by Fred Schroeder
(Fred Schroeder was formerly the Coordinator of Low Incidence Programs for the Albuquerque Public Schools. He presently serves as Director of the New Mexico Commission for the Blind (a position he took on July 1, 1986). This address was given in Toronto, Canada, on June 1, 1988, at a conference sponsored by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, the theme of which was Braille: Future Directions. )
When speaking generally about Braille, it can be said without controversy that Braille represents the means to literacy for the blind. On its face it seems self-evident that for the blind to be literate we must have a tactile method of reading and writing. As with most truths that appear self-evident, our particular beliefs and attitudes color our perception and affect the way in which our beliefs are put into action. Although we flatter ourselves with the belief that we are rational beings, we cannot ignore the impact of prejudice on our behavior. For this reason a discussion of Braille must necessarily encompass a discussion of societal beliefs about blindness, as well as our own beliefs as blind people about blindness.
When I was seven years old, I lost the majority of my eyesight. While not totally blind, I was no longer able to function competitively using my sight. At that time in my life I did not regard myself as a blind person and if asked would have fiercely resisted viewing myself as blind. The intensity of my aversion to thinking of myself as blind was directly tied to my fear of blindness. While recognizing that I was no longer fully sighted, I would not think of myself as a blind person since for me blindness conjured up images of hopelessness and helplessness. I did not know what had shaped my beliefs up to that time, but looking back I can identify many of the events which helped strengthen my negative beliefs about blindness. I was one of four children, and as in most families various household chores were divided up among us. While never explicitly stated, the chores I was assigned were those in which my poor vision would cause me the least difficulty. Both my family and I assumed that the tasks around the house routinely involving sight necessarily required sight and, therefore, none of us sought alternative methods for me to do other jobs. Rather than promoting confidence by giving me a belief that I could contribute, this practice led me to the conclusion that I could function competitively only by means of my remaining vision. When I returned to school, the same pattern continued. If I could not see well enough to do a particular thing, I was either excused from the assignment or paired off with a partner who generally did the majority of the work. Whichever way it went, the belief persisted that to see was to be competent and not to see was to be incompetent.
During the time I grew up, it was believed that the more a person used his or her remaining eyesight the sooner it would deteriorate. For this reason I was not encouraged to use print for fear that it would cause a further decrease in my vision. Since I was not using print, there seemed little need to teach me to spell. As you can imagine, the effect on my academic training of not reading was widespread and damaging. My mother, realizing that I would not be using print and recognizing the need for me to become literate, arranged for me to receive instruction in Braille. It was at this point that my beliefs about blindness began to surface in a tangible way. I resisted learning Braille and applied great quantities of effort to insuring that I would never learn it. I would read the dots with my remaining sight and not by touch. I would refuse to practice between lessons, hide my book before lessons, and in every way possible avoid contact with Braille. I would argue with my mother that I did not need to know Braille since more and more material was being recorded on tape. In short, my beliefs about blindness were governing my attitude toward Braille. By not wanting to think of myself as a blind person, I resisted learning the skills I needed to function competitively. My fear of being less capable prevented me from learning the very skill which would have enabled me to function on a par with my sighted peers. Now that the sight-saving era is behind us, I often wonder what would have happened to me in today's educational system. Would I have been taught Braille, or would I have been encouraged to read print with a closed circuit television or other similar device? Unfortunately the answer is all too easy to predict. The modern-day educational system does not encourage teachers of blind children to concentrate on Braille as a primary reading system for other than the totally blind. Children with any remaining eyesight are pressed to read print long past the point of reason and common sense. 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 CCTV at full magnification. To complicate matters 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. Nevertheless, I was told that she was not being taught Braille because her parents wished her to read print. When this child became my student, I set about teaching her Braille and found that her parents came to value her ability to read and take pride in her newfound literacy. I firmly believe that their reluctance to allow her to learn Braille was directly tied to their desire not to think of their child as blind rather than to a belief that print represented a more efficient means of reading for her. I also believe that their negative attitudes were shaped by the negative attitudes of the teacher. When I first determined to become a teacher of blind children, I took it for granted that Braille reading and writing would be stressed.
My teacher preparation program required a one-semester course in Braille with an optional semester course in Braille math and music notation. This limited amount of training in Braille is disturbing enough. However, my program was, at that time, regarded as placing more emphasis on Braille than most other programs throughout the nation. Quantity of Braille instruction alone was not the problem. Prospective teachers completing the Braille course had only marginal reading and writing ability, and if the course was taken early in their program, they might not use Braille for several years before becoming certified as teachers of blind children.
When I was student teaching, I needed to have large quantities of material transcribed into Braille. To assist me I hired a woman who had just taken the Braille course the previous semester. She had received an A in the course and, therefore, would (I assume) be reasonably facile with Braille. The material she first transcribed for me averaged sixteen Braille errors per page. I was having this woman transcribe my material on eight and a half by eleven inch paper. Figuring two to two and a half Braille pages for each print page, this is analogous to hiring a typist who had just completed a typing course with an A grade who averages thirty to forty errors per typewritten page. I believe it is fair to say that many teachers of blind children are not skilled in Braille and, therefore, seek alternatives to Braille in working with their students. I remember when the Optacon was first introduced. The manufacturer claimed that the Optacon would make Braille obsolete. The manufacturer, in cooperation with leading professionals in the field, developed a reading program adapted for the Optacon. This was not a program to teach a child who was already a skilled reader to transfer that skill to the Optacon. Rather, this was a program intended to teach children the skill of reading by means of the Optacon. If this belief were limited only to the wild exaggerations of the manufacturer, it could be more easily dismissed. Unfortunately, while going through my teacher training, I had friends who seriously proposed eliminating Braille as a requirement from the teacher preparation curriculum since it would soon be obsolete.
