American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Fall 2019      PROGRAMS

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Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning

by Carla McQuillan

From the Editor: Carla McQuillan serves as president of the National Federation of the Blind of Oregon, and she is the executive director of Main Street Montessori. Since 2017 she has coordinated the NFB BELL Academies.

A boy reads the page in his Perkins Braillewriter at the Idaho BELL Academy.The first BELL program was organized in Maryland in the summer of 2008 under the leadership of Melissa Riccobono and with the inspiration of teacher Jackie Mushington-Anderson. The program grew out of the recognition that blind children generally did not receive adequate Braille instruction during the school year. Furthermore, they lacked exposure to blind role models who read Braille fluently, traveled with confidence using the long white cane, and used other skills of blindness on a daily basis. BELL is an acronym for Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning. The BELL program was created to provide fun and educational Braille-based activities for blind and low-vision children as well as contact with blind role models who serve as volunteers.

Over the following years, BELL programs (now officially called BELL Academies) sprouted up in one state after another. Twenty-six states hosted one or more BELLs in 2019, for a grand total of thirty-four BELL Academies nationwide.

In the past the national BELL coordinator provided guidance and information to affiliates that planned to start BELL Academies for the first time. Over the years Natalie Shaheen and Carlton Walker each held the BELL coordinator position. During the winter affiliates starting new programs sent two teachers or volunteers to NFB headquarters for a weekend of intensive planning and training. Established programs sent one person instead of two.

When I coordinated our BELL Academy in Oregon, I returned home from Baltimore with lots of exciting ideas to share. I organized a weekend of training for our BELL teachers and volunteers. The weekend was highly successful. It helped us recruit volunteers and spread the word about BELL among parents of blind children. It even brought in some very welcome donations!

Instead of sending BELL leaders to Baltimore for training, I saw the value of training novice BELL teams in their home states. In the winter of 2018 I conducted training sessions for novice programs across the country. Then I visited the programs during the summer to make suggestions and lend support. All of this training involved an enormous amount of time on the road. It was too much for one person to take on year after year.

In January 2019 a group of experienced coordinators of state BELL programs conducted a training weekend in Baltimore. All of the coordinators were experienced teachers: Michelle Chacon, Carlton Walker, Cayte Mendez, Craig Cooper, Krystal Guillory, and me. In the winter and spring the six of us led training weekends for affiliates that were starting new programs. Each of us led at least one training, and some people conducted more than one. The training process was much more manageable when we spread out the work load.

John, Van, and Will Baylor enjoy a weaving craft at South Carolina BELL.Resources vary widely from one NFB affiliate to another, and inevitably each BELL Academy takes on its own character. However, it is important for all of the programs to meet the high standards established by the NFB. When trainers visit a BELL Academy, they complete an extensive evaluation form. Affiliates also filled out detailed self-assessments. These evaluations help affiliates recognize the strengths of their programs and identify areas where they can improve.

The biggest problem for many affiliates that  want to run a BELL Academy is finding a qualified teacher. One year we had to cancel our program in Oregon at the last minute because three weeks before the start date our teacher found out she had to take a summer course. We would like to establish an internship program for BELL teachers. The interns would train in Baltimore before they assist the teacher in an established program. 

Developing and sustaining our BELL Academies takes money. Nearly all of our BELL teachers are paid, and sometimes affiliates have to rent space where classes can be held. Then there are all the incidental expenses—lunches, Braille paper, museum admissions, arts and crafts supplies, and transit fares. Yet most of the work of our BELL Academies is carried out by dedicated NFB volunteers. Many of these volunteers recall how their parents fought to obtain Braille instruction for them when they were growing up. They want to make sure today's blind children get the opportunities they didn't have themselves.

For the past several years Wells Fargo has been a primary donor to our BELL Academies. Not only has the company given us generous donations; it has contributed educational opportunities for our children as well. The 2018 BELL theme was Hands-on Banking. Several BELL Academies conducted field trips to Wells Fargo banks. Bankers made up debit cards so the students could try out the ATM machines. Children even were allowed to explore the vaults where money is stored. At some banks students and bankers held contests to see who could sort coins the fastest under learning shades. Not too surprisingly, the children won every time!

Students from the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, BELL Academy meet Governor Tom Wolf at the Pennsylvania Capitol.

Any time we waver in our commitment to BELL, we have only to remember some of the children whose lives have been transformed through our programs. I'll never forget an eleven-year-old girl who enrolled in our Oregon BELL in 2017. She had been blind for only two years. She was being homeschooled, and her family had very little knowledge of the resources that were available. Her mother taught herself uncontracted Braille, but she was unaware that there is a contracted form of the Braille code. She transcribed as many books as she could manage, each word spelled out letter by letter.

As soon as this child entered our BELL Academy, we put out a message on the NFB listservs, seeking a one-on-one instructor to teach her UEB (Unified English Braille). The more she learned, the more excited she became. When she got her hands on a Perkins Brailler, she began to write stories. At the end of our two-week BELL Academy she gave a presentation. "I had never been around another blind person in my life," she said, "and now I've met seven of them!" Her parents said they had never seen her so happy since she lost her sight.

Sometimes we see dramatic changes in a single day. The father of an eight-year-old boy in West Virginia worried because his son wanted to hold his hand everywhere they went. He knew that his son needed to become more independent, but he didn't know how to make it happen. On the first day of the BELL Academy, the child met a group of blind children and adults who used long white canes to get where they wanted to go. When his father came to pick him up, the boy grabbed his cane and headed for the car on his own.

At the end of each summer we receive many heartfelt letters from the parents of our BELL participants. "My son just finished his fifth year of BELL, and as always, it was a wonderful experience," wrote a mother from Illinois. "Not only do the students receive excellent Braille practice and activities, they participate in wonderful field trips. For those two precious weeks in my son's life he's surrounded by friends who also have white canes and read Braille, and that is a rare gift."

Another parent wrote about the ways BELL Academy transformed her son's life. "Three years ago my  son was the visually-impaired kid who stood against the building at recess. He had a one-on-one aide all day long. He sat alone with his adult aide in the classroom, had special seating in the lunchroom with the aide standing behind him, and used the staff bathroom. For PE he practiced passing a pencil from one hand to the other. If you have kids and want them to become independent and successful in life, you know that wrapping them up in a bubble is not such a good idea. NFB and BELL Academy have taught us that Thomas is not just visually impaired; he is so much more. We have to help teach others what Thomas needs (after we learn it ourselves from NFB and all the knowledgeable people affiliated there), and then Thomas has to learn to advocate loudly for himself every day. He has come a long way from that kid standing alone at recess three years ago. He is now a member of the gifted society MENSA, and he is looking to skip fifth grade and enter the gifted program in our middle school. He is on the swim team, and he has friends and family all around him. Since coming to BELL Academy through the support of its wonderful contributors, and with the guidance and love of the National Federation of the Blind my son will really learn to live the life he wants and deserves."

Children crave independence. When they walk into a BELL classroom, they're encouraged to try new experiences and to explore freely. They begin to unlock the joys of reading. They meet blind adults who are living the lives they want. The results are magical!

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