Future Reflections          Convention Report 2007

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Taking Up the Braille Challenge

by Leslie Stocker

Leslie StockerEditor’s Note: For Braille fans, this presentation at the convention was definitely a highlight. For more information about the Braille Challenge, Our Braille Special Collection program, and other services offered by the Braille Institute, go to <www.brailleinstitute.org> or call (323) 663-1111.

It is a distinct honor to be invited to address you today, because of a very special partnership the Braille Institute enjoys with NFB. And I do not speak at this moment of the direct relationship we have with the NFB of California [cheers from one corner of the ballroom]--I don’t know what you guys did that you have to sit off in a corner (the California delegation is in the far upper left corner as you face the stage) especially in recent years with the leadership of Nancy Burns and her husband Don, and now with Mr. Robert Stigile. But the partnership I am talking about occurred to me about a week and a half ago at the Sheraton Universal in Los Angeles, Universal City. We were at a banquet honoring and giving out the awards for the 2007 National Braille Challenge. As the winners were being introduced, they were working their way up to the stage to receive the prize. The MC was reading a biographical sketch about each young champion, and I kept hearing one term come back: that this person was a participant in the Braille Readers Are Leaders program of the National Federation of the Blind. Later I asked our vice president of programs and services about that because it hadn’t occurred to me to hear it so often. She said, “Oh yeah, when we get all of these applications, you would be surprised at how many of these contestants have their roots in the Braille Readers Are Leaders program.”

That leads me to conclude an unusual partnership, and I would like to tell you more about it in a moment but, in so doing, tell you about the Braille Challenge. First, very briefly, for those who are not aware, Braille Institute of America was founded in Los Angeles eighty-eight years ago by a totally blind man who developed a Braille publishing house and then later a Braille educational system along with rehabilitation. His name was Robert Atkinson. He was also one of the influential people in bringing about the founding of the National Library Service back in the 1930s. You can find that Robert Atkinson is enshrined today among other great leaders of our field at the Hall of Fame for Leaders and Legends at the American Printing House for the Blind in Louisville.

Suffice it to say that Braille literacy has been a part of the warp and weave of the fiber of Braille Institute since its beginning. That’s what we were about. In recent years in our strategic planning we have rededicated ourselves to Braille literacy. Now in this instance I have to explain the Braille Institute has grown over the years, and we are one of the largest direct service organizations in the nation. We serve about 55,000 people annually, primarily in Southern California from our five campuses there in Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Rancho Mirage, and Anaheim. But when it comes to Braille literacy, we decided, wait, with our resources and the fact that so much can be done by distance, we want to have an impact on a national and even international basis. So we created two new programs, and I will share them very briefly with you and then draw to a conclusion what we are talking about today.

Back in 1999 we created a program called Our Braille Special Collection. And the premise behind this is that blind kids who are learning their Braille need to have more than just textbooks to read. They’ve got to have great children’s literature. Now I know there are sources for great literature, and NFB has been instrumental in making that happen as well. But we felt we’ve got to put more out there. We’ve got to flood these kids with stuff to read that they want to read. So we started, and, incidentally, our publishing house is entirely digitized, so all the titles that are in Braille in this children’s literature collection are filed on a major file server, and we have a bank of embossers. When a family calls in from anywhere in the nation or e-mails in, or however they get to us, and their student is qualified (they have to be registered as a reader with us), we simply, if they want Harry Potter, Volume 2, somebody pushes a button here, and it goes over to the embosser, and it is spun out, and it goes out in the mail that day. It is published on demand.

All of these books, incidentally, are free of charge to the recipients because again our theory here is (and there are pros and cons as to whether you charge or give it away free) our notion at this moment is we’ve got to flood these kids with stuff to read, and our experience shows, when we charged the fee, the use went way down. While sighted kids can go to the library to get a book, the blind kids don’t. So our notion is, give them books. Put books in their hands.

