Braille lapses, and the blind suffer

The Associated PressMarch 26, 2009 

  • The National Federation of the Blind's report coincides with the 200th birthday of Louis Braille, the Frenchman who invented the Braille code as a teenager. Resistance to his system was immediate; at one point, the director of Braille's school burned the books he and his classmates had transcribed. The school did not want its blind students becoming too independent; it made money by selling crafts they produced.

    The system caught on, but it began declining in the 1960s along with the widespread integration of blind children into public schools.

— Jordan Gilmer has a degenerative condition that eventually will leave him completely blind. But as a child, his teachers did not emphasize Braille, the system of reading in which a series of raised dots signify letters of the alphabet.

Instead, they insisted he use what little vision he had to read print. By the third grade, he was falling behind in his schoolwork.

"They gave him Braille instruction, but they didn't tell us how to get Braille books, and they didn't want him using it during the day," said Jordan's mother, Carrie Gilmer of Minneapolis. Teachers said Braille would be "a thing he uses way off in the far distant future, and don't worry about it."

That experience is common: Fewer than 10 percent of the 1.3 million legally blind people in the United States read Braille, and just 10 percent of blind children are learning it, according to a report to be released today by the National Federation of the Blind.

By comparison, at the height of its use in the 1950s, more than half the nation's blind children were learning Braille. Today Braille is considered by many to be too difficult, too outdated, a last resort.

Instead, teachers ask students to rely on audio texts, voice-recognition software or other technology. And teachers who know Braille often must shuttle among schools, resulting in haphazard instruction, the report says.

"You can find good teachers of the blind in America, but you can't find good programs," said Marc Maurer, the group's president.

Using technology as a substitute for Braille leaves blind people illiterate, the federation said, citing studies that show blind people who know Braille are more likely to earn advanced degrees, find good jobs and live independently.

"It's really sad that so many kids are being shortchanged," said Debby Brackett of Stuart, Fla., who pressured schools to provide capable Braille teachers for her 12-year-old daughter, Winona.

One study found that 44 percent of participants who grew up reading Braille were unemployed, compared with 77 percent of those who relied on print. Overall, blind adults face 70 percent unemployment.

"Back in about 1970 or so, I was heading to college, and somebody said to me, 'Now that you've got the tape recorder, everything will be all right. In the early 1980s, somebody else said, 'Now that you've got a talking computer, everything will be all right,'" Maurer said.

"They were both wrong. And the current technology isn't going to make everything all right unless I know how to put my hands on a page that has words on it and read them."

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