Braille Monitor                                                                    October 2006


Proponents Say the Decline in Braille
Instruction Is Leading to Illiteracy

by John Faherty

Arielle Silverman

From the Editor: The following excellent article about the importance of Braille and the literacy crisis still facing blind Americans first appeared in the Arizona Republic on June 1, 2006. The reporter interviewed Arielle Silverman, president of the Arizona Association of Blind Students and a member of the boards of directors of both the NFB of Arizona and the National Association of Blind Students. While exploring the crisis facing blind Americans, the article also illustrates what Braille users can accomplish. Here is the story:

Can't read this? [a collection of Braille dots printed on the page] Neither can nearly 90 percent of blind schoolkids, and proponents say the decline in Braille instruction is leading to illiteracy

Arielle Silverman has always loved to read. From Little Women in fourth grade to Jane Eyre in high school, books were a constant companion. She could slide her fingers across the page and feel the world. Those words, however, have done more than make her well read. They have secured her place in society.

Silverman, blind since birth, has now finished her junior year at Arizona State University with a double major in biology and psychology and a grade-point average of 3.9. The Scottsdale native is ambitious, thoughtful, and well-spoken. And the twenty-one-year-old is convinced she couldn't have achieved this without her fluency in Braille.

A generation ago 50 percent of blind schoolchildren used Braille, according to William M. Raeder, president of the National Braille Press in Boston. Now, he said, it's less than 12 percent. Young blind students today are still instructed in Braille, but in the past few decades more students have been mainstreamed and no longer receive daily instruction. That is significant, because reading and writing Braille is a skill that needs maintenance. The less often a student uses it, the more likely it is those skills will diminish or even disappear.
The reduction in Braille literacy has been mollified by the fact that there are now more ways than ever for the blind to acquire information. Much of the world is moving away from words on a page and toward electronic/digital information. The proliferation of books on tape means blind people no longer have to wait to read the latest bestseller. Talking computers have brought the blind to the world and the world to the blind. These advances have placed a generation of blind young adults and children in an information paradox: they have more knowledge at their disposal, while their ability to read and write declines.

But proponents of Braille always fall back on the same argument: if reading and writing are important to the sighted, they are important to the blind. "If the literacy rate for sighted people was 10 percent, that would be a huge issue," Silverman said. "I think kids aren't being taught Braille, and they aren't being given enough time to practice."

Congenital Disease

Silverman is sightless because of Leber's Congenital Amaurosis, an inherited retinal degenerative disease. But her parents never considered not teaching her to read and write.

"I grew up thinking reading is one of the greatest joys of life," said Sharona Silverman, Arielle's mother. "Having a book in your lap is an incredible gift, and I was going to introduce that gift to both of my children." Arielle's sister is sighted. "Arielle had such a love of the written word early on. So she just flew with [Braille]," her mother said.

Because of her parents' commitment to literacy, Arielle Silverman was sent as a child to the Foundation for Blind Children in Phoenix to learn Braille. She could read by age five. Silverman then was mainstreamed into the Scottsdale schools and graduated from Chaparral High. She is now president of the Arizona Association of Blind Students.

In that role Silverman has pushed for better education for the blind, particularly an increased emphasis on Braille instruction. "Braille does not mean more than a sighted person's ability to read and write," Silverman said. "It's exactly the same. It's just the way we read what we read."

Law Debated

Arizona law starts with the presumption that blind students should learn Braille. But that law is not seen as necessarily valid by the person in charge of implementing it. "Just because there is a presumption does not mean it is not an archaic presumption," said Joanne Phillips, deputy associate superintendent for exceptional student services with the state Department of Education.

Arizona Revised Statutes Section 15-214, regarding the teaching of the blind, states that "proficiency in Braille is essential for that student to achieve satisfactory educational progress." The law is based on the fact that Braille still is the only way blind people can read and write. But it stops short of mandating Braille instruction. "There is no statutory mandate where every child who is blind must learn Braille," Phillips said.

You can argue that it does not matter how you read War and Peace, as long as you know the story and the genius of Leo Tolstoy. "There is no correlation between Braille literacy and educational achievement," Phillips said.

