The topic of print vs. Braille evokes strong emotions in blind people, parents of blind children and educators alike. For some people, Braille is a symbol of loss. Reading Braille means they are blind–and being blind means they are dependent and incapable. For other people, Braille symbolizes independence: the ability to gain and organize information without relying on another person’s judgment about what is important or relevant. It means being able to read a book in bed because there is no need to rely on a print magnification device which cannot be taken to bed. Educators sometimes view Braille as something which is difficult to learn and is best avoided. Other educators view it as “the key to literacy”.
These clashing opinions create problems for a number of parents who want the highest quality of education for their children and for professionals who are concerned about making the right decisions for their students. Both the American Council of the Blind and the National Federation of the Blind have advocated the teaching of Braille to students with low vision on the grounds that reading large print is often slow and difficult and results in lower literacy rates, problems with eye strain, and limited employment options. In many states this advocacy has resulted in the passing of “Braille bills” which mandate that Braille be taught to students who are “functionally blind” by a certified professional. These bills also require that electronic versions of textbooks be made available which can be converted into Braille. Many of the bills also require that teachers of blind and visually impaired students demonstrate competency in Braille.
In many ways the Braille bills are a step toward better education for blind children. In other ways, they provide more room for confusion. The term “functionally blind” is, in many people’s opinions, vague. Although guidelines for determining the most appropriate mode of reading and writing have been published, some parents feel that they may be easily misinterpreted by professionals who are uncomfortable with Braille and advocate the use of vision even when this results in physical discomfort or lower academic achievement.
Among the factors to be considered when determining the appropriate reading medium are reading speed, reading distance, print size, length of time before the child tires, stability of the eye condition, and academic achievement. Use of assistive devices is not considered. Many students spend inordinate amounts of time using closed-circuit televisions to read, often taking two to three times longer to complete assignments than their peers. These students usually do not enjoy reading and do not engage in it as a leisure activity. Many resist learning Braille as children because of perceived stigma, but often these same people find as adults that Braille opens up a world of information and opportunity they never knew existed.
What does the term “appropriate reading medium” truly mean? Judging from the expressions of many visually impaired adults who lament being forced to read print and the resulting headaches, impeded academic achievement, and loss of independence brought about by reliance on extremely large print and/or magnification devices which were not portable, the term means the reading medium which is most efficient in meeting the informational needs of the visually impaired person. Reliance on technology to magnify print to ten times its normal size is not efficient; nor is spending three hours to complete an assignment which takes everyone else one hour.
How should the appropriate learning and literacy medium be assessed? The key factors are ease of reading and indicators of literacy. Ruby Ryles noted in her 1995 presentation at the “Getting in Touch with Literacy” conference that indicators of literacy include amount of time spent reading and the amount of leisure reading done by the student. Additional factors to consider are whether extra time is granted for completing assignments or whether assignments are shortened because of slow reading.
While there are indeed a number of students for whom large print is practical, there are also many students who should be receiving Braille instruction but are not despite the mandates in the Braille bills. In her address to the 1995 “Getting in Touch with Literacy,” Sally Mangold reminded parents and teachers that people want access to information. It is vital that the most efficient methods be available to students with low vision. Making those methods available often means providing quality instruction in Braille.
Braille is only as difficult to learn as it is believed to be. It may not solve all problems of print access, but it provides a method of completely legible writing as well as reading which does not result in eye strain or poor posture. Braille does not require special lighting or additional devices to ensure its readability. Furthermore, it is not a symbol of inferiority but a symbol of literacy and independence. Taking the time to provide quality instruction in Braille will ultimately result in much higher levels of achievement for many students with low vision.