Future Reflections        Winter 2012

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Avoiding the Ditches

Anna and BarbaraYoung Anna Schuck and Barbara Loos reading Braille together.

by Barbara Loos

From the Editor: Barbara Loos is a long-time Federationist from Nebraska. Her numerous articles for NFB publications reflect her caring, wisdom, and deep commitment to opening opportunities for blind children and youth.

Once again, on a frigid winter afternoon, my son John was late getting home from school. Quickly donning my winter gear, I grabbed my long white cane. With a word to my daughter Marsha about staying put (hardly necessary, given the weather), I set out to track him down. Although I began with the route he was supposed to walk, I knew I might have to deviate to locate this free spirit.

This time I found him mid-route. He stood waist-deep in the snow that had collected in the creek bed that ran under the bike path between the school and our home. He said he was seeing how long he could keep his bare hand in the snow--something he and his friends, Brandon and Tim, had challenged each other to do during recess that day. Though he had already outdone them, he wanted to impress them further the following day, so he was practicing. It was easier to do in the creek, half-buried, because he didn't have to bend down.

No doubt I reminded him that I would have been more impressed had he come home and reduced the chance of frostbite for both of us. Nevertheless, I was fascinated by the willingness of boys, generation after generation, to go to great lengths, often enduring pain, for the satisfaction of outdoing their peers in what they suppose to be manly pursuits.

The Blind Leading the Blind

This incident came to mind recently as I reflected on the ideas about blindness that get handed down through the generations. Unless we deliberately seek ways to intervene, the negative stereotypes of yesteryear will keep playing themselves out with the mindless regularity of little boys competing to see who can hold his hand in the snow the longest.

While there are many stereotypes, I only want to concentrate on one of them here. I'm thinking of the old adage that, if the blind lead the blind, they'll all fall in the ditch. This mindset assumes that the techniques used by the blind are inferior to those used by the sighted. Yet, simply because it is often repeated, an adage doesn't necessarily embody the truth.

Over the years, I have met many harried parents and teachers, frantically trying to figure out how to use technology with which they don't identify. Sadly they commiserate about the difficulties involved in getting workable materials for blind children, especially when print is inadequate and Braille seems overwhelming. Resignedly they conclude that there's nothing to do but wring their hands and accept that blind children really can't be expected to compete with their sighted peers. They may seek out medical personnel and university experts for guidance, but mostly they overlook a hidden resource that is often in their midst--blind adults.

I don't have an endorsement in teaching the blind, nor do I have a blind child. But I am a parent with a bachelor's degree in education, and I love being where fun and learning converge. One place I've found this enticing convergence is in healthy mentor/mentee relationships with blind children and youth. My qualification for this place of privilege has nothing to do with my being a parent (I'm not that given youth's parent) nor my educational background (I'm not that student's teacher). What gives me authenticity is our shared characteristic of blindness and the ways it has an impact upon us.

The painter Vincent van Gogh wrote in a letter to his brother Theo, "I want to go through the joys and sorrow of domestic life in order to paint it from my own experience." Whether blindness is part of who we are to begin with or comes to us later on, it is a part of our experience that we can share with others.

The child who asked me, during our first time together, "Where do you put your cane when you get home?" had no reason to ask that question of her parents or her teachers. They aren't blind, so they don't use a cane. As it turned out, we both put our canes behind the front door. We also talked about occasionally using our canes in our own homes if there's something out of the ordinary going on, such as a party or rearrangement of furniture. We compared our canes' lengths, tips, names, etc. I mentioned the "garden cane" I keep by my walk-out basement door at the back of the house. I use it when I work in the yard, and I don't care how scratched or dirty it gets. We also discussed the telescoping cane I take in my bag as a spare. I use it at sporting events, where I can make it small, hang it from my belt, and jump up and down and cheer to my heart's content without concern that it might fall through the bleachers. Small stuff? Sure! But life is made of such minutiae, and real-life experience trumps role playing.

