The Braille Monitor

Vol. 33, No. 1 January 1990

LITERACY: THE KEY TO OPPORTUNITY

by Fred Schroeder

On February 3, 1989, Fred Schroeder (member of the Board of Directors of the National Federation of the Blind, Director of the New Mexico Commission for the Blind, and authority on the education of blind children) addressed the Josephine Taylor Leadership Seminar, sponsored by the American Foundation for the Blind. The seminar was held in Atlanta, Georgia. Mr. Schroeder's remarks were insightful and very much to the point, so we have decided to print his entire text. Here it is:

In today's information age there can be no question that literacy represents the primary tool by which individuals compete. Literacy unlike other skills is not an end in itself, but rather the means to a virtually unlimited variety of ends. It is the very key to prosperity since literacy opens the way to information by tearing down barriers of myth and ignorance. Blind people have come to value Braille, recognizing its role as the primary means to literacy for the blind. Dr. Abraham Nemeth has described Braille as having liberated a whole class of people from a condition of illiteracy and dependency and given them the means for self-fulfillment and enrichment. Nevertheless, large numbers of blind people do not know Braille and, therefore, find themselves in a state of functional illiteracy. As a result, blind people have lacked many of the fundamental opportunities which enable them to become self-supporting, contributing members of society.

It is estimated that seventy percent of working-age blind people are unemployed. Those who are employed are frequently under-employed or trapped in entry level jobs. While it would not be fair to say that the staggeringly high unemployment rate among the blind is due solely to lack of Braille literacy, Dr. Nemeth observes that, Braille makes it possible for a blind person to assume a role of equality in modern society, and it can unlock the potential within him to become a contributing member of his community on a par with his sighted fellows. Many professionals have sought to explain away the low level of Braille literacy through claims that Braille is too complicated and difficult to learn, too bulky and costly to produce, and made obsolete by tapes and speech technology. In addition, they argue that many of today's blind children are multi-handicapped and therefore cannot be expected to master Braille reading. Finally, modern pedagogy has asserted that many blind people, given appropriate low vision aids, can become competent print readers, thereby rendering Braille unnecessary. Yet, alternatives to Braille frequently come with problems of their own. Tapes, while helpful for reading large quantities of text, do nothing to enhance spelling or teach a child about punctuation or format. Similarly, while tapes may be relatively compact and inexpensive, it is difficult to skim a tape or turn readily to a specific section of the text. In terms of writing, unlike tapes, Braille allows the individual a portable means of making notes, keeping name and address files, making grocery lists, keeping recipes, and so on. This is not to say that tapes have no place. My point is simply that their role is not to replace Braille. Other alternatives, such as low vision aids, often reduce reading speed and comprehension by virtue of diminishing the amount of material that can be seen at one time. Still other low vision aids (the closed circuit television, for example) are certainly large and cumbersome. Nevertheless, as with the use of tapes, low vision aids have an important function, provided that their use is kept in perspective. Braille, tapes, low vision aids, and speech technology comprise a cadre of techniques which, when applied correctly, enables the blind person to function on terms of real equality.

The small number of blind people using Braille is a problem receiving increasingly sharp attention from the National Federation of the Blind. We believe that, given proper training and opportunity, blind people can compete on terms of equality with the sighted. Central to this conviction is the understanding that true equality is a product of having the skills necessary to compete and the confidence to put those skills into practice. It is our conviction that, while blind people need training, training alone is not sufficient. For it to be effective, the blind person must believe that it is respectable to be blind and that he or she possesses the capacity to compete on an equal footing with his or her sighted peers. As with many other issues facing the blind in education and rehabilitation, blind people and professionals often have strikingly different views concerning the cause of this problem.

