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Parents of Blind Children Lead Push To Make Braille Instruction Available

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As a child with a serious visual impairment, Bonnie Peterson recalls, she struggled through school with a sore neck and a perpetual ink smudge on her nose--the result of pressing her face too close to the page in an effort to read.

Ms. Peterson says she was forced to endure that kind of pain and embarrassment because her teachers would not teach her to read Braille, the system of raised dots that allows blind people to "read" by touch.

Now a skilled Braille reader and a mother, Ms. Peterson has joined others like her across the country at the forefront of a movement to keep the next generation of blind and visually impaired children from having the same experience.

Spurred in part by the National Federation of the Blind, at least two states--Minnesota and Louisiana--have passed laws since 1987 that are intended to make Braille instruction more available to visually impaired schoolchildren. South Carolina has made skill in that medium a certification requirement for vision teachers. And similar measures are pending this year in the Michigan and Wisconsin legislatures.

"Just three years ago,"said James Gashel, director of government relations for the federation, "you would not have found any bills being proposed to do this."

"I'd say our point of view is catching on," he said.

Supplanted by New Devices

Once universally taught to visually handicapped children, Braille has declined in use in schools over the past three decades, according to Mr. Gashel and other Braille advocates. This is particularly true for the vast majority of blind people who, like Ms. Peterson, are legally blind but retain some vision.

Rather than teach Braille to such children, teachers have focused on helping them maximize whatever vision they have left. This is done with a growing array of new devices that aid in reading print--high-powered magnifiers, large-print reading books, better prescriptions for glasses, recorded material, and closed-circuit televisions that project text.

"Magnification is a fine thing if properly used and understood," said Barbara Cheadle, who is president of the federation's division for parents of blind children. "But, if you can't read print unless it's several inches high, the equipment you need is fairly bulky."

Schoolchildren in some of these programs must use wagons to cart the equipment they need as they go from class to class. Outside the classroom, they are helpless to read without their special devices.

"You can't take notes without having to find someone to read them back to you," added Ms. Cheadle. "You can't give a speech."

In comparison, the slate and stylus used to take notes in Braille are as portable as a notebook and a pen.

Moreover, proponents note, for some children, magnifiers may actually hinder reading ability. Even with sophisticated equipment, some children are still only able to read slightly more than 10 words per minute. Their sighted classmates, in contrast, may be reading as many as 200 to 300 words per minute.

Others also point out that many blind children lose the little vision they have as they grow older. Without Braille, they essentially become nonreaders.

"What we're turning out," summed up Ms. Peterson, "are functionally illiterate blind people."

State Actions

In Ms. Peterson's home state of Wisconsin, the bill introduced earlier this month has strong legislative backing. Its sponsor is the president of the Senate, Fred A. Risser.

The measure has a two-fold mandate: that Braille be presented as an option when parents and teachers sit down to discuss the education of a blind child and that vision teachers pass a Braille-competency test as a requirement for state certification.

"The teachers are not learning Braille in the places where they get their degrees," said Ms. Peterson, who is also president of the Wisconsin affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind. "We had a student tell us he asked his teacher what the letter 'M' was and he could hear the teacher shuffling through papers to look it up."

Measures in other states vary greatly. The Louisiana law, passed in 1988, simply stated that Braille should "be made available" to all visually handicapped children. But the resulting regulations, promulgated a few weeks ago, set up a comprehensive set of criteria that special educators must take into account when deciding whether to recommend Braille instruction for a blind child.

One of the strongest measures proposed so far is a bill pending in the Michigan legislature. It would force schools to teach Braille to all children who are legally blind.

"You don't sit down and allow a typical 1st grader to decide if he wants to learn to read," said Allen Harris, treasurer of the National Federation of the Blind of Michigan. "We've been through the optional system and it hasn't worked."

Not for Everyone

Opponents of legislative attempts to promote Braille say efforts like Michigan's are unnecessarily rigid.

"Right now, all visually handicapped children already have an opportunity to learn Braille," said Richard Welch, superintendent of the Maryland School for the Blind. He opposed a pro-Braille bill defeated in the Maryland legislature two years ago.

"Federal special-education law says that if a child's individualized education plan says he needs it, he has to have it," he said. "For a lot of students, it's just not a good use of their time given what else they have to learn."

A student with tunnel vision, for example, can see a printed page perfectly, Mr. Welch said. Lessons in Braille would be of little use.

He also noted that Braille would be no good to a large proportion of blind children--as many as 40 percent at his school--who are also severely or profoundly mentally retarded.

"They're not going to be readers, not because of visual problems but because of their cognitive development," he said.

The reason many blind children may not be getting the kind of instruction they need, a number of experts say, may be more practical than philosophical: There simply aren't enough teachers to go around.

"We have school districts that are willing to hire the teachers," said Joanne Fernandes, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Louisiana. "They just can't find them."

In addition, because blindness is an extremely low-incidence handicap, some vision teachers may wait several years before finding a student who needs Braille. By then, any Braille skills the teacher has may have grown rusty from disuse.

Philosophical Evolution

Experts say the current debate represents a full swing of the pendulum from a time earlier in the century when Braille lessons were mandatory for many blind schoolchildren.

"There was a misconception that if a child used vision too much, he could lose it," said Hilda Caton, a professor in the University of Louisville's vision-impairment program. "There literally were what was called 'sight-saving classes."'

The thinking changed after research in the early 1960's pointed to ways a child could safely make the best of available vision through the use of technology rather than learn Braille, which, in its own way, was also cumbersome to learn and use.

Ms. Cheadle said the move toward maximizing residual vision was also prodded in the 1950's by what has been termed an epidemic of premature babies who were blinded by the oxygen in the incubators used to save their lives. The sheer number of babies with the condition, now known as retinopathy of prematurity, taxed the capacity of the state-run residential schools to serve them. Such children began attending their local public schools, where trained Braille instructors were not always available.

'Period of Reexamination'

"I think there was a misapplication of the technology at the outset," said Sally Mangold, professor of special education at San Francisco State University and a well-known expert in the field. "What we're discovering now is that some of the equipment, rather than liberating, has been confining."

Rather than legislation, what is needed now are guidelines to help special educators decide when a child should be taught Braille, Ms. Mangold and others said. Much like Louisiana's guidelines, which were patterned after Ms. Mangold's recommendations, these criteria would take into account factors such as the portability of the medium and the efficiency with which a child uses it.

"I think this whole debate has been a catalyst to get us thinking," Ms. Mangold says. "Now, we're going through a period of reexamination."

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