[nfb-talk] The Braille Literacy Crisis In America:
kenneth.chrane at verizon.net
Sat Mar 28 01:57:35 UTC 2009
Hi this is Ken Chrane.
I posted the information twice.
It took along time before the posting posted.
The second time, it posted.
There must have been a delay in posting.
Sorry about that.
----- Original Message -----
From: "tribble" <lauraeaves at yahoo.com>
To: "NFB Talk Mailing List" <nfb-talk at nfbnet.org>
Sent: Friday, March 27, 2009 9:39 PM
Subject: Re: [nfb-talk] The Braille Literacy Crisis In America:
I got this and other mail twice from this list. Could someone see if
there's a problem with this list on the server? Thanx.
----- Original Message -----
From: "Kenneth Chrane" <kenneth.chrane at verizon.net>
To: "Multiple recipients of NFBnet NFB-Talk Mailing List"
<NFB-Talk at NFBnet.org>
Sent: Friday, March 27, 2009 6:18 PM
Subject: [nfb-talk] The Braille Literacy Crisis In America:
The Braille Literacy Crisis in America
Facing the Truth, Reversing the Trend, Empowering the Blind
A Report to the Nation by the National Federation of the Blind
March 26, 2009
The Braille Literacy Crisis in America
Facing the Truth, Reversing the Trend, Empowering the Blind
A good education is the key to success, and every American deserves an equal
opportunity to receive a good education. Inherent to being educated is being
literate. The ability to read and write means access to information that, in
turn, leads to understanding and knowledge. And knowledge is power-the power
to achieve, function in the family, thrive in the community, succeed in a
job, and contribute to society.
Nearly 90 percent of America's blind children are not learning to read and
write because they are not being taught Braille or given access to it. There
is a Braille literacy crisis in America.
The National Federation of the Blind (NFB), the largest and most influential
membership organization of blind people in the United States, is taking
swift action to reverse this trend. This year, 2009, marks the 200th
anniversary of the birth of Louis Braille, inventor of the system that
allows blind people to read and write independently. Coinciding with this
anniversary, the NFB has announced specific action to address the education
of America's blind children so that every blind child who has a need for
Braille will have the opportunity to learn it.
In this report to the nation on the state of Braille literacy in America,
the NFB examines the history and decline of Braille education, addresses the
crisis facing the blind today and key factors driving it, and proposes a
number of action steps to double the Braille literacy rate by 2015 and
eventually reverse it altogether.
Key Report Findings:
I. Facing the Truth
· Fewer than 10 percent of the 1.3 million people who are legally
blind in the United States are Braille readers. Further, a mere 10 percent
of blind children are learning it.
· Each year as many as 75,000 people lose all or part of their
vision. As the baby-boom generation moves into retirement age and as
diabetes (the nation's leading cause of blindness) approaches epidemic
proportions, the NFB expects this number to increase dramatically and, if
nothing is done, the Braille illiteracy rate as well.
· The current effects of this crisis are dire. Over 70 percent of
blind adults are unemployed, and as many as 50 percent of blind high school
students drop out of high school.
· Factors contributing to this low literacy among the blind include:
a.. The Teacher Crisis. There is a shortage of teachers who are qualified
to teach Braille. In 2003 there were approximately 6,700 fulltime teachers
of blind students serving about 93,600 students. In that same year the
number of new professionals graduating from university programs to work with
blind or low-vision students fluctuated between 375 and 416 per year. In
addition there is no national consensus on what it means to be certified to
teach Braille, and states have a patchwork of requirements for
b.. The Spiral of Misunderstanding. There are many misconceptions about
the Braille system. For example, "Braille isolates and stigmatizes students
from peers who read print," or "Braille is always slower than reading print
and difficult to learn." Yet studies have found that Braille is an efficient
and effective reading medium with students demonstrating a reading speed
exceeding 200 words per minute.
c.. Blind Children with Low Vision Are Deprived of Braille Instruction.
Parents often find themselves battling with school administrators to get
Braille instruction for their children with low vision because of the
historical emphasis on teaching these children to read print. Many students
with residual vision cannot read print efficiently even with magnification.
Children with some residual vision account for around 85 percent of the
total population of blind children.
d.. The Paradox of Technology. Eighty-nine percent of teachers of blind
students agree that technology should be used as a supplement to Braille
rather than as a replacement. Advances in technology have made Braille more
available than ever before. Computer software can translate any document
into literary, contracted Braille quickly and accurately. Further, hundreds
of thousands of Braille books are available from Internet-based services.
