Braille Monitor                                                    November 2009

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Teaching an Essential Skill: Braille

From the Editor: One of the myths about Braille all too often repeated by rehabilitation counselors is that adults find it difficult to learn Braille and that the older the adult, the more pointless such study is. Unfortunately such statements frequently become self-fulfilling prophecies. It is rare that a newly blind adult finds encouragement even when common sense suggests that he or she would certainly benefit from learning to read and write again.

On Wednesday morning, July 8, Jerry Whittle, the dean of the NFB training centers’ Braille instructors, moderated a panel of men and women who had learned Braille as adults. Their stories should be an inspiration to people of any age who would like to learn Braille. This is what they said:


Jerry WhittleJerry Whittle: I want to thank Dr. Maurer for the privilege of facilitating this great panel of Braille readers who learned Braille as adults. Part of our purpose this morning is to put to rest some of the misconceptions about learning Braille as an adult. First of all, it has been my experience over the past twenty-three years of teaching adults Braille that they acquire speed at about the same rate that an adult sighted person acquires literacy skills in print. This observation is not based on any kind of research, because none exists. It is based on many conversations with teachers who work with sighted adults. Gaining reading skills in both print or Braille requires basically the same attributes—willingness to work hard, consistent effort, intelligence, and good eyes or good hands. The acquisition of reading skills in Braille is not any slower than the acquisition of reading skills in print. Second, through diligence and hard work adult Braille readers can gain reading rates good enough to enjoy reading, and these adults can gain enough competence in Braille to use it effectively on a job or in college. Many of my students have gained reading rates of sixty to one hundred words per minute in a six-to-nine month period of training, and it required a minimum of about ten hours of reading per week and the use of two hands. Finally, it is not fair to compare speeds attained by adult Braille learners to Braille readers who started as children, although some adults achieve reading rates greater than some Braille readers who learned as children. I have personally timed over seventy Braille readers at over three hundred words per minute, and all of them learned Braille as children and read with both hands. In my twenty-three years of teaching, I have found that the best speed of the readers who learned Braille as adults was one hundred words per minute. But both achievements are worthy of our praise. We should celebrate the achievements of blind adults who exceed sixty words per minute in the same way that we take pride in blind adults who read as fast as their sighted counterparts. The reason is that sighted readers who learned print as adults rarely if ever exceed one hundred words per minute.

Our panel this morning is comprised of five outstanding individuals who worked hard and reached enough proficiency in Braille to use it effectively for a variety of needs, and we should be proud of their achievements in their acquisition of literacy skills. All of them graduated from the Louisiana Center for the Blind. First I would like to introduce Ms. April Davis.

April DavisApril Davis: Hello. This is my sixth national convention, and I remember the first one I ever attended in 2002, sitting back with my delegation and looking up here and wondering what it was like to be on the platform. I am very excited to be here. One thing many of you may not have known about me is that I used to be very heavily involved in what you might call PR. No, I’m not talking about public relations; I’m talking about print reading. I’ve been blind all my life with just a little bit of residual vision. In order for me to read print, I have to hold the paper a few inches from my face and hope that the print is big and dark enough for me to see, and then hope that my big head doesn’t block out all the light.

In high school and college I really struggled because the print got smaller, the reading demand became heavier, and my vision didn’t get any better. When I was in college, I was a very social creature, and I was constantly being invited out to study groups and things like that. I dreaded reading in public because it looked like I was falling asleep on my textbooks. I was really embarrassed to be seen reading or writing in the classroom or any place like that. Needless to say, I should have learned Braille as a child, but, since that didn’t happen, I was determined to make up for lost time. So three days after college graduation, I was enrolled at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. [applause]

It took me just a little over a month to master the Braille code, but, once I did, there was no stopping me. I read everything I could get my hands on. One of the things I was especially interested in was going back and reading all the classics and novels that I had avoided reading in high school because the print was too small.

At the end of my eight months of training, I read seventy-eight words a minute, and, although this wasn’t as fast as I would have been reading if I had learned in childhood, it is still fast enough for me to appreciate what I’m reading and comprehend everything. It’s so much better than the old method of dive-bombing my paper. It feels much more respectable to sit with a Braille book in my lap and just quietly read. I can read a lot of places where my sighted peers can’t, like in the dark or under the covers during those cold Chicago winters. When I go home to Chicago and I’m riding on the L, nobody can read over my shoulder when I have my Braille book, so there’s another advantage.

When I was in graduate school at Louisiana Tech during that hot Louisiana summer when I didn’t feel like carrying my laptop around on campus, I used my slate and stylus to take notes at lectures. This was much preferable to the old method of carrying a tattered notebook around and trying to decode the chicken scratches that I could never read back to myself by the time the final exam rolled around.

