Future Reflections Spring/Summer 1993, Vol. 12 No. 2


by Barbara Cheadle

[PICTURE] Barbara Cheadle conducts a parents’ meeting in the conference room at the National Center for the Blind, headquarters of the National Federation of the Blind.

As I see it, there are basically two steps in the current struggle to achieve Braille literacy for blind youth. The first step in the achievement of this goal is to establish, by law if necessary, the fundamental right of blind and visually impaired students to instruction in Braille reading and writing.

About seven years ago, Maryland was the first state to try and achieve the first step of this goal through state legislation. After two unsuccessful legislative attempts and several years of working behind the scenes to try to bring about change through regulation, the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland was successful in getting a Braille literacy bill passed in 1992. Since then, a resource document which outlines how to determine which students should learn Braille has been developed and disseminated to educators and parents by the Maryland State Department of Education. This document was developed by a committee which included two members of the Federation and a parent as well as the usual contingency of professionals. With strong legislation and good guidelines for implementing the legislation, Maryland is one of the many states which are now well on the way to accomplishing this first step. To date, Braille literacy bills have been passed in 18 states-slightly more than one third of all states in the U.S.A. Iowa, Indiana, Florida, and Idaho are the most recent states to pass such legislation. The momentum for Braille bills is gathering and many more states will undoubtedly join the ranks of Braille bill states in the coming 1994 state legislative sessions.

The second step toward the achievement of Braille literacy for blind youth is finding a way to ensure that teachers of blind and visually impaired children meet minimal competency standards in the reading and writing of Braille. Some of the Braille bills passed in the various states address this issue, others do not. The Maryland Braille literacy law addressed it by stipulating that, “For the purpose of achieving successful implementation of this section, the state board and the professional standards and teacher education board shall adopt certification standards for teachers of blind and visually impaired students.”

Not one to let any grass grow under her feet, Sharon Maneki, President of the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland, began to move on this segment of the legislation even as the Braille resource guide committee was wrapping up its work. At Sharon's request, the NFB of Maryland was put on the agenda of the October, 1992, meeting of the Maryland Professional Standards and Teacher Education Board. This board has the responsibility of overseeing any changes in teacher certification requirements in the state. This article contains an edited version of the comments I made as an NFB of Maryland representative at that October meeting.  The comments are reprinted here in the hopes of providing some insights into the necessity of pressing forward on the issue of requiring demonstrations of teacher competency in Braille reading and writing. We are doing this in Maryland. A committee to study the certification requirements of teachers of students with visual impairments was appointed, and an NFB of Maryland representative is on that committee. Despite a tangle of bureaucratic policies and regulations, we intend to persevere until we have a system which will guarantee that any teacher hired to teach blind and visually impaired children can meet minimum standards in the reading and writing of Braille.

Who knows, if we do our work well maybe our vision teachers will once more become Braille teachers.

Comments Regarding Braille Certification and Standards for Teachers of the Blind and Visually Impaired

My name is Mrs. Barbara Cheadle. I am the mother of a blind child, president of the Parents of Blind Children Division of the National Federation of the Blind, and editor of Future Reflections, the NFB magazine for parents and educators of blind children. I have been a resident of Maryland for the past eight years. My son, who is blind, has attended Maryland schools since 2nd grade-six of the eight years he has been in school. Over the past few years, I have not only come to know hundreds of Maryland parents, but a good many of the teachers and administrators who are responsible for the special education needs of blind and visually impaired children in this state. My responsibilities as editor of Future Reflections and president of a national parents' organization mean that I also have a knowledge of national concerns, problems, and trends. It is with this background that I come to this issue on Braille certification and renewal.

I strongly support the adoption of the Braille Competency test for teachers developed by the National Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped as the standard for Maryland teachers of the visually impaired; the use of the test for renewal purposes every five years; and the establishment of requirements regarding Braille teaching methodologies.

Here are my reasons. First of all, the teaching of Braille is a unique educational need unparalleled by any other subject or skill taught to either general or special education students. (Since Braille is a tactile reading and writing code necessary for literacy for the blind, I even hesitate to call it a special education need.) I realize this statement may raise some hackles, but please bear with me. Unless Braille is taught by a blind teacher-which is much less common today than it was 20 or 30 years ago-students will be taught their basic literacy skill by a teacher who never personally uses that system outside the classroom. And yet, this teacher may be the only individual in those students' lives who knows Braille at all. The director of special education won't know it; the classroom teacher won't know it; the principal won't know it; the teacher's immediate supervisor won't know it; and the parents, with few exceptions, won't know it. As it stands, only in a handful of districts do vision teachers have supervisors who are knowledgeable in Braille. Consider the implications. Any school administrator of any school in this state could walk into any reading or English teacher's classroom and determine if a teacher meets minimum standards for teaching reading and writing. How many could sit in on a Braille class and be able to judge personally that teacher's knowledge of Braille and appropriateness of teaching methodologies?

