A sighted child who is reading at a basic level should be able to understand common words and answer simple questions about the information presented. They should also have enough fluency to get through the material in a timely manner. Over the course of a child's education, these foundations are built on to teach higher levels of math, science, and comprehension skills. Children who are blind, not only have the education disadvantage of not being able to see, they also miss out on the very fundamental parts of early and advanced education if not provided with the necessary tools.
In 1960, 50 percent of legally blind school-age children in the United States were able to read Braille. According to the 2007 Annual Report from the American Printing House for the Blind, there are approximately 57,696 legally blind children in the U.S. Out of those school-age children, only 10 percent use Braille as their primary reading medium. There are numerous causes for the decline in Braille usage, including school budget constraints, technology advancement, and different philosophical views over how blind children should be educated.
A major turning point for Braille literacy was the passage by the United States Congress of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which moved thousands of children from specialized schools for the blind into mainstream public schools. Because only a small percentage of public schools could afford to train and hire Braille-qualified teachers, Braille literacy has declined since the law took effect. Braille literacy rates have improved slightly since the bill was passed, in part because of pressure from consumers and advocacy groups that have led 27 states to pass legislation mandating that children who are legally blind be given the opportunity to learn braille.
In 1998-99 there were approximately 55,200 legally blind children in the United States, but only 5,500 of them used braille as their primary reading medium. Early Braille education is crucial to literacy for a visually impaired child. A study conducted in the state of Washington found that people who learned braille at an early age did just as well as, if not better than, their sighted peers in several areas, including vocabulary and comprehension. In the preliminary adult study, while evaluating the correlation between adult literacy skills and employment, it was found that 44 percent of the participants who had learned to read in Braille were unemployed, compared to the 77 percent unemployment rate of those who had learned to read using print.
Currently, among the estimated 85,000 blind adults in the United States, 90 percent of those who are braille literate are employed. Among adults who do not know Braille, only 1 in 3 is employed. Statistically, history has proven that braille reading proficiency provides an essential skill set that allows visually impaired children not only to compete with their sighted peers in a school environment, but also later in life as they enter the workforce.
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Braille Instruction at The Hadley School for the Blind
The Hadley School for the Blind is the largest educator of braille as well as the largest worldwide provider of distance education for people who are blind or visually impaired. Braille literacy has been a priority for The Hadley School for the Blind since its founding in 1920, and to this day, braille courses are still the most popular. During the 2010 fiscal year, Hadley enrolled nearly 3,400 students in braille reading and writing courses alone (combined sighted and blind students). Hadley currently offers 14 braille courses taught by 11 highly trained instructors. Nine courses are focused on tactile learners, and Hadley also provides five courses for sighted individuals, including families and professionals in the field.
Hadley School has advanced the use of braille in a number of ways over the years, including being one of the first institutions to use the Thermoform Duplicator, which copies braille from paper to a Brailon (a sheet of durable plastic) and one of the first to use a computer-driven, high-speed braille printer. A longtime leader in braille production, Hadley produces more than 50,000 braille pages each year, supplementing mass brailling done offsite. For a modest fee, Hadley provides braille transcription services in accordance with the Braille Authority of North America. Transcribers are certified by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.
NLS Braille Certification Program
The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) of the Library of Congress has contracted with the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) to offer a certificate of proficiency for braille transcribers and proofreaders who are interested in working in their communities to produce Braille materials for blind people. Certified Braille volunteers transcribe material into Braille that is used by state departments of special education, NLS, and libraries that distribute books and magazines through the NLS program. These volunteers complete a detailed course of Braille transcribing and provide essential materials in the advancement of Braille literacy.
The NLS also offers a broad range of Braille literacy information and resources including braille books, software, and other material intended to assist with the production of braille. This information can be very helpful for family members, friends, and professionals who desire information about braille literacy. They also provide educational resources for instructors who teach braille as well as those who are interested in learning to read and write Braille.