Since 1999 the number of books in that collection on that big file server available to readers anywhere in the U.S. now numbers 994. Those are books from the very modern Harry Potter style to Alice in Wonderland and Charlotte’s Web, and all those great things that we all read one way or another as we grew up. Today we have 3,274 registered readers throughout the United States. These are kids. That’s a big number. I’m especially grateful for that number, given the fact that APH’s registration of Braille readers age eighteen and below numbers only about 4,000. But therein is one of the biggest challenges we have, and that is there should be a whole lot more than 4,000 kids reading Braille.

This past year we sent out about 8,500 titles, and some were multiple volumes, of course, of Braille books to kids throughout the United States. That includes Dots for Tots. I don’t know if you have little kids, but Dots for Tots is a program where we have a Braille book with audio, but also with manipulatives, toys that go along with the storybook. So that’s a Braille Special Collection, and that brings me to the second program. Then we can tie this together. Braille Challenge is really a Braille literacy contest. It’s made up of five grade categories, and I’ll name them for you. The apprentice are little guys that are in the first and second grades. The freshman category are in grades three and four. Those two youngest categories have three contests they compete in. Number 1 is spelling--I bet you enjoyed that when you were in the first grade--reading comprehension, and proofreading. When you get to the third group, we call it sophomores. That’s grades five and six. Junior varsity is grades seven, eight, and nine; and varsity is grades ten, eleven, and twelve. Those three older categories have four contests: reading comprehension, proofreading, spelling, and speed and accuracy. Oh, that’s one they really love--speed and accuracy. They have to get ready for that.

The way the contest works--and this has been evolving--but we began it in the year 2000. Early in the year we send out a preliminary test to any child in the United States who is a Braille reader for their teacher to administer to them. The results of those tests are sent back to us. We grade them, and we end up inviting the top twelve contestants in each of those five categories. This past year--we’ve just completed the 2007 contest--those top twelve in each category, a total of sixty children, are invited to come to Los Angeles to compete for some really neat prizes in a bigger contest. I’ll tell you about those prizes in a moment, but let me give you some numbers. This year in the preliminary contest we sent tests out to a little over nine hundred children throughout the United States in thirty-five states and three Canadian provinces. That number is getting larger each year. Only about half of those students send the completed tests back. At first I was disappointed, but then I realized when we called and queried, we discovered, “Well, Johnny can’t read that well.” At least we have set the bar for them. We’ve shown the parents and the teachers what he or she should be doing. So there is incentive.

When the sixty finalists come to Los Angeles, we have a very festive occasion, and we have the contest itself. The winners receive some really cool prizes. The first-, second-, and third-place winners in each of the categories win U.S. savings bonds ranging in size from the third prize in the apprentice category of $500. The top prize in the varsity is $5,000. But that is not the most significant thing. To me the most significant prize is the awarding to the first-place winner in each of those five categories of a PAC Mate by Freedom Scientific. Now I have to tell you that I cannot be more elated with the partnership we’ve enjoyed with Freedom Scientific, because there’s a very special reason behind it. And it’s not only to have the preeminent access technology companies in the world as a part of this program, but we’re trying to make a statement that there is a direct connection between Braille literacy and technology. To a large extent the future is defined by our ability to interact with technology; there is a direct connection.

Freedom Scientific has been generous in providing these gifts. In fact, after they did this a couple of years, they called us and said, “Well, here’s the deal. We’re going to send you six PAC Mates next year, and we want you to award one to the teacher of the year.” My immediate reaction was, “Great, now how am I going to figure out who the teacher of the year is?” Here’s the secret. We’ve got a national advisory committee made up of some prominent educators throughout the United States and Canada. I flung it to them. I said, “You figure it out.” And they did. They came up with a very creative way of determining who is the teacher of the year. This year the winner of the PAC Mate and a trip to California to receive her award and recognition was a lady named Sandy Serventi, a longtime teacher at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind. When I met Sandy and talked to her, she said, “Oh you don’t know this, but this is the fourth time I’ve been here to the Braille Challenge. I’ve come four years in a row accompanying my students.” She said, “I’ve had eleven students make it to the finals now.”

We actually have, I believe, at least two winners of this year’s Braille Challenge in their categories with us here today. Ms. Kyra Sweeney is here and also, Megan Bening from Minnesota. I don’t know, maybe we have more winners in the audience that I don’t know about, certainly with the kind of support NFB has given to Braille literacy over the years.

