Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Braille Literacy Encyclopedia Entry Spring 2010

Besides auditory exposure to language, people with normal vision are bombarded with printed words at every turn of their heads. A casual stroll on any block of a city will yield instant exposure to print in various forms, including street signs, advertisements, building names and license plates. People who are blind do not have the same visual experience with language, but they can be equally immersed in words through Braille. Literacy in Braille signifies an individual’s ability to understand and interpret the Braille system and use it as means to read, interpret, create and utilize language. Braille literacy is one significant component of the total measure of the literacy for a person who is blind.

Braille is a system that presents language tactually through a system of raised dots. Louis Braille developed the system as a classroom tool for blind students to acquire literacy, originally in French. “The system Braille developed was based on a six-dot cell, three points high and two points wide. Each dot was assigned a numerical name” (Rex 30). The six-dot cell can only be arranged into 63 possible configurations, but these are sufficient to present both alphabet letters and mathematical marks and numbers. The small number of possible configurations relative to the vast expressive powers of language is a function similar to the complexities wrought by the alphabet system of print. However, that complexity is doubled by the fact that Braille is a system for re-presenting another linguistic system. Braille is not a language unto itself, but a code used to transmit language and mathematical notation to blind people: “it is a portrayal of print, with special rules and multiple uses of each sign (configuration)” (Rex 30). Current research in Braille acknowledges the difficulties with acquiring both a language and a code used to represent it. Rex writes that “more research is necessary to determine which units of the language code, particularly its syntactical or grammatical units, are not compatible with Braille code” (31). The particular difficulty with matching Braille to printed language arises from the lack of a one-to-one correspondence between characters and dots in these systems. Just as language evolves, so too must Braille code alongside it.

Braille instruction departs from mainstream literacy instruction in so far as it requires tactile components to be effective. Students of Braille must become highly dexterous at feeling the words they are reading: “the learner must engage in multiple explorations to gain information comparable to that gained by the sighted learner in a single viewing” (Rex 26). Educational environments that include the Braille code must include material that appeals to all the senses; especially touch and hearing.

To build Braille literacy, instruction follows a developmental arc similar to any literacy education that adopts an integrated approach to teaching language. Just as English instructors in a mainstream classroom pay careful attention to the way writing, reading and oral language usage are incorporated into their curriculum, Rex and other researchers suggest that these considerations play an equally important role in the Braille classroom:

Professionals who work with individuals who are blind have always viewed literacy as an integrated process involving reading, writing, speaking and listening—which have been called “communication skills”—and have realized that all these skills must be developed to their maximum and integrated meaningfully with life skills. (Rex 9)

Students who learn Braille as part of their the language acquisition process should engage in classroom activities that build a path through emergent literacy to basic literacy, to proficiency in Braille and functional literacy.

Emergent literacy for blind students depends on repeated and ongoing exposure to Braille materials to complement standard instructional materials that often include classroom print displays, big picture books and labels. Instructors must be careful to create opportunities for blind children to be exposed to language: “since young children who are blind do not have incidental opportunities to observe the reading and writing activities of those around them, care must be taken to alert them that such activities are taking place” (Rex 26). Becoming aware of language is the first step in a student’s acquisition of Braille literacy.

As students continue to practice literacy skills, they require input and guidance from instructors dedicated to and knowledgeable about Braille instructional methods. Lack of opportunities for ongoing instruction in Braille throughout the school years will prevent learners from the immersion they need to become proficient Braille readers and writers. “Regardless of the service delivery model, students who are blind need access to specialized instruction on a consistent and ongoing basis to develop basic literacy” (Rex 11). Just as mainstream students require books, paper, chalkboards and computers to practice literacy, so too do blind students, with the addition of continuous instruction in and experience with Braille.

As Braille students become proficient in using the code, instructors need to provide continued, meaningful experiences with language for Blind students. Functional literacy is not only a requirement for people whose profession involves teaching or communication: all people need to be proficient users of language to function to their highest potential. Educators must…
provide ample opportunities for persons who are blind to master the functional literacy tasks they need for living fully; to use strategies to gain access to print independently, when necessary; to continue to learn new strategies and skills after they leave an instructional program; and to demonstrate self-advocacy skills for gaining information. (Rex 13)

Fluency in the Braille code is the key to independence for people who are blind.
Many researchers agree that the purpose of Braille education is to provide students with the means to communicate to the best of their abilities in mainstream society, in the same or similar ways as their sighted peers. Rex finds that Braille is the best format for blind people to demonstrate their knowledge and practice literacy: “Children who are blind have as much of a right to attain higher and higher levels of literacy as do children with normal vision…Braille is the primary medium that can help them grow continuously in literacy” (Rex 5). Meanwhile, dramatic declines in Braille literacy rates demonstrate that programs and classroom dedicated to Braille instruction are the exception, rather than the rule in education today.

