Braille Monitor                                                                                                   July 2004

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In Touch with the Written Word:
Braille Helps Blind People Lead Independent Lives

by Tiffany Shaw

Martha Harris
Martha Harris

From the Editor: The following article first appeared in the Tuesday, January 20, 2004, edition of the Altoona Mirror. Martha Harris and her mother Catherine are both members of the National Federation of the Blind of Pennsylvania. Here is the article:

Sophomore Martha Harris succeeds as an honor student at Altoona Area High School because of her hard work, intelligence, and a little help from Braille.

Martha, sixteen, has been blind since birth, but she started to read when she was in preschool, thanks to a teacher who instructed her in Braille.

The system of Braille revolutionized the way blind people could read and learn when it was created, and it maintains a vital role in helping the blind lead independent lives, says Peg Taddy, a social worker with the state Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services. Even though technology has overtaken the older ways of reading in many cases, the hands-on approach remains very important, she says.

"Braille is like a foreign language. If you use it all the time, you get quite fluent in it." Taddy says. "Some groups have begun to feel that Braille wasn't being considered in school because technology was taking its place. They felt the need to educate people about it so they would see there is still a need for it. Braille is like pen and paper. You can always use them when technology fails. It's a basic reading and writing tool."

Martha, the daughter of Catherine Harris of Altoona, agrees. "I think it's very important. Even though there's technology, without Braille, reading would not be possible," she says.

She uses a Braille Lite machine to take notes in class, transposing what her teachers say into notes on what resembles a laptop computer. She takes that home and can reread the notes and do homework by printing them on a Braille printer or by having the machine read them back to her. Coupled with a scanner that can vocalize any printed page, Martha excels in school.

"She's a very bright little girl," Taddy says of Martha, whom she's known since Martha was three years old. "She works hard and does well. To me she's really a good example of the independence a blind student can achieve."

Using the combination of technology and Braille doesn't faze Martha. "I first learned Braille when I was four, in preschool," she says. "I didn't think it was very hard."

Martha first learned grade I Braille, which uses the regular alphabet to spell out words, she says. She then learned grade II Braille, which is more like shorthand and shortens the words to just a few letters, she explains.

According to the International Braille Research Center, the code to enable blind people to read and write was invented by a blind Frenchman, Louis Braille, in 1829 [1824]. Braille is made of a rectangular six-dot cell, with up to sixty-three possible combinations using one or more of the six dots.

The cells are embossed onto thick paper and read with the fingers moving across the top of the dots. Braille characters take up three times as much space as print, meaning that a Braille dictionary consists of volumes that would fill a room, Taddy says.

The method of reading doesn't detract from Martha's pleasure in the hobby at all. "I love to read. Reading is one of my favorite things," she says. She also participates in a reading club at school that takes part in reading comprehension competitions.

Since Taddy has worked with Martha for so long, she often has Martha speak at group meetings for parents who have young children who are blind. Hearing the teenager talk about going to regular classes and seeing how independent she is can alleviate some of the parents' fears, Taddy says.

"She's really good at talking to them, and she tells them helpful things," Taddy said. "She's a really good role model and mentor for little ones."

Martha took time out Saturday to read to children at Altoona Area Public Library, reading a storybook in Braille to them. She will also take part in a blindness awareness event Saturday at the Logan Valley Mall, writing children's names in Braille as well as demonstrating some of the equipment she uses in school.

The event is designed to educate people about the importance of Braille and show how blind adults can live independent lives, Taddy says. Part of that comes by learning Braille at a very young age, like Martha, in preschool, Taddy says.

Parents of even younger children with serious vision loss can encourage their children to develop their sense of touch by getting used to identifying things by touch, she says. "If they start early, they can have good success," she says.

Agencies can assist parents in getting equipment for children in school so they keep up in the classroom and later enjoy reading just for pleasure, like Martha. Reading will also play a huge role in Martha's plans for the future. "I want to be a journalist," she says. "I like writing, too."

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