Learning Braille has proved extremely valuable to me, and I just want to encourage all of you who are adults who have not learned Braille that it is definitely an extremely valuable tool and something I encourage you to learn. Learning Braille gave me such a freedom and empowered me so much that I went on to get my master’s in teaching blind students. I wanted to help at least some of this next generation of blind students get the skills they need early so they wouldn’t have to go back as adults and go through what I went through.

Next, the senior member of this panel, Mr. James Mays.


James MaysJames Mays: Good morning. It is a great honor to be standing here to address such a fine organization that I’m a junior member of, even though I’m advancing to the age of seventy-one. We’ve talked about the children and youth and the problems we have with Braille education. The reason I wanted Braille is that I did go blind at fifty-eight. I went through LCB at fifty-nine. If you’ve ever been to school under Joanne Wilson’s tutelage, you know what I went through. She told me I could go home on Fridays (I live in Ruston) if I was good. So I had to check in every Friday, and sometimes she let me go home. She said she didn’t want my wife spoiling me during the week.

When Jerry Whittle handed me my Braille book, he said it was like handing me a grizzly bear, and that was true, ‘cause I wanted it so bad. I had been, I guess, an executive type manager. My footprints were in the New Orleans airport, Atlanta airport, Little Rock airport, Dallas/Fort Worth airport, Houston, and Shreveport. In most of those areas I did high-dollar construction jobs--lots of responsibility, and lots of ego went with it. When I lost my eyesight, I fell like a tall tree.

I didn’t mind losing my eyesight as much as I minded not being literate anymore, and I just couldn’t visualize not being literate. That’s why it became so important for me to try to read Braille. Everybody was very nice --I’m sure you would have been too. They gave me every excuse. (I don’t mean Jerry Whittle or Joanne Wilson.) They gave me every excuse in the world why I should not be able to read Braille as a senior. But I’m a myth buster. I have busted the myth. I haven’t busted it like superman, but I read and I studied, and, when I got out of the center, I was reading about ten or fifteen words a minute—slowly. Jerry didn’t give up on me. He might have give out, but he didn’t give up! I sat by his elbow like a three-year-old kid. When we came into class, I slid right in beside him, and he could hear me breathing. He would start, “Okay, James, here we go.” He would start with a letter, and we’d rub, and we’d scrub.

So anyhow we did get to the point where I got my first book. He was giving everybody else a nice little book of about twenty or forty pages. He gave me one that had about six. It was a child’s book. It had the little sheets of Braille that you could see through, you know. If you couldn’t read it, you could go by the picture if you could see a little bit. I did all right. I got a couple of pages read. To make a long story short, I didn’t learn to read Braille in nine months; I learned what the Braille characters were. I learned Braille I, and I think Jerry would have let me stop at that and been happy. But I found out that contractions made it much easier. The contractions were just a continuation of memorization. I had already learned to identify the Braille letters by learning Braille I, so why not go on and memorize Braille II and continue my identification? That’s why I went on to Braille II. I did conquer it slowly but steadily. [applause]

The simple little phrase that I used was, “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party.” You’ve heard that. I typed it and I could feel the teacher in high school slapping me on the back of the head when I would mistype it. But it uses every key on the keyboard. It uses nearly every contraction. In cells Braille I is fifty-two characters. In Braille II it’s twenty-seven. I said, “I can sure identify twenty-seven quicker than I can identify fifty-two.” So that got me interested in II. To make a long story short, I started to read the book I left at school. I wanted to read Lonesome Dove, my favorite TV show. I got my book. Jerry gave me a Little House book. I was proud of it. I stuck it under my arm, and here I am a fifty-nine-year-old-child going down the street. Everybody said, “There goes James with that big book.” Everybody in town knew me, but everybody in town said, “James may be blind, but he’s not an old, dumb fart anymore.”

Therefore I started to read Lonesome Dove. It took me three hours to read the first page, so I put it back on the shelf. I reached for Little House on the Prairie—I fell in love with it! The hardest word I found to read was “button.” Ever try to read “button”? You sew it on a shirt. Finally I spelled it out, and it was “button.” Those are some of the things I went through. Then about three months later I picked up Lonesome Dove. Eight months later I had read nine volumes of Lonesome Dove and loved it. [applause] To finish up and get it over with, since then in the last eight years I’ve read approximately eight thousand pages, and I love it. Thank God for Jerry Whittle.

The third panelist is Ms. Deja Powell.

Deja PowellDeja Powell: A few years ago a friend of mine asked me a fairly simple question, “What is your favorite book?” I sat there in silence. I felt embarrassed, disappointed, confused, and alone. You see, at the age of twenty-three I had never read a book. Large print was the only thing I knew, and all I could think of was heavy books and headaches. Because of this I grew up with a hatred for reading. When I was in the seventh grade, my parents decided that maybe I should try to learn Braille, so I got Braille lessons. My instructor came three times, and I learned the first ten letters of the alphabet. After that I was done.