The profession tends to view problems from the perspective of the technocrat. Declining Braille literacy indicates a flaw in the code, a problem of cost, or proof that Braille is antiquated. Similarly, the profession may acknowledge a lack of skilled personnel, summing up the Braille literacy problem as merely a training issue. Given this orientation, the solutions proposed by the profession are predictable provide more money for teacher preparation, simplify the Braille code, or replace Braille with low vision aids or speech technology. The blind, however, believe that the real cause of Braille illiteracy is rooted in societal beliefs and misconceptions about blindness. What professionals believe about blindness has direct bearing on both their methodology and their expectations. As a result, if a teacher does not believe that a blind child can truly compete on terms of equality, the teacher will settle for and even praise inferior performance. The teacher's conception of blindness becomes the yardstick by which performance is measured.

Professional judgments become clouded and are ultimately shaped by age- old myths and misconceptions about the abilities of the blind. Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, Executive Director of the National Federation of the Blind, observed that Many of the very people who administer and work in the governmental and private agencies established to provide services to the blind have all of the misconceptions and false notions about blindness possessed by the public at large. If a teacher harbors negative attitudes about blindness, then he or she may wish to avoid dealing directly with blindness and, therefore, avoid the teaching of Braille. As a result, parents and educators find themselves increasingly at odds over the question of which children should be taught to read print and which should be taught to read Braille.

A case in point concerns a young blind child who possesses a fair quantity of residual vision. When this child began kindergarten the school he was attending felt that his vision was not adequate for all of his reading needs and, therefore, began the process of teaching the child to read Braille. In the first grade his family moved to another state. Being convinced of the importance of Braille they sought Braille instruction from the new school district in which their child was enrolled. The new district agreed and continued Braille instruction throughout first, second, and third grade.

Beginning in fourth grade the family again moved, enrolling their child in yet another school district. This one conducted its own educational assessment and determined that Braille instruction was not needed. If the story were to end here, it could be written off as nothing more than a lack of precision in generally accepted assessment criteria. However, the story does not end here. The district in question not only refused to teach Braille, but launched a vicious attack against the parents, accusing them of treating their child as if he were blind, thereby causing him significant emotional and educational damage. The district asserted that a child could not be taught to learn both print and Braille. To do so (they alleged) would result in the child's functioning poorly in both reading media. When the parents pointed out that their son would never be a fully competent print reader because of his impaired vision, the district argued that they were wrong, pointing to the fact that their son was reading print at grade level at least for short periods of time.

This shows the first in a long series of ensuing contradictions. If the child was reading at grade level in the fourth grade and yet had received both print and Braille instruction from kindergarten through third grade, then what evidence is there to show that simultaneous instruction in print and Braille will reduce efficiency in both? The parents, concerned for their son's future, sought three independent evaluations by qualified professionals to determine whether their son should, in fact, receive instruction in Braille reading and writing. I conducted one of the evaluations in November of 1987. I hold a master's degree in the education of blind children from San Francisco State University and have worked as a teacher of blind children and as a special education administrator responsible for programs for blind children in the Albuquerque Public Schools. The other two evaluators were similarly qualified, experienced teachers of blind children. Although each of the evaluations was done independently, all three of us agreed that this child should be instructed in Braille. The basis of our findings was not a wild-eyed fanaticism that all children, regardless of degree of visual functioning, should be taught Braille. Instead, our conclusions were based on experience and direct observation of the child's visual functioning. For my own part I considered such factors as the child's suffering eye fatigue after a period of only 20 to 30 minutes of reading. In addition, the child had great difficulty copying material and was virtually unable to read back his own handwriting. He was unable to read small print such as a conventional dictionary and was not helped by low vision aids. Large print was not beneficial since this child's eye condition includes a field restriction. Large print simply reduced the number of words or letters he could see at a time, reducing his reading efficiency. Again, because of his particular eye condition, glare was a problem making him highly dependent on particular lighting conditions. In short, I concluded that this child needed Braille both as a reading and writing system. Armed with three independent evaluations and a renewed conviction that their child needed Braille, the parents again approached the district. Nevertheless, the district persisted in its refusal to teach Braille, resulting in the matter's being brought to a hearing. The hearing officer, appointed by the district, concluded that the district was correct in refusing to teach the child Braille. In spite of the fact that the child had received Braille instruction for four years and in spite of the fact that three qualified evaluators had independently arrived at a recommendation for Braille instruction, the hearing officer brushed the evidence aside and concluded that the district was correct in refusing Braille instruction. To add insult to injury, the hearing officer dismissed my evaluation by saying that since I knew the parents through my affiliation with the National Federation of the Blind, my report contained the smell of doubt, thereby discounting its validity.

