by Fred Schroeder

Future Reflections

Winter, 1996

The following is an excerpt from an address delivered at the annual conference of the California Transcribers and Educators of the Visually Handicapped, March 14, 1992, by Fred Schroeder, then Director of the New Mexico Commission for the Blind and President of the International Council on English Braille and now Commissioner of the U.S. Rehabilitation Services Administration. Dr. Schroeder is one of the most knowledgeable and influential figures in the field of work with the blind. Here in part is what he said to teachers and Braille transcribers in the spring of 1992; it is still relevant:

Much is happening nationally and internationally concerning Braille. Certainly we live in a time when it is getting more emphasis, which has resulted in greater availability and increased attention to instruction. We must recognize what is cause and what effect. When discussing Braille, it is easy to focus on the changes that have taken place. But all of this increased attention is the natural outgrowth of a growing conviction that literacy represents perhaps the most necessary tool if blind people are to live full and productive lives. In other words, the desire of and for blind people to function on terms of equality has driven the move toward recognizing Braille literacy as a vital step toward their meaningful integration.

The activity surrounding Braille is in many respects dramatic and encouraging. Here in the United States the Braille literacy movement can be seen in many ways. Today ten states [the number has now risen to twenty-five] have adopted Braille billsþa public policy statement about the legitimate role of Braille as a literacy tool for the blind. Five years ago, when the first Braille bill was introduced, the idea was controversial and sparked suspicion; resentment; and, in some cases, open hostility. At that time Braille bills were regarded as a condemnation of the education system for blind children and hence were viewed as an attack on professionals in the field of work with the blind.

Today, only five years after passage of the first Braille bill, the mood has changed. In many states parents, educators, and adult blind people are coming together, not to debate whether a Braille bill should be introduced, but to collaborate on the best way to craft the bill. In addition to the requirement that Braille be considered by the IEP team, two other elements have surfaced in more recent Braille bills. One is a requirement for competency testing for teachers of blind children, and the other, which was included in the Texas bill adopted in the summer of '91, requires textbook publishers to make materials available in a machine-readable format for easy translation into Braille.

The stimulus for the introduction of Braille bills was a shared conviction that our nation has produced a generation of virtually illiterate blind children due to the lack of Braille instruction. Many things contributed to this problem, not the least of which was the mainstreaming movement itself. With a nationwide shortage of trained teachers and with children more widely distributed throughout local schools, teachers were faced with the very real problem of choosing print or Braille instruction for a child they were scheduled to see only an hour or two a week. The temptation to favor the print medium, with which they were more familiar, was compounded by a mindset that presumed print reading was superior to Braille. In the 1970's educators came to regard Braille implicitly or explicitly as an antiquated tool for reading. Many felt that new technology would make Braille obsolete, so there was little motivation for teachers to learn the code and even less to teach it.

But a generation of illiterate children has stimulated a counterforce bent on changing this direction before another generation is lost. It is not surprising that we are now hearing a call for better preparation of teachers as well as competency testing to insure that those charged with the education of blind children are themselves competent to provide instruction in Braille reading and writing. Ironically, although fifteen years ago the experts believed that technology would make Braille obsolete, in fact the opposite has proven to be true. With an increased emphasis on Braille, technology has been applied to the problem, the effect being greater availability of Braille than ever before.

It is not surprising that increasing attention has been focused on Braille literacy since literacy generally has become a central topic in America today. The need for blind youngsters to be literate is in many ways self-evident. Literacy for these children, as for sighted ones, is vital to their competing successfully in an increasingly demanding world market. A command of the English language and the ability to read and write are essential to everyone for effective communication. Yet as I prepared for this afternoon's presentation, I had a sense that for me as a blind person the importance of literacy took on a dimension which transcended the readily recognizable importance of being literate. I could not help feeling that the role of Braille in my personal life and its absolute importance to me were somehow connected to the cause-and-effect relationships outlined earlier, which have resulted in the current emphasis on Braille.

I have a personal and deep-seated loyalty to Braille, not simply because it affords me the ability to read and write. For me Braille is part of my liberation from a debilitating mindset and a body of beliefs premised on the assumption of limitation and hopelessness. Braille allows me to organize my work, to jot down an address, or to read a recipe; but it also represents the tangible expression of the truth of the principle that, given training and opportunity, blind people can function competitively in society.

When I was seven years old, I became legally blind. Over the next nine years my vision gradually decreased. During this time I was not taught Braille; however, this was also during the period which has come to be known as the sightsaving era. This concept was based on the belief that to use remaining vision would cause it to decrease. For this reason I was not allowed to read print while simultaneously being discouraged from reading Braille. The real tragedy was that as a child I already had deeply ingrained negative attitudes about blindness. I equated it with inferiority and therefore wanted nothing to do with Braille or any other skills which blind people use. As my vision decreased, I fell into a pattern of believing that what I could not see, I could not do. Blindness for me represented helplessness, and my fear of blindness had prevented me from learning the skills which would have allowed me to function. My lack of literacy meant that I had no means by which to read and write, but additionally it contributed to my fundamental feelings of inadequacy and isolation.