Ten years later I made a decision to attend the Louisiana Center for the Blind. [applause] The moment I sat down in Mr. Whittle’s classroom, I was in love with Braille. What is amazing to me is that I had remembered those first ten letters from seventh grade. All I could think of was, if I had only learned this earlier, how easy it would come to me right now.

I spent hours reading Braille, between two and six hours a day. I very much had a passion for wanting to learn, for wanting to like to read. I’ve been to many places in my life and accomplished some pretty important things, but I think one of the greatest moments I can remember is the day that I finished my first Braille book. It was The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, a book that many people read in their elementary and junior high school years, so I missed that. That’s where I wanted to start. I wanted to catch up on all of those books my friends had talked about.

My speed is not like Jerry Whittle’s or Pam Allen’s or Dr. Maurer’s, but Deja Powell can finally read. Today I use Braille in my daily life to write student reports as a cane travel instructor, to make shopping lists, to label things with my obsessive organization needs, and to write down phone numbers, but, most important, the number one time when I felt most powerful with my Braille skills was two months into my training at the Louisiana Center when my dad died from cancer. I was asked by my dad himself if I would speak at his funeral. Many people don’t know this or have never heard this story, but he made me promise him two things before he died. The first was that I would use the cane--I wasn’t using a cane at the time. And the second was that, when I spoke at his funeral, I would read it in Braille. I was slow when I did it, but I never felt like my dad was more proud of me than at that moment, standing on the podium reading my Braille with my cane by my side.

I’m done being a part of a pathetic Braille illiteracy statistic. I’m thrilled to say that I am a Braille reader. I love to read now, and you can check me off the list of the blind who are illiterate in this country.

Fourth is Mr. Anil Lewis.

Anil LewisAnil Lewis: Good morning, Federation. They got me up here to tell on myself. I went blind in 1989, and I thought I had learned Braille in the four months that I took rehabilitation at the center in Atlanta. I got to the rapid speed of thirty-five words per minute and was soon made the Braille instructor. I used to think that I was so awesome that I was bad. But I was literally bad. Lucky for me I did know enough Braille to get me through the rudimentary things that I needed to get done. For example, for those of you who think it’s not important to learn Braille, Deja already talked about some of the basics, phone numbers, etc. But I was able to read at least fast enough to read to my newborn son when he was one.

I wanted to share. I have one of the books from the National Braille Press. I joined the book club when he was born, and I used to read to him. This is the first book he read independently himself. It’s one of the Braille/print books. It’s called Froggy Gets Dressed, by Jonathon London. You guys read this? Oh man, it’s a suspenseful thriller. It’s all about Froggy getting dressed. I want to read a little bit of it to you, “So Froggy put on his socks--zoop. Pulled on his boots--zup. Put on his hat--zat” I’m not going to spoil the ending for you. All I’m saying is, because I was able to read it to my son at an early age--and this is Amiri’s second convention. He is eleven years old. He’s working up in kids’ camp with elementary and preschool children.

I do want to say this--and I know this is not the be all and end all--but Amiri is eleven years old, and he is going into the eighth grade. Please, applause for my son. So I’m thinkin’, as my cousin would say, that I’m AT&T--that’s “all this and that”--for those who don’t know. But I have a friend in Baltimore who told me after last year’s banquet, “Anil, you heard that guy up at the podium struggling through that Braille, trying to read that stuff for those scholarship winners?” God bless him. He said, “I’m going to make you a more confident blind person whether it kills me or you.” That friend sent me down to the Louisiana Center for the Blind. He encouraged me to go, and I went.

Just like Deja, I went to study at the feet of the master, Jerry Whittle. When I walked into that Braille room, I fell in love with Merilyn Whittle. [laughter] But what Jerry did for me was to put me in a place where the Federation sets high expectations. Here I am reveling in my thirty-five words per minute, and Jerry sits down and says, “We want you to read one twenty-five before you leave here.” He made me believe I could do it. You lied to me, Jerry. [laughter] But because he made me believe I can do it, I did get above seventy.

Hopefully, tonight, if I practice some more, (I’m still a little rusty) it’s going to go a little bit more like this: “Our final scholarship this evening is the Dr. Kenneth Jernigan Scholarship in the amount of $12,000. This scholarship is being presented in memory of the man who changed perceptions regarding the capabilities of blind people in this country and the world. This scholarship is given yearly by the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults, a nonprofit organization that works to assist blind people. Dr. Kenneth Jernigan is viewed by our field as the most important figure in the twentieth century in the lives of blind people. The Action Fund, wishing to keep fresh and current in the twenty-first century the understanding he brought to the field, has endowed this scholarship, dedicated in his memory and to the continuation of the work he began. This year’s Kenneth Jernigan Scholarship is awarded to [Anil rings a bell]. I want to say one thing, though. This is the bell I got on June 5 of 2009 as a graduate of the Louisiana Center for the Blind, and I ring it today because, not only did Jerry Whittle believe in my ability to learn Braille, he encouraged me to take the National Certification in Literary Braille test, and I passed. [bell rings again]

Our final panelist is Ms. Terry Rupp.