II. Reversing the Trend
Undoubtedly the ability to read and write Braille competently and
efficiently is the key to success for the blind. The National Federation of
the Blind Jernigan Institute is committed to reversing this downward trend
in Braille literacy in order to ensure that equal opportunities in education
and employment are available to all of the nation's blind.
Braille literacy can be accomplished by:
· Increasing access to Braille instruction and reading materials in
every community nationwide.
· Expanding Braille mentoring, reading-readiness, and outreach
· Requiring national certification in literary Braille among all
special education teachers. By 2015 all fifty states must enact legislation
requiring special education teachers of blind children to obtain and
maintain the National Certification in Literary Braille.
· Requiring all Braille teachers to pass the National Certification
in Literary Braille (NCLB) in order to assure their competency and fluency
in the literary code.
· Advancing the use of Braille in current and emerging technologies.
· Researching new methods of teaching and learning Braille.
· Making Braille resources more available through online sharing of
materials, enhanced production methods, and improved distribution.
· Educating the American public that blind people have a right to
Braille literacy so they can compete and assume a productive role in
III. Empowering the Blind
Blind people who know Braille and use it find success, independence, and
productivity. A recent survey of 500 respondents by the National Federation
of the Blind Jernigan Institute revealed a correlation between the ability
to read Braille and a higher educational level, a higher likelihood of
employment, and a higher income.
Hundreds of thousands of blind people have found Braille to be an
indispensable tool in their education, their work, and their daily lives. In
the hearts and minds of blind people, no alternative system or new
technology has ever replaced Braille. For this reason the National
Federation of the Blind is launching a national Braille literacy campaign to
enhance the future prospects for blind children and adults in this country
and to help make Braille literacy a reality for the 90 percent of blind
children for whom reading is a struggle, if not an impossibility.
The future of sighted children depends on a proper education; the future of
America's blind children is no different.
The Braille Literacy Crisis in America
Facing the Truth, Reversing the Trend, Empowering the Blind
A Report to the Nation by the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan
Unquestionably a good education is the key to success. In national polls
Americans routinely identified this issue as an important national priority
(Blackorby, 2004). Education is generally understood to encompass literacy,
defined as "the ability to read and write" (Concise Oxford Dictionary,
2009). According to the National Institute for Literacy, literacy is "an
individual's ability to read, write, speak in English, compute and solve
problems at levels of proficiency necessary to function on the job, in the
family of the individual, and in society" (http://www.nifl.gov/). Schools
not doing a good job of teaching children to read and write are correctly
seen as failing schools. Yet, for thousands of children across the United
States, it is considered acceptable to fail to teach them to read and write.
These children are blind, and they are not learning to read and write
because they are not being taught Braille.
Despite its versatility and elegance, and notwithstanding the fact that it
is the official system of reading and writing for the blind in the United
States, Braille is not being taught to most blind children or to adults who
lose their vision. This has led to a literacy crisis among blind people.
Many commentators on the Braille literacy crisis agree that one of the most
significant contributing factors is a negative societal attitude toward
Braille (Riccobono, 2006; Hehir, 2002). The bias against Braille is further
evidenced by hundreds of published accounts from blind people themselves.
The archives of the monthly publication of the National Federation of the
Blind, the Braille Monitor, are full of personal stories detailing the
problems blind people experience when they are not taught Braille at an
early age. When educators and parents insist that children who are blind or
have low vision read print to the exclusion of reading Braille, the ultimate
result is that many of them are functionally illiterate.
Braille has been controversial since its invention. At the time Louis
Braille developed the system, most of those who were attempting to educate
the blind were not blind themselves but sighted people with altruistic
impulses (Lorimer, 2000; Mellor, 2006). They believed that the blind should
be taught to read print rather than using a separate system. Many educators
still believe this today, arguing that Braille is slow and hard to learn and
that it isolates blind children from their peers. These arguments and their
mistaken assumptions will be addressed in detail in the following pages.
