Wednesday, December 9, 2015

If Braille Were Print

Chatting with a friend today about a refreshable Braille display got me thinking again about the absurdity that exists in a lot of the traditional Braille education programs around the country.  I've seen it firsthand in my daughter's classes, both in a local public school and in a state virtual academy, and I've heard from friends around the country who support one another online. This problem comes, I think, from society's perception in general that Braille is complicated, difficult, or specialized. I know my daughter's TVIs have worked endlessly to provide peer enrichment, to normalize Braille, to minimize errors or to add Braille to surrounding spaces, as indeed I have also tried to do. Still, in spite of our best efforts, discrepancies still exist, and it seems like a lot of it is due to wide cultural misperceptions. 

In order to address some of these for the general non-Braille-reading public, I want to take some of the usual things said to students when they are being taught Braille, and reframe them to refer to a sighted print reader who does not have a disability. Instead of a specialized reading method like Braille, I'd like to say these things about the reading method that everyone in my area uses: English print. Imagine your typical first or second grader of average intelligence who is learning to read. Keep in mind also the material that same learner will need to read in eighth grade. In twelfth grade. In college. In a job. Running a household.

1. It's ok; this is hard to learn.

I, as your hypothetical classroom teacher, don't actually read this print stuff at all.  The aide took a two-week training course, and we have a reference chart here, but I don't really know how it works, not intimately. I don't use it every day and it just looks like a bunch of squiggles on the paper. It uses a round symbol for both a zero and the letter "O" and I'm not sure how to tell you to know which one it is. There are also special symbols and shorthand stuff like spelling "with" like "w/" that I don't know how to teach you.

Reading a book with writing on both sides is hard for me. It does't matter that it's normal for you... I'll tell you it's hard. Because for me, it is.

You do have a special print teacher, and you'll see her for an hour or two per week. Surely that's all you'll need. 

2. Speed reading techniques exist, but I don't know them.

I'm not even aware that there are techniques for reading print at useable speed.  I assume you just read one letter at a time. I don't know any adults that read printed books. I saw one once on TV, but it looked like magic. My university teacher says the ones who read well are either geniuses or a fluke.

Sure, I'm qualified to teach you reading. Why do you ask?

3. Your book is loaded with typos.

You need to learn to read well. But the material we are giving you was transcribed by unqualified volunteers, so there are at least two typos  or misprints or misspelled words per thirty words. But don't worry about that. You're lucky to have print books at all.

Also, every other kid in your class gets information from illustrations, but we are just going to skip those for you. They are probably just cute anyway.

4. Technology-schmechnology.

First of all, nobody [like you, someone learning to read in school] uses computers or knows how to type these days. Your job someday probably won't require it, and if they do, someone can give you a one-day training course and you'll get it then. For now, we are goingto print  your books using a dot-matrix printer, because that is what the school bought in 1989 to use to print these books and they don't want to buy anything beyond that.

We are going to get you a special display screen though. It's really cool and hooks up to an ipad. It displays three words per screen and to get to the next screen, you just have to press this little button over here. Cool, right?

Reading speed? Why would you worry about that?

5.  Reading is overrated. 

Nobody these days needs to learn to read print or write with a pencil any way. You can just listen to audio books. It's a lot less work and you can dictate anything you want to write.  Technology is amazing these days for people [like you].

6. Nobody reads how you read.

In your school, no one reads print. The teachers don't read it. Your friends don't read it. There is none displayed  around the halls, walls or in the lunch room. The music teacher doesn't read it. They all read something, but it's not English print. They can't read what you write and can't write to you. One friend writes to you and treats it like a cool secret code, but writes with so many mistakes it's almost unintelligible. All the G's are Q's and all the T's are uncrossed so they look like L's. But he is so proud of the "secret message" that you don't say anything.  

There's one sign by the bathroom, but it actually says "Aathroox" instead.

On top of that, everyone keeps telling you how grateful you should be that you have some printed books. They have thousands of books in whatever they read, and it's everywhere, and no one is grateful, but you are supposed to fall over yourself with gratitude for the twelve books that you have.

Also, the reading tests are written like this: %Bgoat %Bpig %Bhorse %Bduck. Because nobody reads it, they don't know it looks like that so they hand it to you and grade you on how well you can read it.

7. You get your books late. Always.

They ordered the wrong book from the supplier, so your book is the second grade version, not the third grade version. It's double spaced and uses easy vocabulary, but that's okay because life is challenging enough just learning to read print anyway. All those words and squiggles and the capital letters are a different shape, and there are different fonts, so you have to learn five different shapes for the letter A. That's hard, so you don't need the challenging vocabulary too. 