At this point, fourth grade had drawn to a close. The child had lost an entire year of critical instruction. Last August, in a final attempt to secure Braille instruction, the parents arranged for a hearing before a panel representing the State Board of Education. At that hearing the parents presented all of the relevant documentation, including the three independent evaluations which they had secured. The district, presumably operating on the smell of doubt principle, stated that the evaluations were not independent. In particular they discounted my evaluation as being suspect because of my affiliation with the National Federation of the Blind. The district's representative stated that the National Federation of the Blind believed that any visually impaired child regardless of circumstance should automatically receive Braille instruction.

The district asserted that it had alternatively proposed its own impartial evaluation which the parents had refused. It came out that the district had given the parents a list of names prepared by the district and had offered to allow the parents to select any name they chose from the list. As could be anticipated, the parents questioned whether this process would truly yield an independent, impartial evaluation. It was finally agreed that the parents and the county would jointly select an individual to conduct the evaluation. The individual selected was perhaps the most renowned expert in Braille instruction in the United States. The parents hoped that by employing a professional of her caliber the question of Braille instruction could be settled once and for all. It looked promising since the district agreed during the hearing to accept the findings of this expert as representing a truly independent evaluation. In late September, 1988, the evaluation was conducted and shortly thereafter the report received. It contained a recommendation for a minimum of three-forty minute periods of Braille instruction each week. Was it finally over? No.

In November, the district proposed an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that included a grudging provision for including Braille in the curriculum. Rather than recognizing the validity of Braille as a reading system and the need for Braille for this particular student, the district characterized Braille as a subordinate, substandard, laborious method only to be used as a last ditch alternative. One of the short term instructional objectives identified in the proposed IEP was that to alleviate fatigue, the child will use his existing Braille skills when occasionally appropriate. Regardless of the technical inadequacies of this instructional objective, the tone is very clear. The district, in a cloud of bitterness and professional arrogance, persists in its conviction that Braille is nothing more than a second-class reading medium, connoting inferiority. It is interesting to observe that, while the district accused the National Federation of the Blind of holding an arbitrary view that all visually impaired children be taught Braille, the district, on the other hand, seemed unshakably rooted to the equally arbitrary albeit opposite point of view that a low vision child, regardless of need, should be taught print to the exclusion of Braille. It is not difficult to understand what drives this kind of thinking. To the district and to many others in society, Braille equates to blindness while print equates to sight, and on an emotional level, be it conscious or unconscious, the attitude persists that to be sighted is the be normal while to be blind is to be dependent and inferior. This thinking, not learned research and educational theory, drives the decision-making process of selecting which children will be print readers and which will be Braille readers. Dr. Kenneth Jernigan tells the story of visiting a classroom of blind children and being told by the teacher: This little girl reads print. This little girl has to read Braille.

The development of negative attitudes toward Braille can be traced back to the instruction provided in some of our nation's teacher preparation programs. Many teacher preparation programs regard the slate and stylus as a relic of bygone days, assuming that they are mentioned at all. Throughout the nation it is not unusual to see blind children using Braille writers for taking notes in class. As recently as a generation ago, teachers of the blind would have thought it ridiculous to use Braille writers in class. Braille writers are awkward and heavy to carry around, not to mention noisy and disruptive to others. The truth of my assertion can be seen in the marketing strategies being used by manufacturers of portable Braille note taking devices. They point out that these high tech, portable Braille writers are smaller and quieter than Braille writers, making them superior to Braille writers for note taking. While I cannot disagree that many high tech devices offer advantages over lugging a Braille writer from class to class, it strikes me as significant that the profession does not automatically recognize the important role that the slate and stylus play in personal note-taking. The slate is certainly more economical $10.00 as compared to $1,000.00 or more and is still the smallest and most portable note-taking device. The battery never gives out and I have never known a slate to crash. I do not mean to suggest that high tech devices do not offer real advantages in specific situations. Instead I believe it is necessary to understand that for a blind person the slate and stylus is equivalent to the sighted person's pen or pencil. The sighted, as well as the blind, are finding laptop computers convenient and efficient, yet use of the pen and pencil is not a vanishing skill for the sighted.

