The Importance of Braille Literacy

About Sarah Blake LaRose

Sarah Blake LaRose is a freelance writer and a professor of Biblical Hebrew at Anderson University School of Theology in Anderson, Indiana. She is one of three blind academic scholars who received the Jacob Bolotin Award from the National Federation of the Blind in 2016 in recognition of innovative work in the field of access to biblical language texts and tools for people who are blind.

One hundred years ago, individuals who could not write their names were considered illiterate. This illiteracy, which often resulted from a lack of opportunity, relegated many people to life as second-class citizens and sometimes even nonpersons. Literacy was a symbol of intelligence, and intelligence was a symbol of personhood.

Literacy involves the ability to acquire information and communicate with others. Literacy involves the ability to gain access to written information. Information which is communicated needs to be stored so that it can be refered to again later. This means that for the blind person, literacy involves all methods of acquiring, storing, and accessing information and all methods of communicating one’s own ideas, opinions, and needs. Literacy includes the ability to use Braille, print, and computers as well as the ability to use readers and recorded materials to gain access to and acquire the most knowledge from information.

David Doake (1995) defines miseducation as “disempowering them
(the students) and denying them the opportunity to direct and control their own learning”. This definition implies that education empowers students to direct and control their own learning, to awaken their intelligence. (Doake, 1995) If this is what education is, then teachers and families must strive for this goal: to empower blind children to direct and control their learning, thus giving them the opportunity to move upward in society as full participants.

Many tools exist to enable a blind person to obtain, store, retrieve and communicate information. Not all of these tools enable the blind person to learn how to spell or how a printed page appears. These elements of literacy are foundational to the blind person’s ability to communicate well with others, blind or sighted.
In fact, they are so vital that their inclusion in a letter written by Helen Keller as a defense for using braille over New York Point was a convincing factor in the decision of personnel at schools for the blind to begin using American Braille; for texts written in New York Point did not contain capital letters. (Irwin, 1956).

Braille literacy has become an issue of great concern to blind adults, parents of blind children, and teachers of blind students.
Authors state that an increasing number of blind people are growing up illiterate and that Braille is the answer to this problem. (Ianuzzi, 1999; Johnson, 1996; Mullen, 1990; Rex, 1989; Schroeder, 1989; Spungin, 1996; Stephens, 1989) Of particular interest are the difficulties faced by students who have low vision and can read printed letters, even if the letters must be very large and reading is very slow. Negative attitudes about braille often get in the way of the teaching and learning of braille. (Ianuzzi, 1999; Spungin, 1989; Spungin, 1996; Wittenstein, 1993)

Indicators of Literacy

In a speech given on December 8, 1995, Ruby Ryles presented the evidence of her study of the literacy rate of blind people. She cited several things as indicators of literacy. These included time spent reading, number of books read, number of magazines subscribed to, and extent of use of Braille. She stated that people who tired easily because of difficulty in seeing large print enjoyed reading less and read for pleasure less frequently. Their access to and interest in gaining new information was restricted by their inability to read. People who enjoy reading and writing and do it regularly show themselves to be literate as well as motivated. Ms. Ryles’ ideas are fully supported by the personal accounts of many adults with low vision who have elected to teach themselves Braille as adults and feel that they were denied an opportunity to become fully literate while they were young.

Levels of Literacy and Illiteracy

Rex, Koenig, Wormsley, and Baker (1995) discuss five levels of literacy: rudimentary, basic, intermediate, adept, and advanced. In addition, they discuss three developmental levels of literacy. Emergent literacy refers to the development of concepts about print, which usually occurs during the preschool years. Basic literacy refers to literacy experiences which occur during the school years. Functional literacy refers to the literacy experiences involved in daily life, such as filling out a job application, keeping an address book, and labeling items.

Functional illiteracy refers to being unable to use reading and writing to meet one’s everyday needs. Marginal illiteracy refers
to being unable to use print at all. General literacy refers to the use of literacy to improve the quality of life for oneself and others. (Doake, 1995)

A person’s level of literacy has a direct impact on both physical and psychological well-being. It affects his/her ability
to care for his/her family by enabling him/her to read directions on a cleaning product, follow a recipe, and even hold down a job.
(Ryles, 1996) It affects emotional well-being by enabling independence and confidence. These factors are what make literacy so important for blind and visually impaired students, their families, and their teachers.

The Need for Improved Instruction

Despite the increasing attention being given to braille literacy in professional literature, the fact that instruction in reading and writing in braille is not always available to students who need it and does not always include instruction in the use of tools which blind adults find necessary is painfully obvious. (Allman, 1998; Ianuzzi, 1999) However, tools exist to address this problem.
In 1993, the Texas School for the Blind published a guide to help teachers determine which learning and literacy medium is best for a student with a visual impairment. (Koenig and Holbrook, 1993) Some parents feel that the criteria in this guide is vague and may be misinterpreted by teachers who want to avoid teaching braille. Even so, the guide represents a strong attempt to address the problem of braille literacy for students with low vision.

A new resource available online also provides information about teaching students to use the slate and stylus. The slate and stylus is used by many blind adults and is valued because of its versatility. For more information, teaching suggestions, and tips for using the slate and stylus, visit the slate and stylus information center.

References

Allman, C. B. (1998). Braille communication skills: What teachers teach and visually impaired adults use. Journal of visual impairment and blindness; 92(5), 331-337.

Doake, David B. (1995). Literacy learning: A revolution in progress. Bothell, WA: The Wright Group.

Ianuzzi, J. W. (1999). Braille
Literacy in America: A student’s view
. Online: Available from
Other visions e-zine.

Irwin, R. B. (1956). As I Saw It. Online: available from the New York Institute of Special Education.

Johnson, L. (1996). The
Braille Literacy Crisis for Children
. Journal of visual impairment and blindness; 90(3).

Mullen, E. (1990). Decreased braille literacy: A symptom of a system in need of reassessment. Re:View; 22(3), 164-167.

Rex, E. J. (1989). Issues Related to Literacy of Legally Blind Learners. Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness. 83, 306-07,10-13.

Rex, E. J., Koenig, A. J., Wormsley, D. P., and Baker, R. L. (1994). Foundations of braille literacy New York: American Foundation for the Blind.

Ryles, R. (1995). Beyond Braille. speech Presented at Getting in touch with literacy. Austin, TX.

Ryles, R. (1996). The
impact of braille reading skills on employment, income, education and reading habits
. Journal of visual impairment and
blindness
; 90(3).

Schroeder, F. (1989). Literacy: The Key to Opportunity. Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness. 83, 290-93.

Spungin, S. J. (1989) Braille literacy: Issues for blind persons, families, professionals, and producers of braille. New York: American Foundation for the Blind.

Spungin, S. J. (1996). Braille
and beyond: Braille literacy in a larger context
. Journal of visual impairment and blindness; 90(3), 271-274.

Stephens, O. (1989). Braille–Implications for living.
Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 83, 288-89.

Wittenstein, S. H. (1993). Braille training and teacher attitudes: Implications for personnel preparation. Re:View; 25(3), 103-111.

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