Karen Wolfe of the American Foundation for the Blind strongly disagrees. "You can't be literate just listening," she said. "Literacy helps us think and communicate our thoughts. You will never be truly literate without Braille."

The AFB says the employment rate for the blind in this country is 32 percent. And says that 93 percent of the employed blind read and write Braille. Still the rate of Braille literacy is dropping across the country. The reasons for the national decline are many, but the primary reasons are:

Mainstreaming of blind students.

Increased technology, such as talking computers and electronic books.

More books on tape.

Increased number of blind children born with additional physical or mental handicaps, often the result of premature birth.

The state of Arizona requires that the Department of Education evaluate each blind student to determine whether he or she can learn Braille, but it does not require the retention of those records. So no one knows how many students in Arizona are learning Braille.

Rehabilitation Act

The beginning of the decline of Braille literacy can be traced to a 1973 federal decision called the Rehabilitation Act--Nondiscrimination Under Federal Grants and Programs. It mandated that public schools make accommodations for children with disabilities. For many blind students it meant the ability to come home. Prior to 1973 students who wanted an education had to travel to a school for the blind. In Arizona the school was in Tucson. The education was first rate, but it was segregation for blind students.

The new law allowed children to return to their communities, to sit every day with their peers in schools that were mandated to accommodate them. But one significant flaw was with Braille instruction. Braille teachers suddenly had to travel from school to school or district to district to introduce Braille to blind students one or two at a time. It was far more practical for districts with a few blind students to get by putting textbooks on tape and allowing test-reading aids for blind students.

The prevalence of books on tape meant they no longer had to wait for Braille publications to read the latest bestseller. All blind people, not just Braille readers, could take part in a cultural phenomenon like Harry Potter. Eventually, computers with voice capabilities came on the market. Braille began to be seen as a luxury more than a necessity. Knowledge was available without Braille. Literature was available without Braille. The irony is that as Braille literacy dropped, new printing technology made Braille much more accessible.

High-tech Aids

Silverman lives in an apartment on the ASU campus. Her course load includes such classes as organic chemistry with Professor Seth Rose, in which he says things like "Heterocyclic aromatic amines are weaker bases than heterocyclic aliphatic amines."

When she gets to class, she sits with a BrailleNote laptop that allows her to take notes and review them later. From a distance the BrailleNote looks exactly like the standard laptop computer used by her peers, but instead of the twenty-six letters of the alphabet, six keys represent the six-dot system of Braille. Each letter of the alphabet is represented by a combination of the six dots.

Silverman points to this machine and others like it as an example of Braille working hand-in-hand with technology. "They are not mutually exclusive," Silverman said. "If I didn't know Braille, I couldn't use my computers to the level I need them."

But the teaching of organic chemistry is very visual. Formulas and models are used, and Silverman can see none of them. Rose helps translate some of his teaching material into a digital format that will have meaning to Silverman. If a class focuses on a particular compound, he will build a model that she can "see" with her hands. He expresses colors with different textures. He is glad to do it, he said. "It gives me a great feeling to know that when I hand a model to a student, that she can 'see' exactly what I've been talking about."

Literacy Vital

With her intelligence and work ethic, could Silverman have made it this far without the ability to read and write? "I doubt it," she said. "Would a sighted person be well-educated if they are illiterate?"

Silverman reads, writes, and takes rapid-fire notes in Braille. "I have a feeling the way our brains are designed, learning how to read opens up parts of your brain," she said. She adds that math and science notations are possible only for people fluent in Braille. They could not be replicated by books on tape or by talking computers. Silverman will occasionally listen to a book on tape, but only if she is traveling or if the book is not readily available in Braille. In high school she read Seventeen magazine in Braille, but now she is more likely to read a medical journal.

The American Foundation for the Blind celebrates independence and learning. It is the organization to which Helen Keller dedicated her life. So it is not a surprise how much it advocates the teaching and learning of Braille. The foundation says literacy is vital to a successful education, career, and quality of life in today's world. Whether in the form of curling up with a good book, jotting down a phone number, making a shopping list, or writing a report, being literate means participating effectively at home and in society.
"If our value system expects sighted people to be literate," Silverman said, "we need to expect blind people to be literate."