Monday, April 26, 2010

Braille's demise may hurt literacy of blind people

From The Journal Gazette in Indiana:

To Linda Scribner, Braille is a godsend.

She uses it in her office to take down phone numbers, she uses it to mark dates on her calendar, write down directions and appointments and even uses it to label her file folders. Day in and day out, Scribner, the senior blind services coordinator at the League for the Blind and Disabled, uses the 200-year-old series of raised bumps for reading and writing.

Especially when it comes to playing cards, which was the whole reason she learned the system.

“My motivation for using it was so that I could continue to play cards,” said Scribner, who didn’t learn Braille until she was almost 20. “I’d take a standard deck and Braille it, or I’d just buy a deck that is already Brailled.”

But more and more, Scribner is a rarity.

Fewer than 10 percent of the 1.3 million legally blind people in the United States can read Braille, according to a study released last year by the National Federation of the Blind. More startling, according to the federation, only 10 percent of legally blind children are being taught Braille.

The major factors leading to the decline in Braille literacy are a shortage of teachers and a misunderstanding of the uses of text-to-speech technology, according to the federation, an advocacy group with 50,000 members.

This has resulted in a high unemployment rate for blind adults and a high dropout rate among blind high school students, the study showed.

“If you think of any other population in the United States, that only 10 percent were learning to read, there’d be an outrage,” said Chris Danielsen, the director of public relations for the Federation of the Blind.

Braille is a system of raised dots that, when configured in certain ways, represent the letters of the alphabet and numbers.

The reading and writing system was created by Louis Braille, a Frenchman who went blind as a young boy and began tinkering with a language for the blind in his early teens. His language was invented by 1809, according to the National Federation of the Blind.

One of the main critiques from the federation, which hopes to double the number of students reading Braille by 2015, is that children who may be visually impaired are not being taught Braille as their eyesight worsens.

“A lot of blind students have some vision, so it’s felt that if print can be magnified, there’s no need to teach Braille,” Danielsen said.

In 2003, there were 6,700 full-time teachers for about 93,600 blind students throughout the country, according to the federation’s study. Even teachers who were graduating from colleges to teach Braille do not always have a firm grasp of the language, the study said.

In Fort Wayne Community Schools, there are 19 students who are blind or visually impaired out of the 5,788 students who have some form of disability, according to Theresa Oberley, the district’s director of special education.

Of those 19 students, six receive daily instruction in Braille from two licensed teachers.

“We’re fortunate to have two people licensed to do that,” Oberley said. “A small school corporation might have two blind children, so they might tend not to hire a full-time teacher for the visually impaired.”

Some of the blind or visually impaired students in the district may be able to read print and may always be able to read print, school officials said. So the decision to teach a student Braille is not just the district’s or a teacher’s decision.

“We look carefully at students as to the appropriateness of teaching Braille,” said Rhonda Rhoades, one of the district’s teachers, who has been teaching Braille for 19 years. “It’s really a group decision with the parents.”

It might appear that technology has or could soon make Braille obsolete.

With text-to-speech technology, gadgets and computer software that will read words to a blind person, the need to learn a 200-year-old reading and writing system might not seem like a priority. But that shouldn’t be so, according to advocates for the blind.

“The thing is, we have technology now, with a lot of talking equipment, which is absolutely wonderful,” said Scribner, of the League for the Blind. “But we still use Braille, and Braille is especially important for a child.”

“It’s not going out of style anytime soon, but the technology is so exciting to people that they tend to want to go that way,” Scribner said.

At Fort Wayne Community Schools, technology is used to enhance the instruction of Braille, not replace it. There are various machines the district has – for example, a printer that produces pages in both normal letters and Braille – at its disposal for visually impaired students.

One high school student at one time had a mini-computer that allowed that student to produce Braille on the screen, which was then read back to the student, according to district officials. The Braille on the screen could also be refreshed.

“For a student that cannot function visually, it’s very important to be able to read Braille,” said Pat Ladig, a Braille teacher in the district who has 13 years of experience. “We don’t use a lot of auditory, unless we use it as a supplement.”

Like the district, the Federation for the Blind encourages technology to be used as an enhancer or a supplement to the learning of Braille. Though text-to-speech technology is cheaper than Braille and might be a factor in Braille’s decline, screens that allow a person to practice Braille should make it more accessible to learn, advocates say.

“Technology has been a factor, but technology in another sense makes Braille more widely available than before,” said Danielsen, spokesman for the national federation.

Sometimes Scribner is given a card in Braille and she’s asked to read it in front of her co-workers.

This makes her sweat bullets.

Since she didn’t learn Braille until almost 20, it was somewhat harder for her to pick up, she said. She didn’t learn at the speed of a kid learning how to read normal print. But overall, some in the profession say, Braille can be tough to pick up.

“Braille is harder to read than print,” Rhoades said.

For many, Braille takes longer to read. Scribner uses it in her daily life, but she doesn’t try to read books using Braille, which, by the way, are much larger than books written in print. “To read a book in Braille, I’d probably have a heart attack,” she said.

But none of that downplays its importance, advocates said.

The National Federation of the Blind is trying to push for all 50 states to enact legislation requiring education of teachers for the blind so as to double the number of children learning Braille in the next five years. The group also wants courses in Braille added to high schools and Braille resources made more available, whether through better distribution or online.

“The goals are ambitious because the trend is alarming,” Danielsen said.

Though it might not be in as wide of use, it’s not going away soon, Scribner said. She, for one, couldn’t function without it, and it will always be there for her.

“I don’t know what I’d do without it,” she said. “It’s literally right at my fingertips.”