Braille Made The Difference

Copyright © 1995
National Federation of the Blind

          From the Editor: Material of all kinds comes across the desk of the Braille Monitor Editor. But this week I read two articles within a two-hour period that, taken together, make the case for Braille more powerfully than anything I have yet seen or written. The pieces came from totally different sources, but the authors have a number of things in common. Both are working women-- single, educated, committed to helping other people. Both live in the Midwest and were educated in regular schools. One, however, was taught Braille early and with wise insistence that she use it in her classes and at home. Her parents expected her to read well and did all the things that good parents do to encourage effective reading skills in their youngsters. The other was forced to use print even when it was slow and painful. The cost academically and personally was immense. Not until she lost the remainder of her sight as an adult was she able to learn the Braille that she depends upon today and that could have made all the difference to her in school.

          Mary Hartle lives in Iowa, though she grew up in Minnesota. The article reprinted here first appeared in the Spring/Summer issue of Future Reflections, the publication of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children, a division of the National Federation of the Blind.

          Jana Schroeder lives in Ohio. She was a 1984 NFB scholarship winner, and she has served as President of the National Federation of the Blind of the Miami Valley. She submitted her essay on the value of Braille to a Braille-writing contest conducted by the NFB of Ohio this past winter. Contest entries were to be written on this topic using a slate and stylus, and the winner was to receive a Braille 'n Speak 640. Jana's six-page essay was done in flawless Braille code and without a single slate error. It was the winning entry in the adult category. Viewed together, these two short autobiographies provide a powerful illustration in support of our contention that Braille is a vital tool for anyone who can't read print easily but who wishes to succeed in life. Here is Mary Hartle's article:

The Value of Learning Braille as a Child

by Mary Hartle

          Although visually impaired, I attended regular school in the 1950's and 1960's. I attended a parochial school in Minneapolis and was the only child with a vision impairment. I was taught to read print and progressed through the grades along with other children my age. No effort was ever made to teach me Braille. But, in retrospect, I wish I had been taught Braille as a small child.

          Although I could read standard print, I could not read it as fast as sighted students could. My grades ranged from a few B's to several C's, and some D's. (My brothers and sisters got A's and B's.) I was tracked into the lowest-ability group in junior high, although I was promoted to the middle group halfway through both the seventh and eighth grades. I could not read as much material as others could and thus had to spend more time on homework. I also had to hold books much closer to my face. Due to prolonged periods of bending over to read books at close range, I developed posture problems which, to this day, require chiropractic treatment.

          Learning became difficult and painful rather than joyful and exciting. As reading and learning became more difficult, I came to feel less intelligent. I began to feel shame and thus had more difficulty concentrating on learning. I became more anxious because of my increased difficulty. This was manifested in my struggles with arithmetic in fifth grade. I can still recall my extreme frustration and tears as I attempted to do my homework with my family's tutorial help.

          As a child I read fewer books than my classmates, especially novels, although I did read magazines and a few quick-read books. I also had, and still have, trouble spelling many words because I was not able to see the letters within words correctly. For instance, spelling double-consonant words has been particularly difficult because my eyes did not focus normally when I first learned to spell these words.

          Since I did not use Braille as a child, I was truly handicapped in my educational progress, and my self-confidence was low because I was unable to read fluently at a normal speed. I was embarrassed about both my slow reading speed and the fact that I had to look closer in order to read. Had I learned Braille earlier, I would have been able to read at a speed similar to that of sighted students.

          As I progressed through high school and college, the reading requirements became much greater, and the size of the print became much smaller. In college I avoided classes with heavy reading demands, such as history and literature.

          Over the past ten years I have lost the rest of my vision, thus necessitating my learning Braille. I am not unique. Many legally blind children with a little useful residual vision become blind adults with little or no ability to read print. Although I use Braille in my day-to-day life and on the job, I do not read with the speed I could have, if I had learned Braille in the primary grades. There is nothing shameful about reading Braille or using any other non-visual technique. Today's blind children deserve a better education and a better chance to succeed in our highly competitive information age than I had. In fact, the need to read as efficiently as possible is more crucial today than ever before. Without Braille the chances of these children's getting through high school, much less going beyond it, will be minimal.

          When I think of how much Braille would have enhanced my education even though I could read standard print at the time, I know how important Braille is for children today who can barely read standard print or who rely on large print. School does not have to be torture. I believe visually impaired children should be given the opportunity to learn Braille if:

  1. they cannot read print at speeds comparable to that of their classmates;

  2. they cannot hold reading material at a normal distance from their eyes; or,

  3. they cannot read print for long periods.

          Braille is as effective a reading method as print is, and blind and visually impaired children have the right to become as literate as their sighted classmates.

          That was Mary Hartle's description of growing up and being educated without an efficient tool for reading and writing. Contrast her experience with that of Jana Schroeder:

Braille is an Essential Part of My Life Because...

by Jana Schroeder

          I was born with extremely limited vision to a family with no prior experience of blindness. It was the early 1960's, and we lived near Dayton, Ohio. Looking back, I recognize that I was lucky to have been born in that place and time and into a sensible, loving family. Without that fortunate combination of factors, my life might have been very different.