Beliefs among educators about Braille are only one reason, albeit a very
significant one, that Braille literacy has declined in the United States to
the point where it is estimated that only 10 percent of blind children are
learning it. Other factors include a shortage of teachers qualified to give
Braille instruction, the need for improved methods of producing and
distributing Braille, and not enough certified Braille transcribers
(Spungin, 1989, 2003). All of these issues must be addressed if the downward
trend in literacy among the blind is to be reversed. And it must be
reversed, for to fail to reverse it is to condemn blind children and adults
to illiteracy and to a permanent struggle to keep up with their sighted
peers in getting an education. By contrast, reversing the downward trend in
Braille literacy will ensure that current and future generations of blind
children, as well as adults who lose their vision, have access to knowledge
and the power and opportunity that it represents.
This report discusses Braille's history and effectiveness, the reasons for
the crisis in Braille literacy, and what the National Federation of the
Blind is doing to address this crisis. It is a call to action for all who
are concerned about the welfare of America's blind children to join with the
National Federation of the Blind in our effort to ensure that every blind
child and adult who has a need for Braille will have the opportunity to
A Brief History of Braille
Braille is a system of raised dots that allows blind people to read and
write tactilely. Named for its inventor, Louis Jean-Philippe Braille
(1809-1852), the Braille code is the universally accepted method of reading
and writing for the blind. It is the only system that allows blind people to
read and write independently and to do both interactively. Because of its
effectiveness, Braille has been adapted for almost every written language.
Other Braille codes represent mathematical and scientific notation and
music. Even blind computer programmers have a Braille code, computer
Braille. All of these codes are based on Louis Braille's original system, a
cell consisting of six dots in parallel vertical columns of three each. The
Braille code was first introduced into the United States in 1869 but was not
adopted until 1932 as the Standard English Grade Two Braille code.
Graphic: Braille cell
Graphic: Braille alphabet
For most of human history no method existed allowing blind people to read
and write independently. Some blind people did learn to read print in a
tactile form, but usually they had no way to write tactilely; even if they
learned to reproduce print characters accurately, they could not read what
they had written. In addition, the difficulty and expense of producing books
with embossed print lettering made such books rare. As a result most blind
people were condemned to illiteracy, along with the poverty and deprivation
accompanying it. If they earned a living at all, they did so as storytellers
or musicians or through certain kinds of manual labor, including basketry
This was the state of affairs when Louis Jean-Philippe Braille was born in
the small village of Coupvray, France, just outside Paris, in 1809. At the
age of three Braille was blinded in an accident, probably resulting from
playing with tools in his father's harness-making shop (Lorimer, 1996, 2000;
Mellor, 2006). Braille's family was not wealthy, but his parents were
literate and determined that their son would obtain an education. When it
became clear that the local school could no longer meet Braille's needs
(though he had progressed astonishingly far given that he could not read and
write), a local nobleman put up the funds for him to attend the Royal
Institute for the Young Blind in Paris, the world's first school for blind
children (Mellor, 2006; Lorimer, 1996). At this school Braille found a
limited number of books with embossed print letters and quickly read all of
In 1821 a French army captain, Charles Barbier de la Serre, came to the
school to show the students an invention that he thought might be of use to
them. Barbier had developed a system called "night writing" consisting of
raised dots punched into cardboard with a stylus. A metal frame, or slate,
was used to guide the stylus in the proper placement of the dots. This
system was invented as a way for soldiers to transmit messages in the dark
without striking a match, which would give away their position to enemy
gunners. While Braille recognized the system's potential, he believed that
it could be improved. In particular he thought that the dot formations
should represent alphanumeric characters instead of sounds (Barbier's system
was also called sonography because the symbols represented the sounds of
speech rather than letters). He also thought that the number of dots making
up each character should be reduced so that they could be read with a
fingertip rather than having to be traced. Braille worked on improving the
system for several years. By the age of twenty he had developed the six-dot
Braille cell that is used today and had published a booklet on the method.
Braille's fellow students adopted his new system immediately. Not only could
they now read books, which were hand transcribed by Braille and his friends,
but they could take their own notes in class and read them back later rather
than learning exclusively by listening and memorizing. The instructors at
the school were skeptical, however, and some of the administrators were
actually hostile. The school was a political showpiece and made money from
selling crafts produced by its blind students; if the blind became too
independent, its prestige and revenue might be reduced (Mellor, 2006). At
one point the school's director burned all of the books that Louis Braille
and his friends had transcribed by hand and confiscated the students' slates
and styluses. The result was an open rebellion among students, who began to
steal forks from the dining room to replace their lost writing implements.
