Changes in the Use of Braille in Educational System Braille as a marker of self-identity The View of Braille from another System

Braille Literacy


When we start thinking about the social aspects of Braille literacy it helps to take the culture in which the person is reading and writing Braille into account. A definition of culture includes a common language. The use of braille by people with visual impairments is the single most unifying identifier of blind culture. The interesting part of the controversy about Braille is whether or not it is a separate language or simply another representation of English as well as the other written languages it is used to convey.

Feelings run very hot on this issue. Many people are adamant that braille is not a separate language. It is put into the category of English language representations much in the same way that computer generated English is a representation of printed text. Some others do regard it to be another language. To stir this pot some more I have noticed that sighted people learn braille more easily if they approach it as another language.

Personally I do regard it to be a separate language from written or spoken English. Braille uses different parts of the brain (my own conclusion) and I find that I work with braille very differently than when listening to digitized or recorded English. I am only fluent in English, but I learn languages very easily and speak other languages when I travel.

I went to Montreal the last time I traveled outside the country. I speak some French and I have found in my travels that learning to say a few key phrases shows great respect for the people of the country in which I am traveling. It helps to open up communication even when I explain that I don't speak their language fluently. I learn how to say, "I don't speak your language" in the dialect of the country I am in.

Since it is unusual for sighted people to learn a few words of written braille does this suggest that braille is not another language since it is not spoken? When I was in seminary I learned ancient Greek as a spoken language even though it is no longer spoken anymore. It is only visually read and written. I could probably make myself understood in Greece, but it wouldn't be easy. Since ancient Greek is no longer spoken, but still written and read then why is it regarded to be a dead language?

I remember one Christmas when I sent out all my holiday cards with braille messages typed in them. Several of the people who received my card asked me why I had sent them a card with a braille note in it when I knew they didn't read braille. I was struck by this since I received over thirty holiday cards with printed text messages in them from these same people. It never seemed to have occurred to them that I would have to have someone read all their season's greetings to me. None of them even asked me what the braille message said. Maybe next year I should be more daring with my message and see if anyone notices it.

Please don't be put off by my comments on receiving cards. I love cards and spend a lot of time choosing the perfect ones for the people I care about. [Excuse me while I stop and play with my cat, Jacob. He seems to think this lecture is interfering with his play time. While I am at it I think I will water my rubber plant as well.]

Changes in the Use of Braille in Educational System

Now that I am back from my play break I want to let you know that there have been a lot of changes in how braille is handled in the educational system. It used to be that all children were taught braille even low vision students. The onset of technology, however, altered the view of braille's value for a while.

Using screen readers and other low vision aides made learning braille only one option and it became a less rigorous discipline. Also there was a change in the way decisions were made on when to teach Braille to children. Children who could read print were encouraged to read visually for as long as they could before learning braille. Also finding ways to teach reading became more complicated when we started to incorporate children who are blind and have other disabilities into our case loads. A child who is blind and mentally retarded may never learn to read any form of print. They may read with audio cassettes.

Then there was a period when the children were asked if they wanted to learn braille. This did not go over well since children being what they are they declined to learn anything they didn't absolutely have to know.

Now there is a lot of careful discussion about when to begin teaching children braille. The child's reading skills and level of vision are taken into consideration. Many children begin learning Braille before they lose their visual reading abilities. Some people have a hard time getting the children not to look at the braille and read it with their fingers. Other professionals feel that it is all right to let the children learn it visually while using their fingers because that is natural for them and they are getting used to braille even if they are not totally reading it with their fingers.

One of the nice changes I witnessed in my lifetime in our profession is more incorporation of whatever sensory experiences are natural to people with vision loss. It used to be that low vision people were encouraged (or forced) to shut down their residual vision and learn things totally tactilely. Now if someone has some vision their level of sight is assessed and if there is a way to support their use of vision with other tools then this is done. This makes more sense to me.

On my way home on Friday I was singing along with my Ride driver to the radio. We were harmonizing to a tune by Billy Joel. It was one he recorded about ten years ago. I remember his music from when I was in college and began thinking about how his voice has matured and changed over the years.

It struck me that billy Joel changed the kinds of music he sings to match the changes in his vocal range. He doesn't have quite the tambre he did, but the music he sings now compliments the way he can vocalize. I got all weepy when I realized that. It showed me that we can use our changing skills all the time in ever-flowering ways.

Braille as a marker of self-identity

In terms of self-identity braille is often the final frontier in a person's adjustment to blindness. This is much more an issue for those who become adventitiously blind. Children growing up with braille do not go through this.

People who have partial sight or who are losing their sight slowly over time tend to hold on to their identity as sighted people. It is more like they don't see well rather than they are somewhat blind. We have explored the varied and complicated reasons why people do this throughout the semester. When someone who has been sighted takes the first step towards learning braille they can go through a lot emotionally. When you start to read braille it means that you really don't see anymore.

One way I like to work with adults who are losing vision and learning braille is by making up a kit of resources and fun things they can use to help themselves become more accustomed to braille. Using raised letters to make signs to help someone get used to using their fingers and finding some colorful poster paper to make high contrast signs and labels for around the house can be nice as well. I also like having the candy dots on the sticky paper for a fun treat. You can form your words and then eat them!

Remember that people who learned to read print before they became blind will miss looking at the letters and they will have to work harder to learn braille than the children do. Making braille pretty and interesting to look at as well as feel is a great way to assist in the emotional adjustment.

Braille is also not something people share with sighted friends and family. I only ever hear of parents learning braille so they can communicate with their children. Using braille can feel isolating to adults until they get used to it since no one around them is likely to use it. This can feel isolating to the adult trying to learn braille and the individual may resist learning it.

Using computers fitted with screen reader programs and other types of technology does help both children and adults feel more connected to the people around them. Even if the people in their lives don't understand how the technology works there is usually less of a feeling of isolation when communicating through technology.

The Shift Back to Braille

There is a strong movement now to have everyone learn braille because there is concern the blind children and adults are not learning the essentials of punctuation, grammar, and spelling effectively just by hearing it. I can't speak to this since I learned all that stuff before I lost a lot of vision.

Another issue which comes up socially is how to conduct yourself in a meeting if printed information is being passed out for discussion. Even if you are a braille reader a lot of the time materials are not provided in this format. It is easier to put the agenda and other information on a computer disk or send it before or after the meeting as an email attachment. Sometimes the materials are read aloud in the meeting.

All of these methods fall under the ADA requirements for reasonable accommodations, but they all change the way a person participates in the group experience. If I get the information in advance of the meeting I have more time than everyone else to go through the materials. If I get a computer disk I have to be sure I have my lap top with me or the disk will be useless. If the agenda and other materials are being read to me in the meeting I have to try to remember the sequence of the materials or interrupt to ask that something be read again.

Having a Braille copy of the materials works the best if the person is a braille reader. It allows the person to stay in the same social experience of the meeting or other activity the easiest.

The View of Braille from another System

Finally, just to give you something new to think about, I want to show you what braille can look like in another medical system. Sometimes we can get a great deal of information by evaluating it through another system's viewpoint. In the system of Chinese medicine there are heart meridians running all through the hands. When reading with your fingers you are stimulating the heart. This happens while typing, but running the fingertips over the braille paper triggers the heart meridians very effectively.

The heart meridians run up the arms as well. When going sighted guide a blind person is touching the heart meridians the entire time he or she is holding on to the other person's arm. We have a "reading with the heart" metaphor going on here. I find it very cool to play with when I think about braille.