Why then is use of the slate and stylus virtually a lost art? I believe it is because today's teachers of blind children have never worked with a slate long enough to become comfortable with it and thereby convinced of its usefulness. Instead, I am frequently told that the slate is too difficult because children have to learn to write backward.

 Problems with teacher preparation are not limited to the slate and stylus. In a very real sense teachers of blind children receive only nominal instruction in reading and writing Braille. Poor mastery of Braille coupled with prevailing social attitudes about blindness combine to lead teachers to seek alternatives to Braille. In my professional life I started as a teacher of blind children. I have observed children using print in situations and under conditions which defy reason. In particular I can vividly remember watching a child being instructed in print using a closed circuit television at full magnification. This child could not see well if there was any glare in the room, so before he started reading, the blinds were closed. To complicate matters further, this child could not read letters that were at all stylized. Therefore, the teacher would first retype all of the child's material, using a sans serif, large print typewriter, which made very plain typewritten letters. After the teacher had retyped the child's material, closed the venetian blinds, and turned the CCTV to full magnification, this child was able to read a few letters at a time with excruciating slowness. In another case, after a dispute with parents, a teacher was compelled to instruct a young blind child in Braille. The teacher attempted to comply with the order in a way which would seem laughable if it were not so painfully tragic. The child had almost no sight. Yet she tried to teach him Braille by using flash cards with large print representations of Braille dots. I do not wish my comments to be construed as an attack on all professionals in the field of work with the blind. There are many professionals who have devoted their lives and talents in the fields of education and rehabilitation. It is not simply lip service to say that dedicated professionals have made significant contributions to the advancement of work with the blind and specifically in the area of Braille instruction. Were the problems not so widespread it would be enough to say that all chains have their weak links and that the good work of the many should not be overlooked because of the failings of a few. Unfortunately, the problem of Braille literacy is not isolated to a few poorly trained individuals. It is for this reason that the profession finds itself at odds with blind adults and parents of blind children over the question of Braille instruction.

Many parent organizations throughout the nation have sought introduction of Braille bills in their respective states. These Braille bills have been viewed by the profession as an attack against the role of professionals in identifying which children should receive instruction in Braille. As a result, opposition to various Braille bills has been widespread and intense. I believe the introduction of Braille bills is perhaps the best example of the gulf that exists between modern educational thinking and the desire of parents to prepare their children for a complex and competitive future. Each of the Braille bills with which I am familiar holds as its primary purpose to make Braille instruction available to any legally blind child upon the request of the child's parents. Opponents of Braille bills invariably argue that these bills would require that all visually impaired children, regardless of need, would be forced to learn Braille, often against their will, resulting in educational and psychological harm. They argue that the decision to teach Braille must, as a matter of law, be decided individually through the IEP process. They argue that the IEP is collaborative between teachers and parents. In the case previously described it is not hard to understand why parents might feel that the IEP process is only collaborative when parents agree with the recommendations of professionals.

