Future Reflections        Summer 2013

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From Eyes To Hands
Introducing Braille to a Student with Low Vision

by Heather Field

From the Editor: A native of Australia, Heather Field runs a small school in Tennessee for blind and sighted children. Her thoughtful and impassioned posts about education frequently appear on blindness-related listservs. Recently, on a listserv for parents who are homeschooling blind children, Heather responded to the mother of a six-year-old with low vision. The mother had inquired about effective ways to introduce Braille into her son's curriculum. This article is based on Heather's reply.

From: "Heather Field"
To:  Blindhomeschooler@yahoogroups.com
Subject: Re: reading programs for 6 year old
Date: Saturday, May 11, 2013 9:52 PM

I'm sorry it's taken me so long to get to writing a response to your post. It's been on my heart to share some thoughts with you, but I've just been so busy. Please allow me to share my opinion and advice with you, in the hope that it will help you and your son on your journey and encourage you in your insistence on Braille.

What’s in the cage? Heather Field encourages a young boy to find out.As a teacher with over thirty-five years of experience, and also as a person who is blind myself, I'd encourage you to use the following approach in teaching Braille to your son: Hands Only. Learning to read Braille is not just a matter of memorizing the dot positions of letters or the abbreviations in contracted Braille. For a print reader who is learning to read by touch, it is about training the brain to interpret the tactile input from the fingers quickly and accurately. Unfortunately, in my experience most Braille teachers make two fundamental mistakes in teaching Braille to children with low vision. The first is that they allow these children to experience Braille visually. Some even have children use a marker to make Braille letters with ink dots on paper so they can learn the dot positions visually. As Braille is a tactile reading method, this approach is frustrating and counterproductive. Using vision to learn to read Braille by touch is like trying to learn to swim by making swimming movements while lying on the cement beside the pool. The swimmer's brain needs to learn to interpret the kinesthetic information the body is sending it, so that it can tell the arms and legs how hard to push and in which directions to move. In the same way, reading Braille with the eyes does not teach a child to be a tactile Braille reader. The brain of the beginning Braille reader needs lots and lots of experience interpreting the information that the fingers send.

This brings us to the second mistake Braille teachers tend to make. Beginning Braille readers are usually given Braille dots to read far too early in the development of their tactile discrimination skills. Low vision is useful for certain tasks; actually, however, most low-vision children are functionally blind. This means that they cannot perform the tasks of daily life using vision alone. Therefore, they need to develop alternative, nonvisual techniques, which include the ability to use their fingers to gather information when their vision is not effective. Reading Braille is a task that relies on very fine tactile discrimination. Tactile discrimination needs to be developed progressively.

Training the Brain

I would advise you to start your son's Braille reading work with pre-Braille activities to develop his tactile discrimination skills. To develop new pathways for tactile input, the brain needs to make a complete switch from using vision during tactile lessons. This will only happen if your son wears a totally effective sleepshade. The NFB Independence Market sells a very good sleepshade for less than ten dollars. I strongly encourage you to buy a sleepshade. For at least the next year, your son must wear it whenever he is reading or writing Braille, and whenever he is playing tactile games. He is not going to forget how to read print, nor will his vision decline due to the hour or two each day that you work with him while he wears a sleepshade. He will simply learn to switch between the visual and tactile modalities as the need arises.

Give your son lots of activities to develop tactile discrimination. You will find many ideas online, including fun activities with sensory boxes. In these games, you hide a small object in a box filled with material such as wild bird seed, pasta, gravel, or shredded paper, and let the child find it by touch. Here are some other ideas to get you started. Have your son try the following activities.

Once your son's tactile discrimination skills have begun to improve, his brain will become used to focusing on the information coming from his hands. He will no longer strain to use his eyes. At this point, he will be ready to experience lines of Braille dots and to begin tracking with his hands. He also will be ready to start discriminating using Braille dots and, with his good discrimination skills and his confidence in what his hands can do, he will read Braille with much greater ease and success.

Introducing Braille

I suggest that you use a formal resource at this stage. The Mangold Developmental Program of Tactile Perception and Braille Letter Recognition by Sally Mangold, PhD, is available from Exceptional Teaching Aids (<www.exceptionalteaching.net>). While it does cost a bit, it comes with everything you will need to launch your son into reading Braille with a light touch, correct hand position, and excellent tactile discrimination skills.