Incidentally, I took the bus to and from the meeting where I had that discussion. One of the child's teachers told me later that, during a class discussion about transportation, the student told her that she would be taking buses to get around when she grew up.

The Braille Alternative

How likely is it that a parent or teacher will have the opportunity to play a game of Scrabble tactilely, using Braille tiles, with a blind student who struggles with spelling? In my experience, time constraints and parent/teacher/student dynamics often sabotage such a possibility. As a mentor, I have often enjoyed playing Scrabble and other games with blind youth. Audio and crossword puzzles, computer games, and Braille art have helped break the ice or become part of established relationships. Again, since what I bring isn't tied to doing a chore or completing an assignment, tangents are okay. Often they involve interactions about blindness.

Sometimes assignments do get done during mentoring time. A mentee once asked me to co-write a duet poem with her and to recite it in her classroom and during a poetry sharing at another school. Entitled "Proud," the poem gave voice to her emerging realization that it is okay to be blind. The presence of refreshments at the latter event gave us an opportunity to discuss ways of using a cane while carrying juice and cookies.

Another important aspect of mentoring is that it can take the "Yeah, but ..." out of things. Once a teacher mentioned to me that a blind student couldn't do math on a given day because she had a bandage on her index finger, the finger with which she read Braille. I asked what she was doing with her other fingers and suggested that she be expected to use them. On another occasion, a student told me that she couldn't necessarily fulfill the length requirement for an assigned paper; she couldn't determine length when using a Braille notetaker. I showed the student and her teacher the commands for accessing that information with the machine. I suggested to the student that this kind of excuse-making, were it to become a habit, would most assuredly reduce her chances for success. I also mentioned to the teacher that, rather than allowing the student to set her up, she could expect her to verify the length of her paper when she converted it from Braille to print on the computer, just as others were doing when they keyed in their papers from handwritten text.

Many of my favorite mentoring times have involved Braille. While sighted youngsters see people using print everywhere, blind children and youth almost never get enough exposure to others efficiently modeling Braille use in school or at play. After spending considerable time with his hands on mine while I read from behind his chair, one student told me he could feel smooth Braille reading in motion for the first time. He noticed one day that his hands were reading as if mine were under them, but they weren't. From then on, he was a committed two-handed reader, and his reading speed increased exponentially.

Recently a teacher mentioned to me that a student with whom I had read a couple of times asked her one day, "Is this how Barbara does it?" This student already read with both hands, but one of them had been doing very little actual work. She wanted to read faster. The teacher had talked to her about what she could do and shown her the method, but reading with another blind person brought it to life for her.

A skill that often seems to be overlooked is the use of the slate and stylus. One way I have found to catch people's interest in using this tool is doodling. Sometimes I only need to comment that, when writing, dots 1, 2, and 3 are on the right side while dots 4, 5, and 6 are on the left, and the door to the child's creativity is thrown wide open. Other students prefer a specific task. I might suggest using dots to make a heart. The simplest version of a heart drawing goes like this:

Line 1--Dots 2, 3, 4; 1, 5; 2, 4; and 1, 5, 6.
Line 2--Dots 1, 2, 6; space twice; dots 3, 4, 5.
Line 3--Space once; Dots 1, 5; 2, 4.

My daughter Marsha and I once used a Brailler, some three-by-five index cards, and glue to make a card game similar to Go Fish. Each player got four cards; cards showed ten different shapes, and each one had a one-word descriptor at the top and bottom. If the word contained contractions, it would be written in uncontracted form on the top and contracted form on the bottom. We glued a blank card to the back of each one so that the dots wouldn't show from the underside.

Notetakers can also be used for making shapes or pictures with Braille. If a notetaker is used, drawings can be mass-produced using translation software and an embosser. These pictures can make fun raised-line coloring sheets.

