American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Winter 2019      BRAILLE

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Creating a Code, Preserving a Language

by Carol Begay Green

Carol Begay GreenFrom the Editor: At the 2018 National Federation of the Blind Convention, Carol Begay Green received a Dr. Jacob Bolotin Award of $5,000. The award honored her for her work to develop a Braille code for the Navajo language. In this article she writes about the creation of the Navajo Braille Code and her efforts to promote the use of Braille among the Navajo people.

I grew up in Michigan, but I'm Navajo on my father's side. My mother is from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and my dad was raised in Lukachukai, Arizona. I used to visit my grandparents on the Navajo reservation every other summer when I was a child. I didn't become fluent in the Navajo language, but I learned a lot of words, mostly nouns: words such as cow, sheep, knife, and spoon.

In 1989 I moved to Arizona and enrolled at Northern Arizona University (NAU), where I took a class in the Navajo language. I earned a teaching degree from NAU in 1991, and I taught on the Navajo Nation from 1991 until 2007. My work gave me a lot of exposure to the Navajo language and culture.

Since 2010 I have worked as a teacher of the blind and visually impaired (TVI) for the Farmington Municipal Schools in Farmington, New Mexico. I am legally blind myself, and I learned Braille in 2009 through the New Mexico Commission for the Blind. I earned my certification as a TVI from New Mexico State University.
After I became a TVI I wanted to practice my Navajo using Braille. In 2013 I attended my first Getting in Touch with Literacy conference, which was held that year in Rhode Island. Getting in Touch with Literacy is a conference for teachers of the blind and visually impaired that is held every other year. At the conference I met Frances Mary d'Andrea, who at that time was president of the Braille Authority of North America (BANA). I also met Judy Dixon from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. Both of them are highly knowledgeable about Braille, so I asked them if they knew of a Braille code for Navajo. They had never heard of such a code. Frances Mary put me in touch with Dr. Robert Englebertson, a proficient Braille user who is a professor of linguistics at Rice University. If anyone knew about a Braille code for Navajo, it would be Dr. Englebertson.

Dr. Englebertson had never heard of a Braille code for the Navajo language, so we launched a search together. When we didn't turn up any leads, Dr. Ingelbertson encouraged me to come up with some ideas.

Depending on the word in which it is used, a vowel in Navajo can be pronounced in three different tones. There is a low tone, a high tone, and a nasal tone. As I developed the Navajo Braille Code I decided the low tone would be written as the regular Braille letter. The other tones presented some challenges. Working together over the phone and via email, Dr. Englebertson and I decided to borrow the accented vowel symbols used in American Spanish Braille to represent the high tones. Here in the Southwest, many Braille users have some experience with Spanish Braille, and we hoped this familiarity would make it easy for them to learn the Navajo system. Dr. Englebertson called it "positive transference."

In printed Navajo the nasal tone is indicated by a little hook under the letter. The Navajo Braille Code indicates the nasal tone by putting Dots 4-6 in front of the vowel. Some other symbols unique to Navajo are the glottal stop, which is indicated with an apostrophe in Braille; and the /m (somewhat like the sh sound), which we indicate with Dots 1-4-5-6.

The system we developed is concise and easy to read. The symbols for the accented letters are shorter and simpler than the indicators for accented vowels that are used in UEB (Unified English Braille). We felt these symbols would make the system easier for learners of all abilities.

We did most of the work on the Navajo Braille Code in June of 2015. In September 2015 I presented the code to the Navajo Board of Education, and the board approved it in October.

To build my fluency in the Navajo language, I recently took a Navajo class at San Juan College here in Farmington. I introduced the code to the person in the office for disabled students who assists students who are blind or visually impaired. To turn my class materials into usable Braille files, she used Perky Duck, a translation program from Duxbury Systems. She emailed the files to me, and I opened them in Duxbury and turned them into BRF (Braille Ready Files). Then I put the files onto my Braille notetaker and headed to class. I could follow along with the classwork in the Navajo Braille Code.

Even with the Braille code, though, not everything in the class was accessible. Some of the instruction involved a Navajo Rosetta Stone program that wasn't very accessible with JAWS. I think there is potential for making it work, but it certainly isn't there yet. My husband helped me, and he learned a lot of Navajo in the process!

I was the oldest student in the class at San Juan, and I was the only one who wasn't raised in the Southwest. The others were all full Navajo and grew up in this area, but ironically I was the most fluent Navajo speaker. I'd say I'm at the intermediate level. I had a lot of opportunity to hear and speak the language when I taught on the Navajo Nation at Shiprock and Red Mesa. In Farmington I'm only a few miles from the reservation, but I don't hear and use the language as much as I did back then.

The Navajo language is not spoken as widely today as it was thirty years ago, when I used to visit my grandparents. If you go deep into the reservation, though, you can still find children who are native Navajo speakers. Most of the schools on the Navajo Nation provide bilingual education services. The students have a Navajo class every day. Even here in Farmington we have Navajo bilingual classes.

In 2017 I gave a presentation about the Navajo Braille Code at EPICS, a conference for Native American parents of children with disabilities. The Navajo Times ran an article about the code, and they asked me to gather information about the number of Navajo children who are blind. As a TVI I have taught several Navajo children. Right now I have a Navajo student who is learning Braille and who is very interested in studying the Navajo language. However, I had no idea how many Navajo students are receiving TVI services. I found that in Arizona there are forty-five blind and visually-impaired students in Navajo and Apache Counties, but only five of those students are learning Braille. In McKinley and San Juan Counties in New Mexico I found about thirty-five blind and visually-impaired students, but Braille was only being taught to two of them. I don't know how many more of these students could benefit from Braille, and I still don't know how many Navajo adults are potential Braille users.

The word about the Navajo Braille Code is spreading. Vocational rehabilitation counselors in Scottsdale, Arizona, want me to do training with some of their adult blind clients. Already I have found five blind Navajo speakers who are potential Braille users or who already have learned Braille in English.

I'm using some of the money from my Bolotin grant to create a summer program for blind students that will be held in 2019. I'm trying to recruit teachers who work on the Navajo Nation and at the Arizona School for the Blind. I plan to visit children in their homes to teach them the code, using a Navajo counting book. I'll also help them practice their Braille skills in English by using a Braille cookbook. We'll shop for ingredients and cook a meal together, following a Braille recipe.

At the end of the program we'll get the students together for a field trip to Monument Valley. I had a tactile map made of the area, and we can bring it along so the students can have a deeper understanding of where we are. We'll have a guide who can tell us about the history of the area and describe its special features.

I also plan to meet with blind students in Arizona and to meet with adults at a local chapter house on the reservation. I'll be reaching out to any blind adults I can find in the community.

If you would like to contact me, please feel free to reach me by email at [email protected].

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