Future Reflections  Summer 2006

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Technology and Life Skills
A Beginner's Guide to Access Technology for Blind Students: Part Two

by Mike Tindell, Access Technology Specialist
International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind (IBTC)

Mike TindellEditor’s Note: Part One of this series on access technology appeared in the previous issue of Future Reflections. At that time, I announced that Part Two would tackle the questions of how a parent or IEP team decides which technology is appropriate or effective for the student, and when (grade or competency level) the technology should be introduced. However, IBTC Director, Ann Taylor, and team members Mike Tindell and Steve Booth felt very strongly that this piece about life skills needed to come first. All three members of this team are among the most technologically savvy people I know--which should be no surprise, given their positions. However, I also respect them because they are highly competent and independent people in all other aspects of their lives, too. So, here is Mike Tindell, representing the IBTC team, to talk about technology and life skills:

Blind children today are frequently introduced to advanced devices such as computers, talking cell phones, and electronic notetakers at very early ages. This is mostly a good thing, but it does have a down side. In the race to keep up with technology, other more fundamental and crucial life skills can be overlooked. Introducing blind children to some low-tech devices early in life provides the groundwork for future productivity and success with more advanced technologies when the time comes.

You may not think of it this way, but a white cane is a low-tech device or tool. Most sighted children learn to crawl and then walk by eighteen months, yet blind babies may hesitate in their mobility unless at a very early age they are provided with a miniature white cane. The earlier a child experiences her own white cane, the more likely she will be able to keep pace and travel confidently with her sighted peers. She certainly will not master her mobility skills and execute proper techniques at such a young age, but as she grows with her trusty white cane, her mobility can only improve at a more rapid pace than a child who does not receive a cane until later in development. Child size canes are available from the National Federation of the Blind Independence Market (formerly the Materials Center) at <www.nfb.org>, or call (410) 659-9314 to request a catalog. For more information and guidance about early use of the cane, see articles by Joe Cutter on the NFB Web site, and/or contact the NFB Jernigan Institute Parent Outreach Department at (410) 659-9314 extension 2360 or 2361.

Along with mobility skills, children need to develop control over their hands and hand movements. Sighted toddlers play with crayons, colors, and paints to acquaint their small hands with tools they will use daily throughout their educational and adult lives, and also to help them develop hand strength, dexterity, and coordination. The equivalent low-tech tool or device for blind toddlers is the slate and stylus. The slate and stylus was one of the first devices used to write Braille. While blind children will not know Braille at this early stage, neither do sighted children necessarily know their letters, but both will still enjoy and benefit from the experience of “pretend” writing. Under adult supervision (the styli does have a blunt point, much like a ball point pen) a young child can “scribble” (that is, punch tactile dots onto paper) with this tool the same way that a sighted child can sketch and doodle with crayons and markers. The earlier a blind child is introduced to the slate and stylus, the more polished her motor and tactile skills will be as an adult. Inexpensive plastic slates with a simple wooden handle stylus are available from many sources, including the NFB Independence Market (see contact information in the paragraph above.)

Beyond the slate and stylus, there are a variety of toys and products that enhance tactile abilities, and what many parents of blind children may not know, is just how important it is for a blind child to learn the written alphabet. Often a product is identified by a shape or a letter and the blind person who is familiar with the shapes of letters can more easily identify such objects. Wooden square blocks with raised print letters or recessed letters allows the child play time and learning time as they can both build and feel the patterns and shapes of each letter. Wooden blocks with tactile print and Braille letters are available from several sources, including the NFB Independence Market.

Additionally, as the child becomes accustomed with and learns Braille, parents can purchase sets of Braille tactile flash cards. These cards are an excellent early learning, low-tech way for a child to begin her quest toward Braille literacy. A dymo-tape Braille labeler is an effective tool to reinforce the blind child’s new skills. With the labeler, parents can create stick-on Braille labels for almost any personal or household object which the child can hold or feel. This will help the child to begin to associate the spelling of a word with the real physical object. Again, this helps the child enhance tactile skills as well as develop independent learning skills, because the child should identify both the object by touch, then the Braille word. Braille flash cards are available from many sources, including the Braille Bookstore. Visit them at <www.braillebookstore.com> or call (800) 987-1231. Dymo-tape labelers are also available from may companies or agencies, including the American Printing House for the Blind, Louisville, Kentucky, <www.aph.org>, (800) 223-1839; Independent Living Aids at <www.independentliving.com>, (800) 537-2118; and the National Federation of the Blind Independence Market.

