American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Winter 2016       LOW VISION

(back) (contents) (next)

A New Perspective on Literacy for Students with Low Vision

by Allison Hilliker

Reprinted from Bookshare Blog, November 24, 2015

Allison HillikerFrom the Editor: Allison Hilliker provides Bookshare customer support for Benetech's global literacy program. She has a bachelor of science degree from Arizona State University, serves as secretary of the National Association to Promote the Use of Braille (NAPUB), and has been part of the Benetech team for more than eight years. As a legally blind person who has experienced reading both Braille and print, Allison has a special passion for the topic of reading for people who have low vision. Her daughter, Allyssa Kathleen Leveda Hilliker, was born on January 9, 2016.

Imagine a reading solution that would allow students with low vision to read for hours without eye fatigue. Imagine a solution where their ability to distinguish among letters would not be dependent upon print size, contrast, lighting, color, or font style; where skimming or rereading a paragraph or page wouldn't be cause for frustration or eyestrain; where students could easily discern the subtleties of spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and paragraph layout. Imagine a reading option in which individuals wouldn't have to hold the book close to their faces or hunch over a tablet screen in order to read.

Well, there is a reading solution that enables students to accomplish all this and more. That solution is Braille.

Braille? Seriously? Why?

Readers who have varying degrees of usable sight have demonstrated that they can read on or above grade level simply by using Braille. For decades, Braille has enabled individuals with low vision to compete effectively with their sighted classmates in higher education and with colleagues in the workplace. Studies have shown that, while there is a high rate of unemployment among adults who are blind or visually impaired, the majority of those individuals who are employed use Braille. These facts demonstrate that there is a tremendous benefit to students who obtain Braille skills and use Braille consistently.

But Wait--These Students Have Partial Sight?

An individual need not be totally blind, or even close to it, in order to benefit from reading Braille. Many students with low vision keep pace with their peers in the primary grades because the print is large and/or minimal on any one page. As these students progress to the upper grades, however, the print decreases in size and increases in volume. These changes often cause frustration and lead students to avoid reading altogether or resort to using audio materials only. This situation creates a wide gap between students with visual impairments and their fully sighted peers.

In contrast, when a student with partial sight becomes proficient in Braille, he or she has the option to choose the reading medium (print or Braille) that works best in any given situation. As a result, Braille readers with low vision are equipped with multiple tools to help them achieve success.

Isn't Braille Difficult and Time Consuming to Learn?

No. It's often believed that Braille is difficult, tedious, and time consuming to learn, resulting in low comprehension levels. However, the experiences reported by Braille-reading adults demonstrate the opposite. Many adult Braille readers read with a proficiency level equal to that of their sighted friends and colleagues. Students who learn Braille and are encouraged to practice it daily emerge with reading speeds and comprehension levels comparable to those of their sighted peers.

During preschool a sighted child typically begins to learn reading skills in print. When a preschool-age child with a visual impairment learns reading in a similar manner to sighted classmates, but uses Braille instead of print, both learners typically develop similar reading abilities. It may or may not take a little longer for older students just beginning Braille to become proficient readers. However, with daily encouragement and practice, all students can develop Braille skills quickly and read as fluently as their sighted counterparts who use print.

Braille itself is not inherently slower or more difficult to read than print. However, when individuals learn a skill later in life, they may find it hard to master at the beginning. The important thing is for teachers to have a positive attitude about Braille so that students will be motivated to use it, even if they find it difficult at first.

Won't My Students Resist Learning Braille?

If an instructor is excited about Braille, students are likely to be excited as well. Enthusiasm for Braille will reduce resistance to using it. Exposing students to role models who use Braille (especially individuals who are the same age as the learner) can be encouraging. Students learning Braille often feel isolated because they believe they are the only Braille readers in the area or because they don't know anyone else who reads Braille. Introducing students with low vision to other Braille users can normalize Braille and motivate them to learn to read just as well as or better than others in either Braille or print.

It is normal for children, and some adults for that matter, to resist working on tasks that are difficult at first. As with any other skill, Braille becomes much easier with daily practice. A positive attitude about Braille will go a long way toward encouraging students. If an instructor has the attitude that Braille is important, exciting, and fun to use, students will be more likely to believe the same thing.

What about Audio Reading? Isn't It Sufficient?

While listening to a book may seem a viable alternative to reading, it has some limitations. Adults who primarily listened to books instead of actively reading for themselves when they were young often discover they struggle with academic writing. The audio format prevented them from obtaining proficiency in spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and other writing skills. Not every writing challenge can be resolved through spell-check, and two words that sound the same can be spelled differently. Limited opportunities for interacting with text while young can create difficulties with writing in higher education or employment. Braille, when presented in a positive way and reinforced with practice, eliminates those deficiencies.