This early struggle for the acceptance of the Braille system would be only
the first of many battles pitting blind people against those who professed
to know what was best for them. These struggles continue to this day.
Despite these setbacks the Braille system was eventually adopted by the
Royal Institute for the Young Blind, and two years after Braille's death it
became the official system of reading and writing for the blind in France.
To this day Louis Braille is considered a national hero in his native
country; his body is interred in the Pantheon in Paris. The Braille code was
later adopted in England because of advocacy by the founders of what is now
the Royal National Institute of Blind People, and other blind people and
educational institutions for the blind began to use it. Helen Keller
reported using the system. Rosalind Perlman (2007), in her book The Blind
Doctor: The Jacob Bolotin Story, reports that the first physician to have
been born blind, practicing in Chicago during the early part of the
twentieth century, learned Braille at the Illinois School for the Blind and
used it for notes in medical school and throughout his subsequent career.
Braille was adopted as the exclusive means of teaching blind people to read
and write in the United States in 1932. At the height of its use in the
United States, it is estimated that 50 to 60 percent of blind children
learned to read and write in Braille.
Attention Box on page 7: Only about 10 percent of blind children in the
United States are currently learning Braille. Society would never accept a
10 percent literacy rate among sighted children; it should not accept such
an outrageously low literacy rate among the blind.
The Decline of Braille Literacy
The decline in the number of Braille readers since 1963 (Miller, 2002) has
been widely discussed by professionals and censured by consumer groups (Rex,
1989; Schroeder, 1989; Stephens, 1989). Although there is no consensus on
the causes of this decline, a number of factors have been cited. Among them
are disputes on the utility of the Braille code (Thurlow, 1988), the decline
in teachers' knowledge of Braille and methods for teaching it (Schroeder,
1989; Stephens, 1989), negative attitudes toward Braille (Holbrook and
Koenig, 1992; Rex, 1989), greater reliance on speech output and
print-magnification technology, and a rise in the number of blind children
with additional disabilities who are nonreaders (Rex, 1989). The greatest
controversy over whether to teach a child Braille arises when a child has
some residual vision; such children account for around 85 percent of the
total population of blind children (Holbrook and Koenig, 1992).
Pressure from consumers and advocacy groups has led thirty-three states to
pass legislation mandating that children who are legally blind be given the
opportunity to learn Braille. The Individuals with Disabilities Education
Act also mandates that the teams who help to write educational plans for
students with disabilities presume that all blind children should be taught
Braille unless it is determined to be inappropriate. But these laws have not
ended the controversy. Whereas professional groups have called for a renewed
emphasis on teaching Braille (Mullen, 1990), others have opined that Braille
is only one educational option. Braille should be viewed as one tool among
many, a tool that allows blind people to operate at a high degree of
proficiency when performing a multitude of functional tasks (Eldridge, 1979,
Waechtler, 1999). But rather than seeing Braille as a tool that every blind
child should have in his or her toolkit for dealing effectively with vision
loss, to be used in conjunction with and not to the exclusion of techniques
that rely on the child's remaining vision, some educators insist that a
choice must be made between print and Braille and that only one reading
medium must be used (Federman, 2005). These disagreements translate in the
field into disputes among professionals in planning meetings researching how
to deal with individual children. Parents caught in the middle of these
disputes and often themselves confused about the best course of action find
that they and their children become the real victims in these academic
The Crisis Facing the Blind Today
The American Foundation for the Blind (1996) has estimated that fewer than
10 percent of people who are legally blind in the United States and fewer
than 40 percent of the estimated number who are functionally blind are
Braille readers. The American Printing House for the Blind estimates the
Braille literacy rate among children to be around 10 percent. Experts
estimate 1.3 million blind people live in the United States, and
approximately 75,000 people lose all or part of their vision each year.
These numbers may increase dramatically as the baby-boom generation reaches
retirement age. Macular degeneration, the most common form of blindness in
older Americans, is likely to increase as this population increases,
particularly since Americans are living longer. The nation's leading cause
of blindness, diabetes, has reached epidemic proportions in this country, so
a higher incidence of blindness can be expected.