After he has completed this program, he will be ready to learn to read, using whatever books and method you choose. Be sure that you always call it "reading" and "learning to read" and not "Braille." Braille is a tactile method of reading and writing. As children make the transition from print to Braille, it is important that they understand that they are reading, and that Braille is the best method for them to use for reading and writing.

Right now, both reading media are difficult for your son. He finds print the easier of the two because it is the most familiar to him, so print is the reading method he prefers. However, as his tactile skills develop and he gets more practice with Braille, he will begin to prefer Braille. He will develop speed and fluency, and he will not have neck strain and eyestrain. He will not have slow, frustrating hours of struggle to accomplish simple reading and writing tasks, plagued with headaches and sore eyes. He will be able to read and write with the same, or even greater, speed as his sighted peers. He will not have hours and hours of his leisure time taken up doing written work because he cannot read or write quickly. He will not be underperforming, struggling to pretend he is a sighted child. He will be succeeding, pushing up against the edges of his potential, proudly achieving as a functionally blind person.

Public Perceptions

Another crucial part of this picture is the public perception of Braille and, more importantly, of the people who use Braille as their means of reading and writing. If your son is to embrace Braille as the door to normality and independence that it truly is, he needs to be educated about Braille and those who use it. He needs to be told the truth about blindness.

I'm sure your son knows Braille as "the blind people's way of reading." Even though he is young, he already will have acquired society's erroneous, stereotypical understanding of what it means to be blind. To the average sighted person, one's competence and value to society are proportionately related to the amount of vision one has. The more vision one has and the more one relies on vision, the more "normal" and hence competent one is assumed to be. Conversely, the less vision one has and the more one relies on blindness tools such as Braille and a long white cane, the less "normal" and competent the person is assumed to be. In the mind of the average sighted person, the word "blind" evokes helplessness, inferiority, dependence, darkness, tragic loss, and chronic incompetence. Blindness is surely a pitiable state! Nobody wants to be labeled with that dreaded word.

Since the people who are supposed to have these dire characteristics read Braille, who would want to admit to being one of them by using Braille? Certainly not most children! In fact, many parents, desperately afraid that their child is blind, praise their child for saying that he/she can see. Many parents would be astonished and deeply saddened to learn how often their low-vision children lie about what they can see, struggling on through uncertainty, fear, and pretending. They do this to please their parents, who have made it clear from their earliest years that their not seeing makes them very sad.

Given the social stigma, it is likely that your son resists Braille on a psychological level in addition to having difficulty with tactile discrimination. Of course, the truth is that one’s amount of vision has nothing to do with competence, ability, and fulfillment. We all know many people with 20/20 vision whose lives and relationships are in a mess, who can't get or hold a job, or who are drowning in addictions. The possession of good eyesight does not ensure a good life. Most blind people are average, competent, fulfilled, busy, responsible citizens. Of course, as in any subgroup of the population, there also are blind people who are not successful--but this is not because their eyes don't work well.

Part of your job in convincing your son to embrace Braille as his chief reading and writing medium, to see it as the door to educational success and the joys that reading will bring, is to teach him the truth about blindness and blind people. Perhaps the first thing for you to do is to find him some competent blind men to act as role models. Also, some friends his age who are blind would go a long way to showing him what can be accomplished using nonvisual techniques, including Braille. I'm sure the president of your state affiliate of the NFB would love to help you find role models. The president of your state Parents of Blind Children chapter would be a great resource to help your son meet other blind children.

My years of experience working with low-vision students have shown me that, unless you change his perception of blindness and Braille, and unless you stop the visual input during Braille reading and writing times, your son will not make good progress with Braille. He will continue to fail with print as his main form of reading and writing. He will be left smack in the middle of the demographic that has no functional form of literacy and, therefore, does not get employed.

Statistics are scarce on the employment of blind people. The few existing studies find that 90 percent of the blind people who are employed use Braille. Among my acquaintances, most adults with low vision use print when it is useful to them and are very pleased to use Braille when print is not usable. Many current graduates of the public education system who have low vision are very bitter toward those teachers who did not equip them with Braille as a tool. Unless they have the discipline to learn Braille on their own, they are condemned to struggle with print while they can still see it. Sadly, as they age, their sight will deteriorate to the point where they are unable to read print anymore. I applaud you for deciding to give your son the tools that will ensure his educational success and lifelong independence.

I hope this information is helpful to you, and I wish you all the success in the world with your son's transition to Braille.

Warmly,

Heather Field

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