After becoming totally blind, I can remember a hospital social worker bringing me a Braille watch. I vividly remember struggling to distinguish the dots on the face of the watch and finding it virtually impossible to distinguish between the hour hand and the minute hand, but in a short time I had managed to learn how to read my watch quickly and accurately and by so doing experienced a sense of exhilaration. While I was not yet truly reading, that experience sparked my recognition that as a blind person I was not entirely helplessþdependent on those around me for even the most basic information. Rather than representing my most negative fears about blindness, Braille started to be a means of liberation. For the first time I began to view my limitations as stemming from my lack of training rather than from my lack of eyesight. For the first time a technique associated with blindness became a source of pride, and I began to understand that perhaps I could function competitively as a blind person using alternative techniques.

While I was in college, I had an experience which represented a milestone in my life. In the Fall of 1974 here in Los Angeles, I attended a convention of the National Federation of the Blind. There I was first exposed to blind people who were living active, normal lives. I met blind people who were holding professional jobs, buying their own homes, and raising families, all of which I had believed were unattainable for me as a blind person. Rather than fitting my preconception of what life as a blind person must be, these men and women were living rich and fulfilling lives, competing effectively in society. These were people I could admire and whom I wished to be like. A man who stands out in my mind was Lawrence (Muzzy) Marcelino. When I met him, he asked my name, and I can remember his reaching into his pocket and pulling out a slate and stylus to take down my address and phone number. This seemingly small act was nevertheless significant in my life. Muzzy's use of the slate and stylus represented literacy, but it also represented a shaking off of societal stereotypes about blindness. Muzzy believed he could function competitively and so quite naturally put his beliefs into practice. I, on the other hand, was just awakening to the realization that my fears and misconceptions about blindness were driving my actions and hence were primarily responsible for my inability to compete. Braille for me came to represent literacy in my life with all the advantages normally associated with literacy. The element that I regard as most crucial is that Braille also came to symbolize tangible proof of my ability to live a normal life.

The decline in Braille use in our country over the past two decades is nothing less than a tragedy. Children growing up during this period have suffered lost opportunities by having inadequate ability to read and write, compounded by lowered self-esteem and diminished expectations. You in this room have contributed in an important way to reversing this trend, helping blind children reach their true potential through the teaching and producing of Braille. Your efforts have helped many attain literacy and, through it, increased opportunity.

In this room this afternoon is a young woman who grew up in California and received special education services through the public schools. Although she was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, the conventional wisdom of the time indicated that she had too much vision to be taught Braille. By the time she graduated from high school, she was no longer able to read print; yet she had no alternate means of reading and writing. Through ingenuity and hard work she managed to get through college with good grades, while paying a severe price in damaged self-confidence. Fortunately for her, she recognized her need for training. After completing college, she entered the Louisiana Center for the Blind for six months of intensive training in Braille, cane travel, and the other skills of blindness. I remember listening to a presentation she made shortly after completing her training. After having read Braille for only six months, she read Braille faster than she had ever been able to read print. So Braille represented both literacy and freedom to her.

The movement toward increased emphasis on Braille is gathering momentum; and, as with all social change, events are driving other events. To understand the cause-and-effect relationship which has resulted in today's Braille movement, we must first understand that Braille symbolizes both literacy and a change in our own attitudes about blindness. At first glance it seems obvious that two decades of diminished literacy has provided the driving force for today's Braille renaissance. Yet exploring further discloses that the fundamental shift in our attitudes about blindness has made diminished literacy for blind people intolerable. If we expect very little from blind people, then illiteracy, rather than a problem requiring solution, is accepted as a natural situation, consistent with our low expectations.

The Braille movement today is not simply a response to the condition of illiteracy. It is also the outgrowth of the very positive influence of changing social attitudes. With increased expectations for ourselves as blind people, we expand our potential. As we believe we can do more, we naturally look for the tools necessary to translate our beliefs into action. As teachers and producers of Braille, you have seen the effects of your labor in the lives of those with whom you have worked. As your efforts result in increased opportunities, your positive perception of blindness and expectations for blind people are reinforced and expanded.

This change in our conception of blindness gives meaning to the Braille movement. It gives purpose to the new initiatives aimed at greater literacy. The new spirit of cooperation resulting in the adoption of Braille bills, the development of NLS competency testing, and the initiation of ventures with textbook publishers to make Braille more available to school children is directly attributable to this fundamental change in our conceptions. In North America it has led us to undertake a project to study the idea of a unified literary and math code.

We can see the same spirit of cooperation internationally, and I believe it can be explained by the same cause-and-effect relationship between increased expectations and greater emphasis on Braille literacy. The momentum which has developed may well result in a single internationally recognized literary and math code. This same momentum has already brought us to the threshold of an internationally agreed-upon music code.

Throughout this process mistakes will inevitably be made. Bad decisions will be reached which will need to be reviewed and repaired. Some changes will make Braille more awkward and less readable and will perhaps result in real harm to people. Yet the momentum underway brings the promise of true progress. Many years ago I remember being warned, "If you are not making mistakes, then you are not doing anything." There will be problems as progress is made, yet progress is clearly in evidence.

Braille has allowed me to unlock many doors. It has helped me attain literacy and enabled me to shake off doubt and uncertainty in myself. For this reason I thank you for your role in helping scores of blind children to acquire the tools to reach their full potential. Collectively we are part of the cause and effect relationship stimulating change. Self-confidence and a changing perception of blindness must be nourished by the success which comes from having the ability to put that confidence into action. Your efforts and your dedication have touched countless lives, sustaining the momentum in the cycle of cause and effect, leading us closer to the promise of true integration for the blind.