The Teacher Crisis
U.S. education faces a chronic shortage of teachers qualified to teach
Braille. In 2003 there were approximately 6,700 fulltime teachers of blind
students serving approximately 93,600 students (Spungin, 2003). Far too few
teachers of blind children have graduated from accredited programs; a 2000
report observed that the total number of new professionals graduating from
university programs to work with students who are blind or have low vision
fluctuated between 375 and 416 per year during the previous seven years
(Mason, et al., 2000). Not all of these teachers are qualified to teach
Braille. Many teachers who are considered qualified to teach Braille have
not necessarily learned it themselves. There is no national consensus on
what it means to be certified to teach Braille, and states have a patchwork
of requirements for certification. Local school districts depend upon state
education agencies to set the certification standards for teachers. All
states have specific certification standards for those who teach children
who are blind or have low vision; however, these standards vary across the
country (Vaughn, 1997).
States license or certify candidates who want to teach children who are
blind or have low vision in three ways: requiring the candidate to graduate
from an approved bachelor's or master's program from an approved college or
university, requiring the candidate to have a generic degree in special
education, or requiring the candidate to have an endorsement to an existing
certificate in early childhood, elementary, secondary, or special education,
with certain courses needed to gain that endorsement (Frieman, 2004). In
order to approve a program, the National Council for the Accreditation of
Teacher Education requires performance-based criteria. The Council for
Exceptional Children has developed performance-based standards for programs
to train teachers of students who have a visual impairment. If a candidate
graduates from an approved program that follows the Council for Exceptional
Children's standards, an administrator can predict that the teaching
candidate will have the necessary background to teach Braille. However, only
nineteen states require candidates to have graduated from an approved
program. Seven states require that candidates have only a generic degree in
special education with no specific mention of Braille. Twenty-four states
require candidates to have taken courses in order to earn an endorsement.
These standards specify that the teacher has taken at least one course in
Braille, but give no guarantee that the individual is actually competent in
Braille or is able to teach it (Frieman, 2004). Teachers who are
uncomfortable with Braille are likely to be reluctant to teach it,
especially when they can get by without doing so for students who have low
vision but can read some print.
To act in the best interests of blind children and adults, schools must
require that every child who is blind will have the right to be taught
Braille and that Braille be taught by someone who is competent in its use.
This is not what is currently happening in schools (Vaughn, 1997). Today
there is no guarantee that a teacher, even one with formal credentials, will
be fluent in Braille. In order to assure Braille fluency, teachers of blind
children must be tested on their actual Braille skills by way of a
comprehensive and validated test. States should require Braille teachers to
pass the National Certification in Literary Braille (NCLB) in order to
assure competency and fluency in the literary code. Passing the NCLB
examination will not in itself ensure effective Braille teaching, but it
will provide a measure of how well a person knows and uses Braille.
Even assuming a teacher is competent in Braille, the size of the teacher's
case load will often influence how well his or her students learn Braille.
An itinerant teacher is essentially a consultant who is responsible for
meeting the needs of several students. Teachers of blind students often must
travel within or even between school districts each week to help a number of
students. They are typically expected to teach sixteen or more students who
are widely spread over large geographic areas (Caton, 1991). As a result
many students are trained in Braille for only two to three hours a week, and
some even less than that.
Attention Box page 9: There is a chronic shortage of teachers who are
qualified to teach Braille. It was reported in 2003 that there were
approximately 6,700 fulltime teachers of blind students serving
approximately 93,600 students.
Teachers of blind students must often teach a number of skills, including
cane travel and the use of technology such as a computer with text-to-speech
screen access software, and there is evidence that Braille instruction is
not prioritized. According to one survey respondents spent an average of 35
percent of their instructional time using assistive technology with students
in grades 7-10 (Thurlow, et al., 2001). The primary goals most often cited
for instructional time were "become a proficient user of assistive
technology" (42 percent) and "read using a combination of approaches" (30
percent), with "become fluent Braille reader" (18 percent) selected less
often. Respondents spent an average of 27 percent of reading instruction
time on direct instruction of how to use assistive technologies to assist in
reading, 19 percent of time in supported reading aloud, and only 9 percent
of time in direct instruction of phonemic strategies (Braille or print).
Furthermore, anecdotal evidence suggests that a teacher of blind students
spends more time tutoring than teaching blindness skills (Amato, 2002).