Apples and Oranges

 One thing that often causes major difficulties for us human beings is the tendency referred to as comparing apples with oranges. This tendency is compounded when those making the comparison have a strong preference for the apple or the orange and proclaim that fruit superior to the other. The genius of Louis Braille is that he thought outside that box. As his diary puts it, he recognized that an alphabet and numerals "developed for the eye" (we'll call this the apple), didn't work for the blind. He concluded, "The solution then rests with a device that has nothing to do with the eyes." The tactile system he created (let's say the orange) is an alternative to, not a substitute for, print. In other words, Louis Braille showed that it is possible to have two equal, though not identical, systems for reading, writing, and even doodling, one visual and one tactile.

Just as apples and oranges may be eaten by themselves or mixed together in a delicious salad, print and Braille may serve as stand-alone methods or be combined in fascinating ways. Louis Braille, understanding that blind and sighted people need to communicate with one another, created raphigraphy, a way of making print out of Braille dots, so his students could write to their families. Although I have no experience with his system, I have encouraged blind youth to experiment with using Braille to make raised print letters, and they have used it to create greeting cards and bookmarks.

U-turns, T-intersections, and figure 8s, to mention just a few terms, are part of the fabric of our culture, and signatures are often required. It is crucial for blind people to know how print letters and numbers are shaped and written. Children generally learn various representations of linguistic expression easily, so teaching both Braille and print simultaneously can be as natural to them as learning multiple languages is for those fortunate enough to have that opportunity. And Braille doesn't require that a child learn different grammar or pronunciation. Marsha and I often left messages for each other in Braille, and she and some of her friends used its patterns in visual ink dots to write one another notes.

Tactile expression abounds in our world. We need only seek it out. When we were at an art show that included both visual and tactile art, Marsha once said that touching a piece was a different experience from looking at it. She enjoyed both.

Just as sighted children are taught visual etiquette, blind children need instruction in appropriate tactile observation. Some blind people have been so conditioned to keep their hands off things that they miss out on much of their environment. Others reach indiscriminately for anything within their grasp. My blind older sister, noticing that I often broke things, showed me how to locate and handle things more gracefully. I have been glad to pass on these techniques to others. Many things in the environment have both visual and tactile components, and it can be a lot of fun to make a game of finding them.

I have met blind children and youth who are determined to use their remaining sight for nearly everything, often because they have been pushed to function visually. They attempt to do things visually that efficient people, sighted or blind, do using their other senses. When people say, "She can use print, but he has to use Braille," print becomes the good guy and Braille the bad guy. Furthermore, this attitude eliminates the option, very useful for many, of using both Braille and print effectively.

All too often, blind children with some remaining vision are not exposed to Braille and other tactile experiences at all. In other cases, they are introduced to nonvisual experiences only as a last resort, when print and visual expression are no longer viable. By then everyone involved is most likely frustrated. Yet visual and nonvisual experiences can work very well in tandem. People I know who use both Braille and print like to have the option of deciding which method to use, based on the situation.

Being in a healthy mentor/mentee relationship with a competent blind adult can give young people a chance to gain perspective and take the guesswork out of how to do things. This perspective can help their families relax about things as well. A young blind mentee once said to me, "Instead of wondering what a blind person did to become successful, I can actually ask! I can ask and get an answer, instead of asking a sighted person who would have to guess."

I feel grateful and privileged to have my own mentoring relationships. Yet I feel sad that, for many blind people, this resource is largely hidden. Mother Theresa once said, "Few of us can do great things, but all of us can do small things with great love." Blind mentors and mentees can do those small things and share that great love every day. We need to spread the news to parents and educators and bring this resource out of hiding. After all, as investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett puts it, "What you pay is the price. What you get is the value." The value is to give blind children and youth a chance to live more fully than past generations have lived. We have the priceless opportunity to help them live as equals in a society that will be better off for it. Some, should they choose to, may earn good money digging ditches; but none who heeds the encouragement and shared wisdom of blind mentors is likely to fall into one.

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