Knowing that others around you-coworkers, supervisors, and parents-are capable of evaluating your work provides a tremendous incentive for teachers to maintain their skills. Conversely, the knowledge that absolutely no one around you has the foggiest notion of the quality of your work, encourages at best mediocre performance and at worst sub-standard performance.

No one wins in this situation. The student loses, of course, but so does the teacher and the school administration. I do not believe that vision teachers or school administrators want to provide sub-standard or even mediocre Braille instruction to students. Appropriate Braille competency standards would restore respect and credibility to teachers and administrators alike because it would ensure-short of administrators learning Braille themselves-that minimum standards in Braille teaching would be met.

The second reason Maryland should take steps to ensure teacher competency is that graduation from a college or university with a vision teacher degree or endorsement is by no means a guarantee that the graduate has adequate Braille skills. Let me quote from Print and Braille Literacy: Selecting Appropriate Learning Media, a booklet published by the American Printing House for the Blind, copyright 1991, edited by Hilda Caton: “There are no quality standards for teaching Braille in colleges and universities and no refresher courses available after graduation.” Short but not very sweet, this statement was endorsed by a committee which was made up of the top Braille experts and educators of the blind in this country. In some of the university and college programs, Braille instruction is buried in a three-hour course along with a list of other communication skills to be covered in that time frame. In Puerto Rico teachers can get an endorsement after learning Grade I Braille-Grade II Braille isn't even offered. Maryland must take the initiative, as it does in other areas of certification and renewal, and adopt standards by which the Braille reading, writing, and teaching methodology skills of teachers from these various programs can be judged.

The next question then is: Why renewal standards? Other teachers are not required to periodically demonstrate competency in their fields. Again, we must look at the unique circumstances surrounding Braille instruction and the needs of blind students.  Vision teachers may go years without teaching Braille. This may be because they took time out to rear a family; or they taught in a small district and a Braille student simply didn't live in the district for a number of years; or they teach in a large district but have been assigned to work with infants, or low-vision (non-Braille) students. Remember, the overwhelming majority of these teachers are sighted and unless they are required to keep their skills current, will have no reason to even incidentally use Braille. English teachers may not teach for years, but they do not stop reading or writing. Sighted Braille teachers could go years without reading or writing Braille, but when they are called upon to teach Braille it will be with students who will be expected to perform with the same level of reading and writing skills expected of their print-reading peers. It would be like expecting a French teacher who hasn't used, said, or written a word in French for years to teach French to students who will read and write French-and only French-for all of their schoolwork in all Subjects- from math to science to social studies. Just this past month a vision teacher who hasn't taught Braille in ten years was assigned to teach a Braille student. She is doing her best, but the state could have saved her much anguish if Braille renewal requirements had been in place.

The need for change in certification and renewal standards is also necessary because circumstances under which Braille students are taught have dramatically changed in the last twenty years. Just last year, one of the first Braille students to be mainstreamed from kindergarten on within the public school system, graduated from high school. Before 1976, the Baltimore public schools had never taught Braille to a student in their system. The only Braille students were the one or two who learned Braille at the School for the Blind and then transferred to the public school system. These students received no support services at all. Prior to 1976, the School for the Blind was the only game in town when it came to teaching Braille to blind students. It still is for many small or rural school districts. Traditionally at schools for the blind, many people knew Braille. Often the principal started his or her career as a teacher in a school for the blind, and was therefore personally skilled in Braille. Many of the teachers were themselves blind and used Braille in their personal lives as routinely as we use print. Classes in history or English or science were filled with Braille reading students. Older, proficient Braille reading students mixed with younger students just learning to read via Braille.

Today, most Braille students learn in classrooms with all print readers. A few of them in larger districts may have one or two other Braille students their age with which they have some interaction, but for the most part, the only Braille user a blind student will know is a sighted teacher. They have none of the opportunities for incidental learning and reinforcement that Braille students had twenty years ago. This is the price we pay-no, our blind students pay-for the right to attend their local schools. It is only reasonable that the State of Maryland acknowledge its responsibility to minimize this burden on our blind students by assuring them of teachers who meet minimum Braille competency standards. I do not believe that federal and state legislators ever intended that blind students should have to give up literacy in order to attend schools with their sighted peers.