The Spiral of Misunderstanding
Attitudes about Braille, which are often based on myths and misconceptions
about the system, are also a barrier to proper Braille instruction. One of
the major reasons for the increasing illiteracy of the blind and those with
low vision is the historical emphasis on teaching children with residual
vision to read print (Spungin, 1996). Most blind children have some residual
vision; they are legally blind but not totally blind. But many students who
have residual vision cannot read print efficiently even with magnification;
attempting to read print results in eye strain, headaches, and other
problems. Furthermore, many degenerative eye conditions are progressive,
meaning that the student's vision will continue to decrease over time,
making print harder and harder to read. Students with low vision are
particularly at risk for not receiving appropriate instruction in Braille.
These students tend to receive less direct service from teachers of blind
students and are surrounded with more emphasis on "vision" over nonvisual
skills and learning techniques. Additionally, if Braille is not introduced
early, student motivation to accept Braille will greatly decrease due to
frustration in learning Braille, emotional issues with looking and acting
different from one's peers, and issues involving emotional acceptance of
additional vision loss. It is important for educators to give these students
appropriate instruction based on their needs in the long term rather than
simply considering only their most immediate needs.
Parents often find themselves battling with school administrators to get
Braille instruction for their children with low vision. The Colton family of
Park City, Utah, took out a second mortgage on their home in order to hire
lawyers for litigation against the school district to get Braille
instruction for their daughter Katie, who has a progressive eye disease
(Lyon, 2009). "We'd had to argue a wait-to-fail model is not appropriate for
a progressive disorder," her mother was quoted as saying in the Salt Lake
The Jacobs family was told that their blind daughter could read print if the
font was 72 point or higher, so there was no need for Braille (Jacobs,
2009). Needless to say, the child will never have access to print that large
in the real world, except perhaps on billboards. The school system justified
having the child read print by claiming that she was "resistant to Braille."
But a school district would never refuse to teach a sighted child to read
because he or she was "resistant" to reading. Furthermore, resistance to
Braille is often a product of the way it is taught; if Braille is presented
to a blind child as different and hard, rather than the positive way in
which reading is presented to sighted children, then the child will
naturally absorb the expectations of the adults doing the teaching (Craig,
1996; Stratton, 1999).
Attention box page 10: Experts estimate that 1.3 million blind people live
in the United States, and approximately 75,000 people lose all or part of
their vision each year.
The experiences of the Colton and Jacobs families are not uncommon; they are
merely examples of the experiences of hundreds of families across the United
States. On the other hand, the experiences of parents of blind children who
have successfully introduced their young readers to Braille and fought for
inclusion of the system in the child's education suggest that, when Braille
is simply presented as reading and reading becomes fun for the family,
children readily absorb the system.
Others argue that Braille isolates and stigmatizes students from peers who
read print. This has never been backed by any kind of research; it is
without foundation. Blind children will always have to use alternative
technologies or methods to read, ranging from holding a book close to their
face to using a magnification device or putting on headphones to listen to
recorded text. Their peers notice these differences as surely as they notice
that the child reads Braille instead of print, but they do not necessarily
treat the child differently because of reading differences.
Ultimately, all of these mistaken beliefs about Braille come down to low
expectations of blind students. Whether they will admit it or not, many of
the sighted educators and administrators charged with providing instruction
to blind students do not believe in the capacity of their students or in the
effectiveness of Braille and other alternative techniques used by blind
people to live successful, productive lives. As one commentator has put it:
"A little honest reflection about this situation (decline in Braille
literacy) suggests that the real culprit here is the inadequate and
inappropriate education of the special education teachers who are not
competent or confident themselves in using Braille and who also believe that
their students should not be expected to compete successfully in school or
in life" (Ianuzzi, 1999).
Blind students who are not properly taught Braille and other blindness
skills and who therefore struggle with literacy ultimately experience low
self-confidence and a lack of belief in their own ability to live happy,
productive lives. By contrast, those who do receive effective Braille
instruction and use the code effectively gain a sense of hope and
empowerment. Dr. Fredric Schroeder (1996) commented that Braille literacy
"should be viewed more expansively than simply as a literacy issue."
Schroeder's analysis of interviews with legally blind adults "found that
issues of self-esteem, self-identity, and the 'stigma' of being a person
with a disability were integrally intertwined with the subjects' reported
feelings about using Braille.For some, Braille seems to represent
competence, independence, and equality, so the mastery and use of Braille
played a central role in the development of their self-identities as persons
who are capable, competent, independent, and equal."