Terri RuppTerri Rupp: A new mother held her newborn baby and rocked him back and forth and rocked back and forth and back and forth. As she held him, she sang, “I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always. As long as I’m living, my baby you’ll be.” This is the first thing I thought when I found out I was pregnant. This book was written by Robert Munch. The first time I heard this book was in a story-time reading that I organized as a college student, working in a community service organization called Circle K.

Since I was the one organizing the event, I had been asked to read the book to the children at Barnes and Noble. Unfortunately, I couldn’t read it, so I asked one of my colleagues to read it. This was when I realized I couldn’t read. Growing up, I was always told that I should read large print. I could see well enough to not use a cane and not read Braille, but, as one of my teachers pointed out when I was a college freshman, “Good enough is not good, and good enough is not enough.”

After struggling through my first few years of college, I decided to go to the Louisiana Center for the Blind and learn Braille. I wondered about whether I should finish college first or take time off and go after I was done. Al Spooner asked me at my first California convention, “Wouldn’t you rather have the skills and complete college using Braille?” In January 9, 2006, I started my first class at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. After a month I started reading my first novel. I was able to read the script for the play. I read a poem at my aunt’s wedding, and by the end of September I was reading at about one hundred words a minute. Now I’m a graduate of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. I plan to continue my education with a master’s in social work, working as a marriage and family counselor.
I use Braille every day. I’ve labeled my stove, my microwave, my dishwasher. I use my slate and stylus to take notes. I carry my index card slate and stylus with me in my purse everywhere I go. I’ve even put Braille on my mother-in-law’s computer because she doesn’t know where the “n” and “b” keys are. Thanks to the National Federation of the Blind, thanks to Jerry Whittle, and thanks to the Louisiana Center for the Blind, I can read to my unborn baby, “I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always. As long as I’m living, my baby you’ll be.”

Jerry Whittle: I learned Braille at the age of thirty. I was taught once a week by Ms. Patricia Tuck in South Carolina, and I traveled about twenty miles for the class. Ms. Tuck started me in the old Illinois series, but the funding ended for the program, and I took the books and finished the code at my kitchen table; then I started college and kept Braille on the back burner, relying mostly on readers and taped books. Then I started my master’s program in Tennessee, and I wasn’t proficient enough in Braille to use it, but I sure developed a hunger for Braille literacy and recognized how very vital it was. As Emily Dickinson once wrote, “To comprehend a nectar requires sorest need.” After earning my master’s degree without Braille, I set about spending every spare moment to gain enough speed to read again. I walked to work an hour early every morning, and I began to read consistently. On weekends I read for hours and built my reading rate to eighty words per minute. I will never forget the first time I read eighty words per minute; it was as sweet as reaching the top of Mt. Everest. It never occurred to me that I would teach it until Joanne Wilson offered my wife Merilynn and me an opportunity to work at the newly founded Louisiana Center for the Blind.

Many of my students can read faster than I can, and many of them gain enough speed to exceed my reading rate in six to nine months of intensive training, but I have no apologies to make. Like Dr. Jernigan in “the Nature of Independence,” I take pride in the fact that my students exceed whatever I have done, for I did not have the opportunity for the type of training that they get at NFB centers. We should be proud of any adult who comes to a training center and learns to read again or doubles or triples his or her reading rate. None of these people on this panel should be ashamed of their reading rates; they are some of our finest examples of hard work and dedication. When we all read Huck Finn, we might not have floated down the Mississippi River with Huck and Tom as fast as Dr. Maurer and Pamela Allen, but we floated just fast enough to smell the trees and feel the power of the river beneath us and see the canopy of stars twinkling above our heads. We should be proud that April is teaching others to read Braille; we should be thrilled that James Mays is enjoying enriching his mind with American history; we should be ecstatic when Deja serves as a wonderful role model in every sense of the word to her students; we should cheer Anil for his diligence and desire to be as good as he can, given the time allotted to him as he leads in Georgia and introduces us to our scholarship winners; and we should be joyous when Terry takes out her book of children’s stories and reads to her first child.

I have one final and abrupt statement to make this morning, and I hope I am speaking for everyone when I say to the professionals in the field of blindness: Teach our children Braille, and do it well. We are growing tired of waiting for you to get the message. Teach them Braille, and do it well, or we will do it for you. Our blind children deserve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We are asking you to help us, but, if you don’t help, we will do it ourselves. Every part of us demands it. Teach them Braille, and do it well.

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