The Braille Monitor                                                                      _______     November 1997

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Jim Omvig

Jim Omvig

From Bad Philosophy to Bad Policy:
The American Braille Illiteracy Crisis

by James H. Omvig

From the Editor: Jim Omvig is the former director of both the Orientation and Adjustment Center operated by the Iowa Commission for the Blind, Des Moines, Iowa, and the Alaska Center for Blind and Deaf Adults, Anchorage, Alaska. He has been involved in one way or another in all facets of work with the blind for more than thirty-five years. He is now one of the leaders of the National Federation of the Blind of Arizona. This is what he says:

The state convention of the National Federation of the Blind of Arizona was held in Tucson over the weekend of September 5, 6, and 7, 1997. State President Bruce Gardner asked me to give a presentation on the new Braille provisions in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which was recently reauthorized by Congress and signed into law. The NFB had worked hard to have the language on Braille included, and the fact that we now have tough federal Braille legislation to go with the state Braille bills is a credit to the organized blind movement.

This assignment, together with some damning statistics which I reviewed in preparation for my presentation, caused me to engage in some serious reflection on the staggering illiteracy rate among our nation's blind children and young adults.

Before turning to a discussion of this crisis and my thoughts concerning the reason or reasons for it, let me offer a word or two about Braille and my experiences with it. In far too many circles over the years, I have heard people say, "Braille is too hard to learn." "Braille is too slow." "Braille is too bulky." "Braille is outdated and is no longer necessary." "Braille is not cool!" And on, and on, and on....

Let me tell you two of my own experiences with Braille. First, I grew up in a small farming town in Iowa. By the time I was fifteen years of age, I was so blind that I could no longer even pretend to function successfully in the public school, so I was enrolled in the Iowa Braille and Sight-Saving School to complete my last three-and-a-half years of high school.

Unbelievable as it sounds, even though I could read no more than fifteen or twenty words a minute of very large-print material for no more than fifteen or twenty minutes at a sitting and, further, even though everyone knew I would be totally blind one day, I was not taught Braille at this remarkable institution. The attitude of the school was, "Let him be normal (sighted) as long as he can."

My parents knew, of course, that I would be totally blind one day, so they were justifiably concerned about my lack of training. However, when my mother wrote to the school requesting that I be taught Braille, she was told, "He can always learn Braille when he really needs it."

Therefore, since I was unable to read my own school books and papers, I got through high school by having literate students (using either Braille or print) read aloud to me. By the time I graduated, I was nearly totally blind and therefore could read neither print nor Braille at all.

My second personal experience involves learning the Braille code itself, when I was twenty-six years old. After having sat at home for eight years in idleness and frustration following my graduation from the school for the blind, I had enrolled to become a student in the Iowa Orientation and Adjustment Center for Blind Adults, and I was to enter on March 15, 1961. Three weeks before I was to begin, my rehabilitation counselor gave me books (the old Illinois Series) with which to learn Braille. His argument was simple, "You could just as well do something useful with your time while you are waiting, so why don't you learn Braille?"

I went at it with gusto, and in the three weeks available to me I memorized the entire Braille code. I couldn't read or write very fast, of course, but I had committed the system itself to memory. Therefore, when somebody says that it's too hard to learn Braille, I know from personal experience that this assertion is incorrect--that it is just plain folly.

Then there is the question of whether Braille is too slow. I hadn't been a student at the Iowa Center long when I heard Dr. Kenneth Jernigan read Braille as fast as he could waggle his tongue. Through the ensuing years I have met many blind people who can read Braille just as rapidly as the sighted read print. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, these people all share a common experience--they all learned to read and write and use Braille when they were tiny children.

In my own case it took me a month or so to read with any speed at all, but I was also mastering the skill at twenty-six years of age. Two other students and I practiced together for two or three hours each night in addition to the classes we had during the day, so before long we had developed a reasonable speed.

I went on to use Braille all through college and law school, and it stood me in good stead. I took all class notes (ten or twelve pages an hour in law school) using the slate and stylus. I continued to use Braille as an essential tool throughout my working life, and I rely upon it heavily to this day.

Now, back to my thoughts about the illiteracy crisis. As I began to prepare for my State Convention presentation, I ran across startling and damning statistics. In 1968 (the first year for which accurate data are available), 44 percent of all blind children across America could use Braille. Although it is pure speculation on my part, I suspect that the percentage in the 1930's and 1940's (before large print came along) would have been much nearer to 100 percent.

In any event, by 1996 the percentage had dropped from the outrageously low 44 percent in 1968 to a devastating 9 percent--a national disgrace, a tragedy, a crisis!

And the percentage of those unable to use either large print or Braille had increased by the same tragic proportions. While 9 percent of the blind children in America could use neither print nor Braille in 1968, this figure had risen to an abysmal forty percent by 1996. Why? What could have gone so terribly wrong with our programs to educate the blind and partially blind? There has to be a reason, or reasons, and, whatever they are, the situation borders on the criminal.

As I thought about the problem and considered a whole series of negative factors which have contributed to the crisis, an idea emerged and crystallized. While there are several symptoms of the problem to examine, there is really only one overriding problem: our educational system has adopted (intentionally or otherwise) a bad philosophy about reading and writing for partially blind children. Over time this bad philosophy has actually evolved into an unwritten, but very damaging, national policy--"Use print at any cost!"

Just think of it. The education establishment evolved a bad philosophy which has gradually become a national policy concerning literacy for partially blind kids. As I look back at my own experience at the Iowa School for the Blind, "Use print at any cost" was the philosophy in place. Never mind that the cost was high and that the child with a little residual vision was forced to pay it. That philosophy had become the school's policy, and the administration was unwilling or incapable of altering it, no matter what.