          My family did a lot of reading aloud. From my earliest days I assumed that I would learn to read when I went to school, just as my sighted brothers had.

          I began my education in a public school that included a resource room for blind students. These students were assigned to a regular classroom where we spent most of our time, but we went to the resource room for part of the day to learn the skills of blindness. I understand that Dayton was one of the first cities in Ohio with a public school program for blind children, beginning in the 1950's.

          In the first grade, when reading lessons began in earnest, I was encouraged to read print. Various magnifiers were tried, but the only thing that worked for me was to put my nose against the paper and hope the print was big and dark enough. This worked fine with first grade primers. However, I quickly read all the big print picture books at the local library. My mom and I soon discovered that in second- and third-level books the print quickly diminished in size to the point where I could not distinguish the letters.

          My mother believed, like most sighted people (at least those who are not blindness professionals), that blind people read Braille. So sensibly, she insisted that I be taught Braille. Fortunately, the resource room teachers agreed. I cannot be certain that it would be as easy if I were in school today. I believe that very few blind students in the Dayton area today are taught Braille.

          I had heard my mom and other adults read quickly and fluently, and I assumed that I would read like that myself. I was never told that Braille was slower or harder than reading print. I simply accepted that I was learning to read with my fingers while my sighted classmates learned to read with their eyes.

          One of the best things about the school I attended was that it had a Braille library. Never since then have I had access to a library where I could browse to my heart's content. I took home a different book almost every night. My favorites were biographies and the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. On the forty-five minute drive to and from school I would often read aloud to Mom. She endured a lot of stumbling and mispronunciation with patience and good humor. From those earliest days I received a lot of praise from my parents, grandparents, and other people for my reading and writing ability. I knew that I read as well as or better than most of my classmates, and this knowledge helped lay a solid foundation of self-esteem that has served me well in the years since, when faced with new challenges.

          In the fifth grade a significant challenge came along in the form of the slate and stylus. By this time I was attending school in my own district with an itinerant teacher who came to work with me a couple of times a week. She told me that I needed to learn to use the slate and stylus because I would soon be going to junior high and I couldn't lug a heavy, noisy Brailler with me from class to class.

          I absolutely hated the slate. My e's and i's were inevitably transposed, and I invariably put the paper in crooked. I pretty much refused to practice, so my itinerant and classroom teachers got together and decided that I would be required to take spelling tests using the slate and stylus. I always did well on my spelling tests, so I wasn't very happy with this new development. Gradually, however, I didn't have to reverse each letter consciously before writing it. My speed picked up, and my diagonal lines became horizontal. Since then I have written thousands of pages with the slate and stylus.

          When I was in high school, closed circuit televisions began to become affordable and popular. It was very exciting to be able to read things that were only available in print, like the covers of my record albums. I spent one whole summer reading a 500-page novel that I could have read in about three days in Braille, because that was what all my friends were reading.

          I knew, however, that the CCTV was no substitute for Braille. I'm almost glad that the CCTV was not available when I was in first grade because I don't know if Braille would then have been emphasized in my education. During my first two years in college my sight gradually decreased to the light perception I have today. Although I had to make some adjustments, already having well-developed Braille skills helped immensely.

          In high school nearly all of my textbooks, including advanced math and French, were in Braille. In contrast, all of my college texts were on tape. By this time, though, I was familiar with spelling, punctuation, and the Braille literary and math codes. I took copious notes while listening to the texts and studied these at exam time rather than having to re-skim the entire book.

          I have read that ninety-one percent of employed blind people know Braille. I am not at all surprised by this statistic. I am only surprised that so few educators and counselors of the blind seem to recognize the importance of Braille to employment. I cannot imagine being competitive without Braille.

          Today I direct the Dayton criminal justice program of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization. My activities range from leading workshops and presentations in prison and the community to advocating for criminal justice reform. I use Braille every day to keep track of phone numbers, file away relevant statistics, make outlines for talks, draft articles, and much more.

          Like most non-profits, we have a very small staff in our office. For the most part we do our own filing, typing, and minute-taking. My independence is greatly enhanced by the use of a scanner and other adaptive computer technology, but I don't think it would be possible for me to do my job at all without Braille. At meetings, workshops, and presentations I always have my slate and stylus ready. Although prison officials sometimes worry that my stylus could be turned into a weapon, I always have my Braille notes with me and have given several impromptu Braille lessons to interested prisoners.

          Since those early days Braille has opened many doors for me. Reading is a source of great pleasure as well as information and education. Braille writing allows me not only to keep track of personal information but also to articulate and craft my thoughts into written communication that can be shared with others. I cannot imagine my life without Braille.

          I am currently studying to become certified as a Braille transcriber and proofreader. I am deeply concerned by the lack of Braille skills among the blind today and the shortage of qualified Braille teachers, both for blind children and for people who become blind later in life. Perhaps someday I will have the opportunity to put my love of Braille to good use by teaching others to read it.

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