Schroeder's work connects to other valuable work in self-efficacy and
demonstrates that blind people who learn to value and use Braille generally
have a higher degree of confidence and do not spend energy attempting to
reshape themselves as "normal" individuals. Schroeder's work is reinforced
by more recent investigations by Wells-Jensen (2003) and through the
published first-hand experiences of hundreds of blind individuals-some who
did and others who did not receive appropriate instruction in Braille in
Another misconception about Braille that has contributed to the decline in
Braille literacy is the idea that reading Braille is always slower than
reading print and that Braille is difficult to learn. While some studies
suggest that Braille is slower than print and difficult to learn because of
its 189 English contractions-symbols and letter combinations that reduce the
size of Braille books by making it possible to put more Braille on a page
instead of spelling each word out letter-by-letter-research in this area is
unreliable since studies tend to be anecdotal. Other studies have found that
Braille is an efficient and effective reading medium (Foulke, 1979;
Wormsley, 1996). Furthermore, the experience of Braille instructors shows
that reading speed exceeding 200 words per minute is possible when students
have learned Braille at an early age (Danielsen, 2006).
The Paradox of Technology
It is often said that technology obviates the need for Braille. The
availability of text-to-speech technology and audio texts, for example, is
advanced as an argument against the use of Braille. But literacy is the
ability to read and write. While using speech output and recorded books is a
way for students to gain information, it does not teach them reading and
writing skills. Students who rely solely on listening as a means of learning
find themselves deficient in areas like spelling and composition. Most
teachers of blind students (89.4 percent [Wittenstein and Pardee, 1996])
agree that technology should be used as a supplement to Braille rather than
as a replacement, even though as cited above, many of them spend more
instructional time working with technology than teaching Braille. No one
would seriously suggest that alternate sources of information, like
television and radio, replace the need for a sighted child to learn to read;
the same should be true for Braille.
For the sighted technology has not replaced print; it has in fact simplified
and enhanced access to the printed word. The same is true with respect to
Braille; advances in technology have made Braille more available than it
ever was in the past. Computer software can translate any document into
literary, contracted Braille quickly and accurately, although work still
needs to be done to make other Braille codes machine-translatable. Braille
displays and embossers can be attached to computers to generate Braille
documents on the fly. Thousands of Braille books are available from
Internet-based services like the Web-Braille service offered by the National
Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of
Congress (NLS) and the online community Bookshare.org. While scarcity of
Braille is still a problem, it is not nearly as bad as it has been in the
past. Certainly improvements can still be made in Braille production methods
and technology so that more Braille will be available, and this is one of
the goals of the Braille Readers are Leaders campaign of the National
Federation of the Blind. Assuming a commitment to Braille instruction and
Braille literacy is renewed in America and proper steps are taken to ensure
the production and distribution of more Braille materials, there will be no
need to avoid teaching Braille because of a shortage of books.
The Truth about Braille
The crisis in Braille literacy is real. Thousands of blind children and
adults who need adjustment to blindness training are being denied access to
the most effective means of reading and writing for the blind ever invented.
The effects of this crisis can be seen in the high unemployment rate (over
70 percent) among blind adults, the high dropout rate (40 to 50 percent)
among blind high school students, and the lives of dependence and minimal
subsistence that many blind people lead. By contrast, blind people who know
the Braille code and use it regularly find success, independence, and
A recent survey of five hundred respondents by the National Federation of
the Blind Jernigan Institute, conducted on a national random sample selected
from a list of 10,000 people who had had contact with the NFB within the
last two years, demonstrated that contact with the NFB increases the
likelihood of knowing Braille. Unlike the general sample of blind
individuals, where the AFB estimates that only 10 percent read Braille, more
than half (59 percent) of those interviewed in the NFB Jernigan Institute
study are Braille literate. This is probably due to the Federation's
emphasis on Braille literacy; those who have had contact with the National
Federation of the Blind tend to believe strongly in the efficacy of Braille
and to be committed to learning and reading it. In this sample the ability
to read Braille was also correlated with a higher educational level, a
higher likelihood of employment, and a higher income level. These
relationships were statistically significant.
Attention box page 12: Many teachers who are considered qualified to teach
Braille have not learned it themselves.