All children love story time. This presents yet another opportunity to develop those important literacy and touch skills. With children’s books that are both printed and embossed with Braille, a parent can read to the child as she reads (or pretends to read) along with her fingers. For the younger child, simple tactile books--either designed specifically for blind children, or general toddler books--with furs and textures identified by touch are an excellent introduction to reading time. Creative Adaptations in Learning (CAL) offers a tactile book of nursery rhymes and shape recognition book--both of which can be found at <www.cal-s.org>, and a simple “tactile book” search on Amazon.com returns numerous titles, including raised line coloring books. These books provide the opportunity and encouragement for the pre-reader to feel the Braille dots on a page and, as the parent reads the story aloud, to come to understand that these dots represent words. This will familiarize her with the concept of reading with her fingers. As she learns Braille, the roles can switch and the child can read to her parent. Some parents actually take the initiative to learn Braille before, or along with, their child. The Hadley School for the Blind offers a free Braille correspondence course, along with a variety of online blindness skills courses excellent for family and friends hoping to help a blind child along her road to success. Visit the schools website at <www.Hadley-school.org>, select “Course Catalog” and then “Online Courses” for details.

After reading and writing, arithmetic naturally follows. Knowledge in mathematics is essential and blind children should learn math skills at the same level as their sighted peers. Not only have the science and mathematics fields become increasingly important to everyone in our modern world, a solid basis in mathematics from an early age helps build logic and problem-solving skills. The Cranmer Abacus and the Math Window are two low-tech devices which are the blind student’s equivalent to the sighted student’s pen and paper in performing math calculations. The Cranmer Abacus is an abacus which was modified for use by the blind by Tim Cranmer, a blind inventor (1925-2001), sometime in the early sixties. It is a handheld device with counting beads that allow blind students to set up math problems and keep track of numbers in the calculating process much as sighted students can write down numbers and do calculations on a piece of paper. Other variations of the abacus--the beginner’s abacus and the large abacus--are also available for early learners and children with delayed fine motor skills. The various abaci and teaching guides for them are available from the American Printing House for the Blind (see contact information elsewhere in this article).

The Math Window is a fairly new invention that consists of a magnetic board with Braille and large print tiles. The tiles can be arranged on the board linearly or vertically to show equations. The Braille numbers and math symbols are in the Nemeth Braille code. This is the code used for Math and Science calculations in this country. An algebra add-on kit is also available. This product can be purchased from Wolf Products at (724) 285-5428, or <www.mathwindow.com>. Naturally, the tactile and hand movement skills the child developed earlier in life by playing with blocks and toys, scribbling with the slate and stylus, etc., will prepare her well for using these low-tech math devices to do equations in class as quickly and easily as her sighted classmates.

Games and puzzles are excellent for the development of problem solving skills, and they are great ways for children to learn to identify shapes and to hone their fine-motor skills. And, they’re fun! In memory of Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, the NFB Independence Market offers a tactile state puzzle. Not only does this educational tool help enhance tactile skills, it also teaches geography!

While Braille flash cards are wonderful for learning, Braille playing cards are great fun and allow blind children to interact both with other blind persons and with sighted friends or family. Go-fish and UNO are two fun card games to play. Checkers, Chess, Tic-tac-toe, Scrabble and Monopoly are a few of the games that are available in Braille with raised game boards with tactile markings.

Of course, games and activities should not be restricted to indoors. All kids, including blind kids, need fresh air, and playing outside is not only fun, it also helps kids to develop their gross motor skills and encourages greater independence and confidence in movement. A beep-ball comes in a variety of sizes and types, but all contain an electronic beeping device so as the child throws, passes, and receives the ball, she can hear the beep and know where it is at all times. Along with acting as a confidence builder, this type of toy helps to sharpen auditory skills. These games are available for purchase through many sources, including Independent Living Aids at <www.independentliving.com> or call (800) 537-2118 to request a catalog.

There is a common misconception among the general public that technology will solve all the problems of blindness. Technology certainly can and does play a vital role in the future independence of blind persons, but technology alone cannot substitute for basic skills. Blind children require the same basic learning and life skills as sighted children and they are just that, basic. Not only do blind children require the same skills, they are capable of learning the same information and performing the same tasks as well as sighted children. The most important low-tech item a parent can offer a blind child is encouragement. It’s free and children can’t get enough of it.

In the end, it will not be the tools or the technology that will make the difference, it will be the attitudes and beliefs about blindness which we convey to our children throughout all stages of their development that will matter most.

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