Future Reflections Fall 1992, Vol. 11 No. 4


SLATE-MATES Braille Is The Medium For Youngsters' Messages

Editor's Note: The following article is written by C. L. Rugenstein and is reprinted from a fall, 1991, issue of the McComb Suburban Sunday newspaper, McComb county, Michigan.

Pen pals. The term evokes images of far-away places with strange-sounding names—Dubuque, Kankakee, Moose Jaw—and new, far-away friends with whom to share experiences via letters.

Children especially seem to delight in such correspondence. Among them are 11-year-old Adam Emerson of Sterling Heights, and Nicholas Wilcox, a 15-year-old who lives in Ann Arbor. Although both young people are blind, they can reach out and touch someone by letter through a program called Slate-Mates. It's a New Mexico-based pen-pal matching service specifically designed for blind youngsters.

Wilcox, a sophomore at Ann Arbor's Pioneer High School, has been writing Braille letters to his friend Melody in San Francisco for about a year. Their mutual interests include computers.

Emerson, a seventh grader at Rochester Hill Christian School, has written "short letters to younger kids who don't know Braille that well. I also Braille dymo tape (clear tape with Braille characters overlaying regular letters) for my mom." (Sunny Emerson puts out a newsletter for the Michigan Parents of Blind Children organization.)

Emerson, who is legally blind but can read with the aid of a powerful magnifying glass, says "I am not very good at it (Braille)—I only started (writing Braille) in the fourth grade. I am more used to printing."

To correspond with one another Slate-Mate kids use a portable Braille-writing device called a slate and stylus, which is similar to a pencil or pen. The slate is a 12" by 4" hinged metal or plastic frame that fits on sides of a sheet of paper. The writer uses the stylus to push Braille dots into the paper, using the slate as a guide. According to the National Federation of the Blind, the process takes about the same length of time as printing by hand with a pen or pencil.

"Blind children want pen pals for the same reason that other kids want them—for support and encouragement" says Barbara Cheadle, President of the Parents of Blind Children division of the National Federation of the Blind. "It's a way to share."

It also gives children who are blind "someone to talk to about things only another blind person could understand" says Fred Schroeder, founder-coordinator of the Slate-Mates program, which he started in 1984. "Braille is an important skill. We felt this program was a way to stimulate kids to use it," says Schroeder, who is with the New Mexico Commission for the Blind.

Thus far, some 150 youngsters from elementary through high school age have joined the Slate-Mates program, whose primary goal actually is to promote Braille literacy.

Wilcox routinely uses a slate and stylus for taking notes in school but says writing to a pen pal has helped his proficiency in reading and writing Braille.

Blind children interested in joining the free pen pal program may request the Slate-Mate profile (application) by writing to: Slate-Mates, c/o Fred Schroeder, New Mexico Commission for the Blind, PERA Building, Room 205, Sante Fe, New Mexico 87503.

Reading with the fingers

The Braille writing system was developed in 1820 by a very young Frenchman named Louis Braille. Braille completed his modification of the system of night writing used aboard ships by the time he was eighteen years old.

Students in the school for the blind that Louis Braille attended found that reading and writing the system of raised dots was easier than reading raised letters which they could not write at all. But it still took more than a century before Braille was accepted as a better way for the blind to learn to read and write. Experienced Braille readers can read at a speed comparable to that of a sighted person, about 200—400 words a minute.

Adam Emerson, 11, of Sterling Heights, uses Braille to do his math and hopes to become a particle physicist and a chemist.