Braille Monitor                                                February 2013

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Setting up Teachers for Success in Their University Braille Courses: Creating and Maintaining High Standards

by Sheila Amato

Sheila Amato speaking at the 2012 Braille SymposiumFrom the Editor: Dr. Sheila Amato was the 2003 recipient of the Distinguished Educator of Blind Children Award presented by the National Federation of the Blind. She has recently retired after a thirty-eight year career teaching blind students and those with other impairments.

What Dr. Amato wrote was tailored for academic publications. We have changed the text in which she refers to herself in the third person and have made other edits to conform to Monitor practice. Here is the paper she submitted after the Braille Symposium:

Beginning in 1989 with a presentation at the annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind, Dr. Susan Spungin identified her perceptions on eight major reasons for the increasing illiteracy of people who are blind. One of these concerns involved the lack of standardized Braille teaching methods and of quality control to ensure high standards of teaching. Seven years later Spungin wrote an article, “Braille and Beyond: Braille Literacy in a Larger Context,” in which she outlined concerns related to the inadequacy of Braille instruction provided to blind children. Spungin noted at that time that Braille illiteracy is a major symptom of a larger problem.

One way to address the problem identified by Spungin is to examine the practices of university programs that prepare teachers of students with visual impairments (TVIs). Intrigued and concerned by Spungin's comments, in 2000 I explored the practices of university programs in meeting professional standards in literary Braille. I conducted a descriptive study of standards and criteria for competence in Braille literacy in teacher-preparation programs. In this I explored the specific roles played in the achievement of proficiency in Braille literacy by university teacher preparation programs in blindness and visual impairment and concluded that there was "widespread diversity and a lack of consistency" in the way that professionals are prepared in literary Braille. I called for the development of objective outcomes for university graduates to ensure that their students are taught by professionals who are competent in the Braille code.

For more than a decade this work was not expanded by university programs that prepare teachers of students with visual impairments. Then in 2010 Rosenblum, Lewis, and D'Andrea confirmed my findings and reiterated the need to establish minimum levels of Braille competence for graduates of university preparation programs. Their research attempted to establish the content validity of several performance statements associated with basic knowledge, production, and reading of Braille by beginning teachers.

Implications for Practitioners

The implications of this work support the premise that the identification of content-valid performance standards establishes a stronger research base on which to create voluntary standards for defining the Braille competence of future TVIs who complete university programs. The adoption of such standards can reduce inconsistencies among university programs and to increase the proficiency of program completers in their ability to read and produce literary Braille.

The writings of Spungin (1989, 1996), Amato (2000), and Lewis et al. (2012) are examples of the handful of attempts by professionals in the field of education of individuals who are blind/visually impaired to identify both problems and solutions in this vital area of education: that of literacy for individuals who are blind.

It is now 2012, nearly twenty-five years since these problems were voiced by Spungin at the NFB convention: a lifetime for the blind young adults who are now entering college or the workforce with often inadequate literacy skills. Yet twenty-five years later we are still identifying these same problems. What are the solutions to assure that those who use Braille as their literacy medium have qualified professionals to teach them to read and produce Braille?

The topic of ensuring that pre-service teachers of the blind have a firm understanding of the Braille code was presented during the Problem Solution Session titled "Setting up Teachers for Success in Their University Braille Courses: Creating and Maintaining High Standards," which was held on September 28, 2012, from 4:05 to 6:00 p.m. in the NFB of Utah Auditorium at the Jernigan Institute. I was the presenter at this session, a university teacher trainer and retired teacher of students with visual impairments. The session was moderated by Mark Riccobono, executive director, Jernigan Institute, National Federation of the Blind.

In this session I identified thoughts on perceptions why future teachers of students who are blind are (or are not) receiving proper instruction in Braille and thoughts on strategies that could be implemented to increase their competence in Braille literacy tasks. Participants, led by moderator Riccobono, discussed possible solutions. We traveled the road from where we are, through where we need to be, to how we are going to get there. Shifting paradigms of education lead us to identify continued new challenges.

During my talk I described five concerns for university programs preparing TVIs. At the conclusion of the presentation audience participants were given the opportunity to comment on how these concerns could be addressed.

The first concern was recruitment. In the current model there is a documented shortage of TVIs in our nation. Participants in the session suggested the following strategies could be used to improve recruitment

 The second concern was related to geography. There is limited access to education and training for future TVIs in diverse geographic regions that do not have teacher training programs. The online method of education is one method of service delivery with promise, but it is still problematic in areas without high-speed Internet access or when the platform used by the college or university does not afford full accessibility.

Participants in the session suggested the following strategy be used to improve accessibility to such educational programs:

The third concern, about time, with its many broad definitions, involved the following:

The fourth concern was the future TVI's array of personal skills:

The fifth area of concern identified was technology:

Participants in the session suggested that the following strategies could be used to address some of the issues in technology:

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