You're falling behind your class? That's okay. You have a lot on your plate and all, being a kid [like you, who reads print].

Your math book is in at the translator's shop, but it won't be back for seven months. Everyone else is going to use that math book during those seven months, but I'll just read your math out loud to you. 

Reading numbers? Of course you will get your math book in seven months! Then you can read the numbers all you want! Don't complain. Be grateful you're getting a math book [in print] that you can read. 

Oh, and by the way, it's going to be seventeen volumes long. :)

8. Of course you're behind.

You're behind. Kids [like you, print readers of average intelligence] are always behind. 


In fact, you'll likely graduate from high school with about a fourth grade reading level. It can't be helped, really. It's okay though, because kids [like you] aren't really expected to want to have a career or anything. People [who read print] usually can get jobs sorting stuff at Goodwill or something. I think they even pay you like $2 an hour, but you won't realize it because of the math thing. You won't know what you're missing!

You want to be well-educated?

You're well educated because you spent nine years in public education. Oh, you can't walk to the bus stop? You can't read a recipe? You can't balance a check book? It's ok. Someone is always going to be around to help you. You don't really need that stuff anyway. 

9. Print is just so cool!!

It looks cool!  I see it around, like on elevators and stuff, and it's just so neat. It's all swoopy and round and I like to touch it. People like you must be really special to read it so well. I can't believe you can just walk up to a sign with words printed on it and boom, read what's on the sign!  It's like magic or something.

Kids in school who read print are just so beautiful and special. They open their printed books and just go for it. Unbelievable. 

10. I love how you write print, too.

I've watched you write print. You make these marks sometimes on paper, and you actually know what they say. That special tool you use, what's it called? A pencil? It's so neat. It just writes print, just like that!

I've seen you type on a special keyboard too. It makes print too, but it disturbs the class with the clicking noise, so I wish you wouldn't use it. You can use that someday when you're grown up, but not in class, okay? Just tell one of the adults what you want to write and they will do it for you. They'll even spell it right for you too. 

You can practice spelling words right on your special spelling tests in your special writing room on Fridays. 


Dear Reader, what do you think? Do you think a kid is going to learn to read with that kind of atmosphere, expectations and encouragement? With that amount of support and practice?

Any TVI or homeschool mom who has spent any amount of time trying to even things out for a Braille reader knows exactly what I'm talking about. 

What do kids actually get in school? Let's take a look.

1. Your teacher knows English.

Your teacher knows the language you're reading and writing (Or let's hope!). Sometimes she even knows Spanish or Chinese or Dutch. He writes it fluently in several media. She can use all the tools you are expected to use, and if she can't, she is not deemed qualified to teach.

2. Your teacher has books.

There are books, that arrive in the classroom on time before the school year begins, in print, for every kid in the class, in (nearly) every school in the country. They don't come later. The teacher reads them and shows you how to read them. You have your own copy. She sends books home with you for practice. At home, your parents can read them with you. 

If there is a quote you want to read at the school assembly, you don't have to write it out for yourself first because nobody else knows how. 

Your mom can read the story you wrote. 

They have maybe one typo in the whole book. Maybe. And everyone complains about that one.

3. Everyone around you reads.

Your parents read. Your teacher reads. Your lunch lady reads. Your big sister reads. They read the same way you read.

You are expected to learn to read.  

You're told that it's normal to learn to read.

4. You get help.

If you're having trouble reading, you're treated as if this is a problem. You are expected to take classses, practice and get help until you can do it. 

If you can't do it, you are called illiterate. You are not given audio books, you are taught to read (hopefully).

If you are slow at doing it, you are given extra practice and extra classes. If you don't know how to write it, you are also expected to practice and do it correctly.

To get a good job that pays a decent wage, you have to be able to read well, read quickly, write well, and use computers. And that is not weird.

5. You learn current technology. 

You school has a computer and you learn to use it. You are taught to type and taught to read on a screen that has thousands of words at a time. You learn to scan for information because class moves quickly. 

6. You don't get a pass.

You are expected to keep up with the class. You don't get a free pass not to keep up and you don't get to be lazy just because you're a print reader. After all, reading print is normal and everyone knows it's completely doable, so why should you get to slough off and not do assigments?

Also, you have all the materials you need and all the tools you need. You don't need to make excuses because you have the book the teacher asks for and the pencil and the keyboard you need. The software your class uses is loaded and set up for you by the teacher and he knows how to use it.

7. You know you'll use it someday.

You fully expect that you will grow up, get a job, use computers, read print, pay bills and become a contributing member of society. Why wouldn't you?