In addition, an audio format does not allow students to read from notes while giving a presentation or delivering a speech. This may not seem like an important task for younger students, but presentation skills are often required in higher education and in some employment settings. Holding a printed page close to one's face, or speaking to a group with an ear-bud in one ear, may not present a professional impression. On the contrary, a skilled Braille reader skimming Braille notes while facing and engaging the audience can be extremely effective. In this way Braille can enable students to read aloud with confidence and poise.

Braille may also be preferable to audio options for labeling important items such as medication bottles, school folders, etc. Braille can be useful for making board games and card games accessible; for reading aloud to younger children; or for keeping lists of groceries, passwords, guests, and so on.

Does Learning Braille Mean That Students Can No Longer Use Print?

Absolutely not! Students with low vision are not required to use Braille exclusively. While individuals will become more proficient readers by using Braille daily, they may still read print when and if it meets their requirements in terms of print size, color contrast, and font style. Having proficient Braille skills and the ability to read print presents students with two viable options. Many successful students with low vision are competent readers in both Braille and print (either large print or via magnification devices) and are skilled in deciding which reading medium is best in a given situation. This expertise develops over time with practice and confidence. Experienced Braille readers often discover that Braille is the most effective option the majority of the time, while other formats may be options when Braille is unavailable. In addition, students' preferences for Braille over print are likely to increase as their reading becomes faster and more fluent. The optimal scenario for a student with low vision who is proficient in Braille is having several media options from which to choose.

Won't Students Feel Self-Conscious about Reading Braille?

There is no shame in anyone with partial sight choosing to read Braille in addition to or instead of other formats. Braille has been a respectable reading method for over one hundred years. Many young students are amazed to learn that Braille was invented by a French boy, Louis Braille, at age fifteen. As is true with many subjects, an instructor's positive attitude toward Braille helps students develop a positive attitude, too.

Students with low vision may already feel self-conscious if they have to read enlarged text on oversized pages; hold papers close to their faces; hunch over a table to read textbooks, worksheets, or tablets; or sit very close to a computer screen. Students who perfect Braille reading skills may find that they are more like their sighted classmates because they are comfortable reading in a variety of settings.

Braille enables a student to sit up proudly while reading with confidence. Any student who reads well is more likely to be comfortable reading in groups, regardless of medium choice. Moreover, Braille readers can read regardless of lighting quality or eye fatigue. The versatility of Braille may motivate a student to read more often. In addition, introducing students to Braille as young as possible can increase acceptance and lead to a smoother learning process.

Braille readers who can read fluidly, quickly, and without stress are more likely to be confident and have higher cognitive levels than poor readers who struggle to use regular print like their peers.

How Can Parents and Educators Get Onboard with Braille?

The National Reading Media Assessment (NRMA) is a free assessment tool available to instructors that uses current research to determine whether a student with a visual impairment would benefit from learning Braille or print as his/her primary medium. The results of this assessment may be shared with other members of a student's education team, such as parents, administrators, and classroom teachers. Seeing a demonstrated need for Braille instruction may help others understand the importance of Braille. With a positive approach toward Braille and the belief that Braille will help students be successful in education and employment, instructors may find that others will be more open to Braille as an option.

Feel free to explain to others that Braille does not mean the student with low vision will no longer use any remaining vision. Instead, Braille enhances one's education by adding an additional literacy tool to use when vision may not be reliable. Through reading Braille, a student's confidence grows because reading efficiently in any situation has occurred.

Does Bookshare Have Books in Braille?

Yes! All of Bookshare's English language books are available in Braille Ready Format (BRF). They can be read on a Braille device such as the BrailleSense or BrailleNote, or they can be printed out in hard copy. Bookshare recently tested Unified English Braille (UEB), which was officially released on its site early in 2016. This feature will allow access to hundreds of thousands of books in the new code. It also will enable instructors to demonstrate the new UEB standard through books that will engage readers with diverse interests.

Bookshare titles can be downloaded by logging onto the Bookshare site at <>, searching for a title, and selecting BRF from the format dropdown box. Note that some DAISY readers can read the DAISY text format using an electronic Braille display. Such displays will show text in Braille, even if it has not been directly translated into Braille by other means.

Any student in the US who has a print disability such as visual impairment or dyslexia is eligible for a free subscription to Bookshare. With 385,000 titles in January 2016, Bookshare has the largest collection of accessible books in the world, and it is growing every day. We invite you to sign up and try one of our Braille books today!

Additional Resources

Braille eLearning Activities for Children

Resources for Teachers from the National Federation of the Blind

Ten Braille Resources from the American Foundation for the Blind

Spanish Braille Resources

Media Share

Facebook Share

(back) (contents) (next)