ReadBooks! Because Braille Matters
The ReadBooks! program from National Braille Press distributes free braille literacy bags in the U.S. and Canada to families with blind children, birth to age 7. The program introduces blind children to braille at the earliest age and encourages families to read print/braille books together. Since the inception of the program in 2001, over 9,000 braille literacy bags have been distributed in English or Spanish.
ReadBooks! bags contain age-appropriate print-braille books; a primer for sighted parents to learn braille; tactile literacy objects/games; waxed string for drawing; and a guide for parents on why and how to read books with their young blind child. Print-braille books are standard print books, like Miss Nelson Is Missing or Corduroy, with braille text added on transparent plastic sheets so everyone can read together. National Braille Press works with educators and early intervention professionals to identify families who could benefit from the book bags; families can also request their own bags. There is increasing evidence that parental beliefs and attitudes about reading and the opportunities parents provide their children in reading can greatly influence children's reading development. Parents can help their children prepare by providing a braille-rich environment in the home.
Dots for Tots
The Dots for Tots program aims to engage and strengthen the senses of a visually impaired child. This is important to get them prepared for reading and interested in literacy. The free program offers free books and kits to promote literacy among blind children of preschool and early elementary age. The dots in this program are very important and parallel with the literacy requirements of a sighted child learning their ABCs. It also helps grab a blind child's interest in the same way that a picture book encourages literacy for a sighted child. The program also equips schools and educators with the tools necessary to ensure that children that are blind receive the same quality of education that their sighted peers do. It helps remove education barriers as well as ease the fears which many children have of facing school with a handicap.
This program provides visually impaired children with books that have been printed in Braille. Children are able to follow along with the rest of their classmates when reading popular children's books in libraries, at home, or in a school environment. Dots for Tots provide an entire book kit that includes the children's book in braille, a tape with a professional descriptive narration with sound effects, and a set of three-dimensional toys that allow them to understand the importance of visualizing stories with their fingers.
Connecting the Dots
The American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) offers the Connecting the Dots resource for parents to promote early Braille literacy. The program provides a folder containing fact sheets about braille, resource lists, and information for parents about braille, organizations that promote braille literacy, sources of braille books and magazines, adapted materials, and other information intended to promote literacy development.
Instant Access to Braille
The Instant Access to Braille program, supported through US Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs CFDA 84.00327A, provides blind and visually impaired students with access to learning materials in braille to support braille literacy efforts in general education classrooms. This program provides portable braille note-taking devices to students to train students as well as assist educators, parents, and school administrators overcome the barriers of teaching special needs children and ensuring that students receive the equivalent education opportunities that sighted children receive. The program also provides assistance with converting their printed learning materials into electronic format so that visually impaired students are not at disadvantaged in the school environment.
The Instant Access program is intended to assist students in grades 3-10 that use New York State curriculum and is focused on academics related mainly to Social Studies. There is no charge for the Braille note-taking devices, disk drives, printers or setup of the equipment. The program is a one-year school-based project and can be adjusted to take full advantage of features that will benefit the student and support the education process.
The Braille Challenge is an annual two-stage Braille competition to motivate blind students to emphasize their study of Braille. The program parallels the importance and educational purpose of a spelling bee for sighted children. In the competition, students transcribe and read Braille using a Perkins Brailler. Their speed and accuracy, reading comprehension, ability to decode charts and graphs, and spelling are tested.
The Braille Challenge started locally in 2000 sponsored by Braille Institute to help encourage and promote students' braille skills. In 2003 Braille Institute began partnering with other organizations and formed an advisory committee to make the Braille Challenge accessible to all kids across the United States and Canada. That year, 200 students from 28 states, and four Canadian provinces traveled to participate in the regional events, sending 55 finalists to Los Angeles to compete for the 2003 Braille Challenge title. Participation in the contest has doubled since 2003.
By 2005 the institute received 775 requests for the preliminary contest, representing students from 40 states and six Canadian provinces. In 2009, 31 blind service agencies and schools for the blind and visually impaired throughout the United States and Canada are hosting regional events. Over 500 students participated regionally in 2009, with the national top 12 scores in each of the five age groups scheduled to compete nationally at the final round held at the Braille Institute in Los Angeles.
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