Lack of use of Braille by the teachers compounds the problem. I was once told by a leading professional that it is not uncommon for an itinerant teacher to have periods of seven to ten years without a single Braille student. I would argue that this would not be the case if all children who should be taught Braille were taught Braille. Nevertheless, if it is the practice, it is easy to see how a teacher's proficiency could easily deteriorate assuming, of course, that the teacher had such proficiency in the first place.
A fundamental question which must be asked is this: Which children should be taught to read Braille, and which children should be taught to read print? In my professional work I developed a set of criteria which I used to answer this question. I believe that if a child can read standard sized print (holding it at a normal reading distance) and if that child can read for a sustained period of time without eye strain, then it is reasonable for that child to read print. In other words, if a child has sufficient vision to function as a normally sighted person, then it can be reasonably expected that the child will be able to function competitively as a print reader. If the child suffers eye strain and cannot read for sustained periods of time, then it is reasonable for that child to learn Braille. All children must have a reading method which allows them to be fully literate. I believe the criteria I have listed are really nothing more than a functional definition of literacy. While no one would argue against literacy, the fact of teachers not receiving adequate training in Braille (coupled with new technology, such as CCTV's) has steered educational practice away from Braille and away from literacy. Four or five years ago a leading professional organization in the United States circulated a proposed position paper asking for comments from the field. This position paper was intended to establish working criteria to settle once and for all the question of which children should read print and which children should read Braille. I was astonished when I read that one of the criteria seriously being proposed was that a child who was able to read print at ten words per minute should continue to be a print reader and not be taught Braille. To the best of my knowledge this position paper was never formally adopted. However, I was dumfounded that a leading professional would even propose such a criterion.
I believe that there exists a prejudice against Braille and that, as with most prejudice, it is not deliberately intended or, for that matter, even recognized by those who feel it most deeply. I believe the source of the prejudice is nothing deeper or more mysterious than the public misunderstanding and misconceptions about blindness. Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, Executive Director of the National Federation of the Blind, tells 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. It is human nature that prejudice (while irrational) is defended by seemingly rational explanations. This is certainly true with the prejudice against Braille. We are told that Braille is too bulky and too expensive to produce that it is limited in quantity and that, therefore, to teach a child Braille is to limit what the child will be able to read. We are told that it is better to teach a child print, thereby making available great quantities (virtually endless quantities) of reading material to the child. Never mind that the child may be only able to read at ten words per minute. Never mind that the child may suffer eye strain and only be able to read for a brief time. While Braille is too expensive, never mind the cost of Optacons, talking computers, or CCTV's. While Braille is too bulky, never mind the size and awkwardness of many low vision aids.
Several years ago I attended a professional conference and saw a presentation on the mainstreaming of blind children into a regular public school. One of the slides showed a child with a CCTV mounted on a cart, which he wheeled with him from class to class. Yet, Braille is too bulky, too expensive, and too limited. As an educator, I have seen low vision children with smudges on their noses from trying to read their own handwriting their own handwriting which was done with a soft lead pencil or felt tip pen. Yet, somehow many of the professionals who shape the thinking of society cling to the belief that to read print is inherently better than to read Braille inherently normal. Young blind children must be instructed in the skill of Braille writing, not only by means of the Braille writer but with the slate and stylus as well. Earlier in this century Braille writers were in scarce supply, and generations of blind children grew up learning to write with the slate and stylus from the time they entered the first grade. Now we are told that young blind children lack the fine motor control to use the slate and stylus and, therefore, that this skill should not be taught until middle school. When a child is in middle school, he or she must already have a reliable means of taking notes. It is too late to be introducing a notetaking system. Even though the slate has represented an efficient notetaking system for generations of blind people, modern day pedagogy suggests that the slate is too slow and causes too much confusion to be a useful tool because it teaches children to write backward. Many teacher preparation programs introduce the slate as little more than a relic of bygone days. Instead of being taught an efficient writing method, far too many children are given soft lead pencils or felt tip pens and are taught to handwrite notes which they can only decipher with great difficulty if at all. How will these children compete in today's society? How will they obtain a college education when they are not able easily to read their own handwriting? How will they make a class presentation or deliver a speech without being able easily to read from a printed text? The answer (Braille) seems obvious, and it is certainly available but the simple truth seems to elude many of today's professionals in the field.
What we need and must have is an understanding in ourselves and in society that, as blind people, we must be able to compete on terms of equality with the sighted. To compete we must be literate, and to be literate we must be able to read and write Braille. We must promote a belief and an attitude that it is respectable to be blind and that there is no inherent inferiority or second-class status in the methods associated with blindness. As a child, when I resisted learning Braille, I was resisting conceiving of myself as a blind person. I automatically assumed that to be blind was to be inferior and, therefore, that to use the tools of blindness was an acceptance of inferiority. By rejecting blindness (and with it Braille) I was rejecting the very skill which would have allowed me to compete on an equal footing with my peers.
We cannot allow our attitudes and the attitudes of society to rob us of our right to first-class status. We must press for greater emphasis on Braille among our school children. We must press for greater availability of Braille. Perhaps the greatest gift of our high tech age is computer production of Braille, reducing both cost and transcription time. But above all, we must press for an understanding that the tools we use as blind people are not the badge of second-class status, but rather the banner of equality.