Braille literacy rates in the United States are currently much lower than in previous decades. According to the American Federation for the Blind, the Braille Institute reports that “nearly 12 percent of the 55,000 legally blind children in the United States can read Braille,” (NLS Fact Sheet) which represents a decline of nearly 30 percent since the late 1960’s. A study conducted by Ruby Ryles in the late 1990’s found strong correlations between Braille literacy and educational attainment and employment rates: “Those who learned to read using Braille had higher employment rates and educational levels, were more financially self-sufficient, and spent more time reading than did those who learned to read using print” (Ryles 1). Instruction in Braille not only enables people to communicate with language in an accessible mode, but also creates a broader spectrum of options for advancement in adulthood. As Braille literacy is the key to the independence for blind people, “the decline of Braille literacy in the past three decades may contribute to increased social and economic malaise for the visually impaired” (Spungin 2). Technological improvements in the field of Braille transcription and printing may help to reverse the declining rates of Braille literacy in the coming years.
 While listening devices and computers once replaced instruction in Braille, these and other tools may be put to use in Braille literacy instruction as technology continues to improve. While the costs may sometimes be prohibitive, the availability of these tools ought to become more widespread as time passes. Samuel notes a few developments that should improve students’ access to and facility with Braille.
Portable devices similar to laptop computers allow blind students to type notes and read them back through a Braille display. Similar devices can render text on a computer screen into Braille, using a refreshable display. And software is cutting down on the time it takes to produce Braille reading materials for students, including textbooks. Just listening to books doesn’t teach a blind child how to read, spell, or write, instructors say. (Samuels 28)

These technological advancements, coupled with increased funding to provide more universal accessibility to Braille literacy materials will positively affect students’ chances for obtaining the instruction they require to become independent. Samues writes that “the 2004 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)reauthorization includes provisions that are intended to ensure that Braille textbooks are produced faster” (28). Continued legislative motions and advancement in the computer field may reverse the declining rates of Braille literacy in years to come. According to Blake, “for the blind person [as well as the sighted], literacy involves all methods of acquiring, storing and accessing information and all methods of communicating one’s own ideas, opinions and needs” (1). Braille is the code by which these methods are primarily enacted by people who are blind. Even so, other modes to access and transmit information besides the use of the Braille code exist. Blake also includes the “ability to use 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” (1) as components of literacy for blind people.

Media and technology available to the visually impaired complement the use of the Braille code but fail to replace it as the primary tool of literacy. According to Rex, “basic to each type of literacy is the ability to communicate meaning through written language” (6). For people who are blind, Braille is the primary mode of expression in writing and reading: while the characters are different than the print alphabet, they provide the means to communicate through touch. Ike Presley, a project manager for the Federation of the Blind supports the continued use of and education for Braille: “Braille allows a person to have a reading and writing medium for both information access and for personal use... Technology is not replacing Braille. It increases the availability to Braille, making it easier to produce and less expensive” (Weiss 2). While declines in Braille literacy in the past two decades have been attributed to competing technologies, emerging technology may actually improve people’s ability to manipulate language and meaning with Braille.
Fluency in the Braille code is the cornerstone, but not the singular component, of literacy for blind people. Facility with language is required in most of the daily tasks and transmissions of thought any human engages in. Just as sighted people need to be print literate in order to function to their fullest capacity in contemporary society, so too do blind people need a system for using language to its full potential.

The Braille code is an intrinsic component of literacy for the visually impaired. If “ a person’s level of literacy has a direct impact on both physical and psychological well being… it affects emotional well being by enabling independence and confidence,” (Blake 1) then fluency in the Braille code is of utmost importance to the success and personal satisfaction of blind people. The significance of the Braille code cannot be underestimated for its effect on the literacy of the blind.

Works Cited

About Braille NLS Factsheet. National Library Services. 5 November 2009. Web. 2 April 2010.
Blake, Sarah J. The Importance of Braille Literacy. Blindness Growing Strong. Web. 2 April 2010.
Rex, Evelyn L., Alan J Koening, Diane P. Wormsley and Robert L. Baker. Foundations of Braille Literacy. American Foundation of the Blind, New York: 1994. Print.
Ryles, Ruby. “The Impact of Braille Reading Skills on Employment, Income, Education and Reading Habits. Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness. 90:3 (1996.) Web. 23 March 2010.
Samuels, Christina A. “Braille Makes a Comeback.” Education Week. 27.43 (2008): 27-29: Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 3 April 2010.
Spungin, S.J. “Braille and Beyond: Braille Literacy in a Larger Context.” Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness. 90:3 (1996). Web. 23 March 2010.
Weiss, Ray. “High Tech Advantages Can’t Entirely Replace Braille.” Daytona Beach News Journal. 27 January 2010. Web. 2 April 2010.