8. You read math.

If your teachers did not teach you to read the language of printed math in school and to write it, your parents would throw a holy, hell-raising, fire-breathing, sue-the-school-for-a-zillion-dollars tantrum. And the community would support them. The school would be put up for review by the state.

If the teachers did not write math code, they would be fired. Period, the end. 

And no one would be surprised.

9. Nobody gushes over your reading ability.

Nobody tells you they saw some print on a box of band-aids and how cool that is. Nobody tells you that you literally deserve a medal for learning how to read. 

Because everybody reads!

You don't give yourself pats on the back for using a computer at the age of 17.

Because everyone uses a computer at age 17!

That technology is normal for you.

10. You get all the information if you bother to learn.

A print reader of typical ability and average intelligence can get all the infomation presented in the class. All the stuff on the overhead. All the stuff in every book. All the stuff on the wall.  All the lunch menus. All the recess schedules. All the toy names.

And for all that, nobody thinks to be grateful.


A few last comments about Braille.

1. Reading Braille is normal for blind kids.

For blind and low vision kids, Braille is normal. The tools they use are normal. Reading is normal.

Having it on the elevator is normal.

2. Reading Braille is not hard.

Reading braille by touch is not hard.


Reading Braille is NOT HARD.


(Many Braille readers are slow for all the reasons listed above that happened when they were learning it.)


3. You can read Braille fast.

Good braille readers can match print readers for speed. 

(Not many do...see above.)

Good braille readers can read 10,000 pages.

(Not many do... see above.)

4. Braille is not becoming obsolete.

There are braille displays for computers. There are Braille embossers. There are Braille transcribers looking for work. There are more Braille books than ever before. There are computers that transcribe books more accurately than ever before. 

There are blind people who need to be able to read. 

There are people whe need to read pill bottles. And bills. And recipes. And blog posts. And books. And text books. And math books. And elevator signs. And hallway signs. And foreign languages. And CD covers. And see how names are spelled. 

There are deaf-blind people who use braille to communicate EVERYTHING!

Since the early 1800s when Louis Braille brought the idea of a quick, dot-based tactile method of reading and writing to his school in France, there have been naysayers. People said Braille wouldn't work. A separate code that sighted people couldn't read would never be widely used. 

Blind people used it anyway, because for the first time, they could write for themselves. They had voices. They could read what they wrote. 

As Braille came to America, it had naysayers. It's too expensive to produce. You'll never have enough books. 

Blind people used it anyway. They made their own books. They hired people to learn it and transcribe it. They raised funds. 

As Braille enters the modern century, it has its naysayers. It's becoming obsolete because of technology. It's clunky and outdated. 

Blind people keep using it anyway. We use Braille with technology. We use it to learn to spell, and use it to jot notes. We delight in the thrill of opening a real, paper book and feeling the tangle of magical constellations under our fingers as words and stories come to life. 

5. Then what is the problem?

See if you can figure it out.

I can hear what you're thinking. "But Braille is different than print."

Sure. I read both. I read Braille by touch. I read print (sometimes, when I can). Obviously they aren't the same. But they're not as different as they seem to non-Braille readers. 

"But it's not like that."

It could be. 

"But I'm a Braille reader (or a blind person) and I don't read it well or read it at all."

Ask yourself. Is it lack of desire, lack of support, lack of encouragement? Is it shame? Is it actual lack of ability (I'm not talking about those with multiple disabilities, cognitive impairments or nerve damage in fingers.)? If it's lack of desire, I accept that. You may prefer to use audio, magnification or other assistance. But if you dig deep into your reasons, and it's due only to shame or lack of good instruction, I feel like those reasons should not exist. We shouldn't be ashamed to read! We should not be left unsupported when the rest of our peers have a way to read that fits their needs and frees them to a life full of options. 

"But I teach Braille and this is impossible."

Is it?

See if you can do something about it.


Because if blind and low-vision kids got the support their average sighted counterparts get in learning to read, there would not be a 70% unemployment rate. There might still be workplace discrimination, but I'd be willing to bet there would be more employed blind folks than there are now!

I wanted to write, "It would be amazing," but I realized that isn't quite accurate. "Amazing" implies something above and beyond the norm. It implies something unexpected. It implies something to be marveled at. Reading isn't something to be marveled at; it's something that should be expected, should be normal. It's basic, like adequate clothing or nutrition. It's the foundation of every other form of education. 

So, instead of "amazing," I write: "It would finally be what kids deserve. It would be just. It wouldn't level the playing field, but it would be a start."

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