No Braille bill that I have seen requires Braille to be forced on visually impaired children. In fact, Braille bills do not even require that all legally blind children be taught Braille. Instead, they simply provide that a legally blind child, as a matter of right, have available Braille instruction upon the parent's request. Why should such a simple and eminently reasonable provision be fought so forcefully? What should have ever brought us to the point where parents of blind children would feel it necessary to take the decision of Braille instruction out of the hands of the IEP process? The answer is simple. There clearly exists a large segment of parents who cannot get their local school districts to provide Braille instruction to their children. As in the case discussed earlier, many parents are frustrated by the lost time and wasted energy of pursuing lengthy hearing processes to obtain simple literacy for their children. If the problem were isolated or limited only to the views of a few radicals, then it would not be receiving the concerted action reflected in the introduction of numerous Braille bills. Instead, the problem is widespread. Today, adult rehabilitation centers throughout the nation are teaching Braille not only to the newly blinded, but to young adults who grew up as legally blind children. Many of these young adults attended public school programs for the visually impaired and others are graduates of schools for the blind, yet they never received instruction in Braille reading and writing. As a consequence they find themselves functionally illiterate and unable to pursue meaningful careers. The Braille bills represent a commitment to seizing opportunity for blind children of today. As Marc Maurer, President of the National Federation of the Blind, has said, We have come to understand the importance (indeed, the necessity) of knowing when to refuse to wait, when to reject patience, when to say no to delay the courage and judgment to insist that freedom and opportunity must be now, not tomorrow!

A parent wishing to have his or her child read print, no matter how slowly or inefficiently, is routinely encouraged in this conviction. On the other hand, a parent wishing to have his or her child be instructed in Braille is accused of causing psychological damage by treating the child as if he or she is blind and threatened with being responsible for educational harm on the grounds that Braille and print reading taught together will cause a child to be deficient in both. A number of years ago a leading professional organization circulated a proposed position paper prepared by a nationally recognized expert in the field of education of blind children. This expert, who heads up a teacher preparation program, proposed that if a child could read print at a minimum of ten words per minute, then that child should be taught to read print to the exclusion of Braille. The message is clear. Use of vision, regardless of efficiency, is preferable to techniques associated with blindness. Last May, a parent of a blind child attended an awards ceremony at a residential school for the blind. One of the awards given was a mobility award. The parent expected that the award would have something to do with improvement in on-campus travel. Instead, the mobility award was given to a student who had demonstrated the most advancement in the use of his residual vision. Astounding as it may be, the school offered no award for Braille reading.

When we as blind people seek to change the conception of blindness held by professionals and by society at large, we meet resistance founded in the belief that it is the professional who knows what is best for the blind. Never mind high unemployment and lost opportunity we are asked to accept that the training and technology with which we are plied are the best that can be offered. Never mind that many of us lack the basic dignity that comes from true literacy. As Dr. Jernigan puts it, For all the good will beamed at us by public opinion; for all the aids and services, boosts and assists, props and prosthetics pressed upon us, we, the blind people of this great society, are not yet really free not yet fully independent not yet truly equal. What bars us from first-class status is not inferiority inherent in blindness, but rather the tacit acceptance of a diminished role with minimal expectations and minimal opportunity for full participation. The message I wish to bring is not one of bitterness or hopelessness. Instead, it is my conviction that out of strife and conflict can emerge a new image of the blind as able to compete on terms of equality. To do this we must have available the tools to make it possible. We must develop an attitude that it is respectable to be blind and that the tools associated with blindness constitute the very foundation on which first-class status can be based. It is the negative conditioning of society which leads us to believe that blindness constitutes inferiority and that the tools of blindness likewise equate to inferiority. When we rid ourselves of this false doctrine, then we will be able to free ourselves from the failure concept associated with Braille a concept which promotes the idea that Braille is a last alternative only to be used when all else fails.

Braille has been proven time and time again to be the way to literacy for the blind. It can be produced more easily and more cheaply than ever before in history. With Braille and the other skills of blindness, we as blind people can fulfill our potential and take our true place as contributing, participating, taxpaying members of society. To achieve this goal will take concerted and collective action. As Mr. Maurer has said, The blind of this nation (organized in the National Federation of the Blind) are committed to achieving equality and first-class citizenship. We regret that there is apparently a certain amount of conflict built into the transition from second- to first-class status. But we know that blind individuals, blind people as a group, and our entire society will benefit if the worth we represent is recognized and given its proper place.