This brings me to the partnership. When I think about it and I look at what you have been doing with your Braille Readers Are Leaders program for some twenty years, when I see the inter-relationship with the kids we are now connecting with, I cannot miss the partnership. Number one, Braille Readers Are Leaders is a focus on volume reading, and that creates incentive and self-esteem. I am a sighted person, but I think back when I was a boy growing up, I learned how to read by reading, not just by studying about it, but by doing a lot of reading.

The second part of this partnership is the Braille Special Collection and other sources throughout the U.S. for children’s books. We’ve got to flood these kids with books and keep them reading. Number three in this tri-part partnership is our Braille Challenge itself. It has grown and taken on a life of its own. I could not be more elated with it. It has far excelled our expectations, and probably, because many different organizations are now participating, it’s not just Braille Institute. This last year we had seventeen regional contests in the spring leading up to the main contest. They were staged by different organizations, state schools, and even a program up in Calgary, Alberta. They are smaller versions for which we provide testing materials. We provide everything, the rules, all that goes to help prepare these kids to become real finalists. In fact, two winners from Iowa this year, who had never competed before, had a preliminary event in their state that really did a great job.

I kind of feel like, I know Dr. Maurer will share this feeling, like my fellow Californian, General George Patton, in World War II, standing on the shores of Tripoli on the Mediterranean, looking northward to Europe, which at that time was under the complete control of fascism. He was a reader of classical literature, and he mused, “The Elysian Fields lie before us.”--meaning the task has no end. It’s out there. Folks, there are so many kids in this country who need to be learning their Braille, who need to be learning the intellectual skills that are developed through the process of becoming literate. We don’t function without that. It is so important.

I would like to suggest and propose that we do something proactively here. Number one, we need to spread the word more. After I was invited to this occasion and I started going back over the history of how we’ve developed the Braille Challenge, I realized that we have some common resources here. I told my staff from now on we need to tell the growing network of people using our books and participating in our Challenge about the Braille Readers Are Leaders program from NFB. I would hope that NFB will also be advertising books available through the Braille Institute and the Braille Challenge. We need to spread the word as far as we can.

Also I mentioned that we have these regional challenges throughout the U.S. and one in Canada this last year. I offer this to any of you state chapters of NFB. If you would like to participate in something like that in your own state or region, we would be elated to partner with you, and we provide the materials. You can help further the skills of your children there. And of course, we always welcome sponsors to the published book program itself. Again, Dr. Maurer, it has been a distinct honor to address you this morning and to thank you in person for this unusual partnership that we enjoy.

Following this presentation, three members of the audience posed questions to Mr. Stocker, who said that he would provide full answers following the convention. Accompanying a letter dated July 17, 2007, the answers to these questions were forwarded to President Maurer. Here is what Mr. Stocker wrote:

1. Question: Is your Braille Special Collection (Brailled children's literature) available everywhere in North America?

Answer: Yes. The 3,274 current participants reside all across the U.S. and Canada.

2. Question: Can Braille Institute provide more Braille education for its adult students?

Answer: We do provide classes in Braille literacy for our adult students on all of our five campuses. While there may occasionally be a problem due to staff turnover, we seldom have a waiting list. The vast majority of our students are senior citizens suffering from age-related macular degeneration. These are literate people, most of whom are using some kind of low-vision device. Hence, the need for Braille literacy is not as critical for them as we believe it is for blind children. That said, we offer Braille classes for students of all ages.

3. Question: Are you open to hiring orientation and mobility specialists certified by the National Blindness Professionals Certification Board?

Answer: Yes. In fact, we invited Lisa Maria Martinez to speak at an in-service training program for our orientation and mobility staff on April 12, 2007. She is a Louisiana Tech graduate with NOMC certification. We arranged for Lisa through the NFB of California office and specifically asked her to speak about and demonstrate the long cane, which as a result of her presentation, we will now be carrying in the stores on all of our campuses. Lisa's talk also provided an opportunity to explore various approaches to orientation and mobility training.

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