachers of blind students in Maryland have received professional development training surrounding the work of the Braille Task Force, the Common Core Curriculum, and an overview of the document itself and how to use it. Still more professional development is needed, however. The task force was not able to address the "how" in the standards document. The emphasis in the document itself is what skills students need, not how to teach those skills. Teachers of blind students may benefit from development geared toward the "how" in many cases. How do I create tactile graphics to help my students learn geometry concepts? How do I teach my students editing marks used to correct their papers? How do I teach Nemeth Code when I don't know it very well myself? Undoubtedly, the list goes on. Professional development opportunities are crucial; without them, the standards could very well sit on a shelf and never become the true resource they ought to be.
Along with professional development come certification and recertification requirements in Maryland. A work group will convene to discuss these requirements. For the standards to be effective, teachers must have the background in Braille needed to teach it to their students. How can teachers acquire and demonstrate these skills? What additional certification requirements should be necessary? For example, should there be access technology requirements? These are only some of the questions this work group will need to address.
Despite these obvious limitations, the Maryland Braille Standards are a huge step forward in the education of blind children. Because these standards are aligned with the Common Core Curriculum, parents, teachers, and advocates in other states can use them as a guideline to measure a student's Braille reading abilities. Other NFB affiliates may wish to advocate for the adoption of these standards in their own states or to create their own Braille task force to develop similar standards.
Clearly, all of the problems in the education of blind children are not solved by the Maryland Braille Standards. However, the standards are a valuable tool which, if used wisely, will benefit hundreds of Braille readers across the United States for years to come.