Future Reflections         Winter 2010

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Raising the Bar of Literacy for Blind Children

by Jessica Bachicha

Jessica BachichaIntroduction by Carol Castellano: Jessica Bachicha is a project coordinator in Affiliate Action at the NFB in Baltimore. She's going to talk about something really exciting, so please give her your attention. Here is Jessica Bachicha.

I'm here to speak to you about a project we have been working on for the past year. By "we" I'm referring to a group of people working at the National Federation of the Blind - teachers, parents, professionals, and scholars. Lots of people are putting their best efforts into this project. This project is for all of the blind and visually impaired children who are here now and will be with us in the future.

I want to start by giving you a bit of background about what we're doing and why we're doing it. How many of you here think it's important for blind people to read Braille? [Applause.] That's a great number! I like that! Now how many of you think you can tell me what it means to be blind? This is a question that administrators and assessors have struggled with for many years, trying to decide who falls into the category of blind. Who gets to have this service of learning Braille? But they don't say, "Who gets to read Braille?" They say, "Who has to read Braille?" They wonder who has to depend on this medium that somehow people believe is less than reading print because it's different. They name all sorts of categories such as "partially sighted," "high partial," and "legally blind." Even though there have been good intentions behind trying to discover which people make up which section of this population, a lot of kids who need Braille haven't been getting the chance to learn it. As a result they struggle with reading and don't reach their full potential. This story seemed to have a sad ending.

Until we got into the picture! We understand that Braille is not something less than print. It's not a substitute tool, but an alternative technique that enables blind people to compete on terms of equality with their sighted peers. We know that blindness is not something to be ashamed of. It's just another characteristic. We deal with it and we move on. That's what all of you want for your children. I can say that with a hundred percent certainty. This new tool, the National Assessment of Primary Literacy Medium, is going to help make that dream a reality.

This tool is an assessment tool. It helps teachers say to administrators, "This child cannot perform this task or that task using vision. Therefore Braille is the technique that is best suited for this child." We hope that teachers and school districts throughout the country will use this assessment to answer the key question, How can this child best perform on terms of equality with his/her sighted peers?

Let me give you a bit of background on some of the assessment tools in use today. Most of the assessment tools that are out there seek to gather a lot of information about the child. How does he or she best learn? What technology needs does he or she have? How are his or her motor skills? But a wide evaluation like this does not answer one essential question, which is what this assessment is intended to do. This assessment aims to answer the question, Can the child function reading print? If the answer is no, then the child needs Braille.

After a lot of fighting, a lot of work, we got a new law passed in 2004. As part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) we have a guarantee. The law says, "The IEP team shall, in the case of a child who is blind or visually impaired, provide for instruction in Braille and the use of Braille unless the team determines, after an evaluation of the child's reading and writing skills, needs, and appropriate reading and writing media, including an evaluation of the child's future needs for instruction in Braille or the use of Braille, that instruction in Braille or the use of Braille is not appropriate for the child." We have a guarantee that, if your child is blind or visually impaired, Braille should be a tool in the toolbox. The only thing that the assessment should prove is that there should be an exception to the law. Is there something the child can do that should exclude him or her from learning Braille? As you can imagine, only a very small number of children should not be given this tool.

The problem is that a lot of the existing assessment tools come at it from the other angle. Does this child need Braille? Braille is an extra thing they can throw in if the child adequately shows us that he or she needs it right now. In designing this new assessment tool we come from a completely new paradigm. Of course the child should get Braille! Is there any other medium that should also be primary?

I want to talk to you a bit about the assessment tool and the results so far from our pilot studies. We've actually tested this tool on about forty kids so far, and we are conducting some more testing here at convention. This assessment is concise. It can be filled out in about an hour. It consists of a teacher interview completed by the child's classroom teacher, a student interview completed by the child if he or she is old enough (a different part of the assessment is specifically geared for pre-kindergarten, and another is geared for kids with multiple disabilities). There is also a parent interview form. Finally there is the actual assessment, which is performed by the TVI, the teacher of the blind and visually impaired.

The goal is to design a tool that answers the specific question we raised. We want it to be a tool that can be used by teachers of all levels of experience, a tool that very clearly specifies the testing conditions. In the adults' wish that the child should perform well on an assessment, sometimes the testing conditions have not been the conditions of real life, the conditions the child encounters every day. For example, teachers using other assessment tools sometimes give the children very big letters to read. If the child can read them that's considered a good thing, evidence that the child doesn't need Braille. This new assessment takes into account that even though a child in first or second grade does not need to read small print, he or she is going to need to read it later on. One of the specifications is that the child must be able to perform the exam with materials that are in 12- to 14-point font. We need to account for future needs, not just what the child can do in the present.

We gave this tool to some of the teachers who were on the team that helped to develop it. So far we're finding that it does what we want it to do. When we compare this assessment with previous assessments the children have completed, we find that 25 percent more children are being assessed for Braille with this assessment than with the earlier one. The new assessment is doing what we want it to do.

Another interesting thing is that we're looking at the scores between the interviews and the actual assessment. The student interviews and the teacher interviews agree very, very closely with what the actual assessment says. This means that the students themselves realize their need for Braille. They realize that they can't see things, that they can't perform right now without alternative techniques. The interview scores also correlate very well with the scores from the other sections of the assessment. We're excited that we can continue to move forward with this project, and we can continue to test it and hone it to make it even more accurate. We will be able to use it with confidence on the population of blind children in this country - pre-readers, children in grades K through 12, and children with multiple disabilities.

As part of this initiative, in addition to the assessment tool we're providing a guide called LEARN. LEARN stands for Literacy Empowerment, Answers to Reading Needs. This is a book for teachers who may not know how to teach Braille to a student who has some vision. It gives teachers lots of very hands-on, specific strategies for teaching low-vision children. It provides case studies of children who got Braille and children who didn't. It offers ways of introducing Braille to families and administrators who might not be in favor of it initially, ways of showing how relevant Braille is. This book is the fruit of a lot of experience, a lot of years of teaching, a lot of hard work on the part of many people.

This is where all of you come in. We're going to be conducting some field tests here at convention. You probably saw notices about this on the listservs. We are looking for parents who are willing to try out this assessment tool with their children, and we're looking for teachers who are willing to try it out themselves and to give us their input as we strive to make it better. I thank you so much for being here for your children!

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