Blind World Magazine

Braille advocates say decline in instruction is leading to illiteracy.

Asbury Park Press, New Jersey.
Saturday, June 17, 2006.

Arielle Silverman always has loved to read. From "Little Women," in fourth grade to "Jane Eyre" in high school, books were a constant companion.

She could slide her fingers across the page and feel the world. Those words have done more than make her well-read. They have secured her place in society.

Silverman, blind since birth, has now finished her junior year at Arizona State University with a double major, in biology and psychology, and a grade-point average of 3.9.

She is ambitious, thoughtful and well-spoken. And the 21-year-old is convinced she couldn't have achieved this without her fluency in Braille.

A generation ago, 50 percent of blind schoolchildren used Braille, according to William M. Raeder, president of the National Braille Press in Boston. Now, he says, it's less than 12 percent.

Young blind students today are still instructed in Braille, but in the past few decades more students have been mainstreamed and no longer receive daily instruction.

That is significant, because reading and writing Braille is a skill that needs maintenance. The less often a student uses it, the more likely it is those skills will diminish or even disappear.

The reduction in Braille literacy has been mollified by the fact that there are now more ways than ever for the blind to acquire information. Much of the world is moving away from words on a page and toward electronic-digital information. The proliferation of books on tape means blind people no longer have to wait to read the latest best-seller. Talking computers have brought the blind to the world and the world to the blind.

These advances have placed a generation of blind young adults and children in an information paradox: They have more knowledge at their disposal, while their ability to read and write declines.

But proponents of Braille always fall back on the same argument: If reading and writing are important to the sighted, they are important to the blind.

"If the literacy rate for sighted people was 10 percent, that would be a huge issue," Silverman says. "I think kids aren't being taught Braille, and they aren't being given enough time to practice."

Silverman is sightless because of Leber Congenital Amaurosis, an inherited retinal degenerative disease. But her parents never considered not teaching her to read and write.

"I grew up thinking reading is one of the greatest joys of life," says Sharona Silverman, Arielle's mother. "Having a book in your lap is an incredible gift, and I was going to introduce that gift to both of my children." (Arielle's sister is sighted.)

Because of her parents' commitment to literacy, Arielle Silverman was sent as a child to the Foundation for Blind Children in Phoenix to learn Braille. She could read by age 5. Silverman then was mainstreamed into public schools. She is now president of the Arizona Association of Blind Students.

One can argue that it does not matter how you read "War and Peace," as long as you know the story and the genius of Leo Tolstoy.

"There is no correlation between Braille literacy and educational achievement," says Joanne Phillips, deputy associate superintendent for exceptional student services with the Arizona Department of Education.

Karen Wolfe of the American Foundation for the Blind strongly disagrees.

"You can't be literate just listening," she says

"Literacy helps us think and communicate our thoughts. You will never be truly literate without Braille."

The AFB says the employment rate for the blind in this country is 32 percent. And says that 93 percent of the employed blind read and write Braille.

Silverman lives in an apartment on the ASU campus. Her course load includes such classes as organic chemistry with Professor Seth Rose, in which he says things like "Heterocyclic aromatic amines are weaker bases than heterocyclic aliphatic amines."

When she gets to class, she sits with a BrailleNote laptop that allows her to take notes and review them later. From a distance, the BrailleNote looks exactly like the standard laptop computer used by her peers, but instead of the 26 letters of the alphabet, six keys represent the six-dot system of Braille. Each letter of the alphabet is represented by a combination of the six dots.

Silverman points to this machine and others like it as an example of Braille working hand in hand with technology.

"They are not mutually exclusive," Silverman says. "If I didn't know Braille, I couldn't use my computers to the level I need them."

But the teaching of organic chemistry is very visual. Formulas and models are used, and Silverman can see none of them.

Rose helps "translate" some of his teaching material into a digital format that will have meaning to Silverman. If a class focuses on a particular compound, he will build a model that she can "see" with her hands. He expresses colors with different textures.

He is glad to do it, he says.

"It gives me a great feeling to know that when I hand a model to a student, that she can 'see' exactly what I've been talking about," he says.

End of article.

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