Once I realized that the basic cause of the crisis was actually an entire unwritten national policy, it was easy to see why we have sunk to the current crisis level. And as I examined the problem, five specific pieces of the macabre puzzle emerged as comprising the sorry whole.

The first ingredient has to do with consumerism, or in this case, the lack of it. If you truly wish to set good policy, you must begin by asking for information from those who know the subject and whose lives are affected by the policy.

If professionals in the education of blind children had thought to consult blind adults in the late 1940's and early 1950's, I suspect that the entire use-print-at-any-cost fiasco might have been avoided. Informed adults would have pressed for literacy through continued Braille instruction, and the whole sight-saving (large-print) movement could have been given its proper, modest emphasis. But of course the system did not seek out information from the true experts, and the first major error, which led to the mistaken policy, was made.

The second ingredient leading to the current crisis was the large-print movement itself. It was in the late 1940's and early 1950's that the use-print-at-any-cost philosophy took root and became national policy. It was this bad policy at the Iowa school which prompted officials to refuse to give me Braille. If I had come to the school only a few years earlier, Braille instruction would have been a given. I simply had the bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Unfortunately my experience was not unique; it became the norm.

Once this bad philosophy became a national policy, it picked up momentum like a steamroller. The third critical factor leading to the current crisis was the introduction of the concept of vision stimulation. The theorists figured that, if our national policy for blind children with some residual vision was to use print at any cost, "Then let's see if we can't make these blind kids see better so that they can read print better." The effort was actually to make kids see better through practice and training. This was the natural extension of the original bad policy; but of course it didn't work. You can see what you can see, and no amount of trying or straining or pleading can make you see any better.

In my adult rehabilitation work, I met lots of young blind people who had experienced emotional damage from instructional and family effort to make them see what they could not see. Thankfully, this ill-conceived piece of the use-print-at-any-cost policy is on its way out.

The best evidence that vision stimulation is finished is this: Recently Dr. Kay Ferrell of the University of Northern Colorado wrote an article entitled, "A Call to End Vision Stimulation Training." The article appeared in the American Foundation for the Blind's Point/Counterpoint section of the Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness. Ferrell is widely respected. We can only hope that her views on vision stimulation will spread and that the fixation on such training will die a speedy and unlamented death.

The fourth factor involves technology. Technology for the blind, of course, is a wonderful and useful thing when it is understood and used properly. But when it is used as a substitute for the ability to read and write competently, it can cause much damage, and it has certainly done so.

In fact, with the overuse of technology (chiefly the cassette player) came a small but significant shift in emphasis and intention of the original national print policy. With the embrace of technology, we moved beyond the original use-print-at-any-cost national policy to one, in the minds of many, of avoid-Braille-at-all-cost.

Finally, the fifth ingredient is simply the natural and logical (though disastrous) extension of the first four. If we don't seek information from those who know what kind of policy we should establish as we are establishing it; if we determine that large print is better than Braille, no matter how inefficient and slow it is; if we decide that, since print is preferred no matter the cost, we should simply make blind children "see better"; and if we determine that technology is an adequate substitute for literacy, it logically follows that teachers of the blind don't need to be particularly skilled in or able to use or teach Braille. So we have had more than a generation of specialists who, since they were not good at Braille themselves, failed to give Braille proper emphasis and frequently failed to teach it at all.

These five ingredients, then, have emerged and flourished under our use-print-at-any-cost policy, and thousands of blind children have been the losers. The lives of many have been damaged forever.

Where do we go from here? Can something be done to reverse the trend, to get rid of this destructive policy and to bring sanity back into the education of blind children?

Thankfully, there is good news, and we still have a chance. Extremely positive action is occurring on several fronts. First, Dr. Ruby Ryles of Louisiana Tech University has just completed what is probably the most significant Braille research project of the century. She studied a large group of high school students. Her study shows that partially blind kids who learn and use Braille from infancy are so far ahead of those partially blind students who use regular or large print (in reading speed, comprehension, retention, spelling, grammar, etc.), that there is simply nothing to compare or to argue about. In fact, her study shows that, unlike the blind large-print users, those who have learned and used Braille from infancy function on a par with kids who have ordinary vision. The blind print users aren't even on the same playing field.

Since the university masters' programs from throughout the country which train teachers of the blind rely upon objective testing rather than opinion, our past efforts to convince the instructors that Braille is better have usually fallen on deaf ears. However, now that the proof is available as the result of a major, objective, professional study, perhaps we can expect positive change in instructional philosophy and policy.

Then there is the new Braille language in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act itself. It requires that the Individualized Education Program (IEP) for each blind student in America will no longer start with a presumption that print will be taught. The IEP for blind children will automatically provide for Braille instruction and the use of Braille unless all members of the IEP team determine, following a complete assessment, that Braille is not appropriate for this youngster.

Finally, we have our National Federation of the Blind state Braille bills. Many require that textbook publishers provide the school district with electronic versions so that Braille texts can be made available inexpensively and quickly. Before long, one would hope, virtually all publishers will provide disks of textbooks routinely. And, to address the problem of teachers who don't promote and teach Braille because they don't know it themselves, many of our new state laws require that special education teachers for the blind pass Braille competency tests in order to teach.

If we are persistent, if we are vigilant, and if we continue our concerted action, working through the National Federation of the Blind we can eliminate the destructive national print policy and replace it with a policy which more appropriately and positively meets the needs of our blind children--a national policy which states that Braille is blind people's true method of literacy and our passport to freedom and independence.