Most disciplines accept that the primary indicators of socioeconomic status
in this society are employment and education leading to self-sufficiency. A
study by Dr. Ruby Ryles, now the director of the orientation and mobility
master's program at the Professional Development and Research Institute on
Blindness at Louisiana Tech University, began to provide the objective
information needed on the question of Braille versus print. In a comparison
between two groups of blind people, one consisting of Braille readers and
the other of print readers, the study revealed that those who were taught
Braille from the beginning had higher employment rates, were better educated
and more financially self-sufficient, and spent more time engaged in leisure
and other reading than the print users (Ryles, 1996).
Dr. Ryles's work showed a striking difference between those who had grown up
learning Braille and those who had relied primarily on print. She found that
44 percent of the Braille-reading group, as compared to 77 percent of the
print-reading group, were unemployed. In other words the unemployment rate
for the print group was actually higher than the generally reported
unemployment rate among the blind as a whole (70 percent) (Riccobono, et
al.), while the unemployment rate among Braille readers was much lower. The
Braille-reading sample had significantly stronger reading habits than the
print group, including more hours in a week spent on reading activities,
reading more books, and subscribing to more magazines. While the overall
educational rate between the two groups was not statistically significant, a
dramatic difference was observed at the advanced degree level. Thirty
percent of the Braille group had an advanced degree compared to only 13
percent for the print group, with only the Braille group having any
individuals with doctoral degrees.
Last, the Braille group was over-represented in the higher income level and
under-represented in the lowest income level, while the print group was
under-represented at the high income level and over-represented at the low
income level (the two groups were comparable at a medium income level). The
print group contained significantly more people receiving
non-employment-related funding from the government (such as Social Security
Disability Income) as compared to the Braille group.
Dr. Ryles's research on the education and employment outcomes for Braille
readers, combined with the difference in confidence, self-efficacy, and
reported independence of Braille readers, suggests that Braille is extremely
valuable for those blind people who learn and use Braille in their lives.
The results of this study suggest that teaching Braille as an original
primary reading medium to children with low vision may encourage them to
develop the positive lifelong habit of reading as adults, enhance their
later employment opportunities, and increase the possibility of financial
The Future Is in Our Hands
There can be no doubt that the ability to read and write Braille competently
and efficiently is the key to education, employment, and success for the
blind. Despite the undisputed value of Braille, however, only about 10
percent of blind children in the United States are currently learning it.
Society would never accept a 10 percent literacy rate among sighted
children; it should not accept such an outrageously low literacy rate among
the blind. The National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute is
committed to the reversal of this downward trend in Braille literacy in
order to ensure that equal opportunities in education and employment are
available to all of the nation's blind.
The overall goals of this effort are that:
a.. The number of school-age children reading Braille will double by 2015.
b.. All fifty states will enact legislation requiring special education
teachers of blind children to obtain and maintain the National Certification
in Literary Braille by 2015.
c.. Braille resources will be made more available through online sharing
of materials, enhanced production methods, and improved distribution.
d.. Courses in Braille instruction will be added to the curricula in high
schools and colleges and offered to all students to ensure that this reading
medium becomes an established, recognized method of achieving literacy in
e.. The American public will learn that blind people have a right to
Braille literacy so they can compete and assume a productive role in
For over 150 years Braille has been recognized as the most effective means
of reading and writing for the blind. Hundreds of thousands of blind people
have found Braille an indispensable tool in their education, their work, and
their daily lives, even as professionals in the field of blindness continued
to debate the merits of the system. Certainly more empirical research is
needed to break down the wall of misunderstanding that still stands between
all too many blind people and proper Braille instruction. The Braille codes
and the technology to reproduce them can and will continue to improve. But
the lives of successful blind people testify to the usefulness of Braille,
and in the face of that testimony the only truly professional and moral
course of action is to ensure that all blind people have access to competent
Braille instruction. In the hearts and minds of blind people, no alternative
system or new technology has ever replaced Braille where the rubber meets
the road-in the living of happy, successful, productive lives. That is why
the National Federation of the Blind is asking all who are concerned about
the future prospects for blind children and adults in this country to help
us make Braille literacy a reality for the 90 percent of blind children for
whom reading is a struggle, if not an impossibility. The future of sighted
children depends on a proper education, and the future of blind children is
no different. Let us make the commitment that no blind child or adult who
needs Braille as a tool in his or her arsenal of blindness techniques will
be left without it.
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