The 65 students from around the country who came here this summer to show off their Braille prowess represent an elite group of an already-small number.
Only about 26,000 of the 6.7 million students who receive services under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act were classified as visually impaired in 2006, making it one of the rarest of the disability categories that are tracked. A smaller number, about 1,500, are classified as deaf and blind, a separate disability category under the IDEA.
Though definitive numbers are hard to come by, far fewer than half of all students with visual impairments are believed to be Braille readers. And a still-tinier slice can read Braille with such fluidity that they are chosen for the all-day Braille Challenge, sponsored by the Braille Institute here, which tests students in spelling, proofreading, reading comprehension, and speed and accuracy.
A few decades ago, Braille was on the wane. Technology was seen as likely to replace the tactile communication method, as text-to-speech readers and recorded books, for example, offered access to classroom materials. Students at special schools for the blind moved into regular classrooms, which are rich in text, but not text that is accessible to someone who is visually impaired.
And, among some students, families, and educators, use of Braille was seen as a sort of failure, some advocates say. Among the visually impaired, about 90 percent are believed to have some functional vision. Students chose—or were pushed—to use their vision to read because it was seen as a more “normal” option.
Those struggles still exist, Braille advocates say. But technology, instead of marking the end of Braille, has done its share to breathe new life into the reading method.
Portable devices similar to laptop computers allow blind students to type notes and read them back through a Braille display. Similar devices can render text on a computer screen into Braille, using a refreshable display. And software is cutting down on the time it takes to produce Braille reading materials for students, including textbooks. Just listening to books doesn’t teach a blind child how to read, spell, or write, instructors say.
“Technology has really leveled the playing field in so many ways,” said Stuart Wittenstein, the superintendent of the California School for the Blind, in Fremont, Calif.
The school enrolls about 100 students, most of whom do not stay at the school for their entire educational careers, as was once the case. Instead, they may stay for a year or two for intensive immersion in Braille before returning to their home districts. The school also serves as a resource for districts that would like assistance with their blind students.
Even in a Braille-rich environment like a school for the blind, Braille was once so time-consuming to produce “that you never threw away anything that had Braille on it. It was like gold,” Mr. Wittenstein said. Now, staff memos no longer have to wait for a Braille transcriptionist; software can reproduce text documents into Braille, which a skilled person can check for errors.
Today’s textbooks are liberally sprinkled with charts, graphs, photographs, and other visual tidbits intended to draw the wandering attention of students.
When it comes to translating all that information into a format that can be read by blind students, the work has often had to be done page by painstaking page by a Braille transcriptionist.
But a rule written into the 2004 reauthorization of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is intended to make Braille texts easier and faster to produce. The National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard, or NIMAS, is a common language publishers can use that attaches computer codes to all the elements of a textbook, including the text itself.
Software can then use that standard, coded version, called a “source file,” and transform the textbook into Braille, large print, electronic text, or audio files that can be reproduced as speech by special devices.
The source files for textbooks and other instructional materials are stored at a national repository run by the American Printing House for the Blind, in Louisville, Ky. Each state is to designate authorized users who can access the files, create the materials requested by a district or a school, or send them to producers of accessible materials.
The careful handling and limits on access are intended to prevent teachers, students, and publishers from running afoul of copyright protections that normally limit reproduction of textbooks.
NIMAS does not eliminate the need for people to make sure that the Braille texts or other instructional materials are free of error. But a standard source file is a much more efficient way of getting textbooks and instructional materials to students who cannot use standard print, those who work with the system say.
The standard is a particular boon to blind students, because there are so relatively few nationwide that districts may not have a ready repository of Braille materials on hand.
“If a Braille textbook was not ready, it would not be unusual for a kid to wait six months before getting their materials,” said Chuck Hitchcock, the director of the NIMAS Technical Assistance Center, in Wakefield, Mass. The federally-supported center, with the help of partner organizations, is working to get the standard widely used and understood both by educators and publishers. So far, close to 9,000 source files, including 1,600 textbooks, are stored at the National Instructional Materials Access Center, administered by the Kentucky repository.
The process for storing and requesting source files is still developing. The idea said a standard should be created, but it didn’t specify what that standard would look like. The different groups involved had to spend time agreeing on just what the standard would include.
School districts also have to learn a new way of ordering materials, and publishers are improving their ability to create NIMAS-compatible source files. Though there’s still work to be done, the ability to partially automate the process of producing accessible textbooks should make a big difference in the lives of blind students, say those who work to promote the system.
Mary Ann Siller, the director of the national education program for the American Foundation for the Blind, based in Dallas, works with other organizations in teaching people the new system.
“Without your general education teacher, and a teacher for the visually impaired and instructional materials, you’re left out,” Ms. Siller said. “This [system] provides a level playing field.”
“The best of the new technology uses so much Braille that if you don’t know it, you can’t use them,” Mr. Wittenstein said.
Devised in 1821 by Louis Braille, a French man who lost his sight at the age of 3, Braille uses a series of raised dots to represent the letters of the alphabet, numbers, and symbols. The letters are read using the fingertips.
Uncontracted Braille uses a direct substitution of one pattern for each letter, and is sometimes used by early Braille learners. Grade 2 Braille, which is used most often by readers and which was tested in the Braille Challenge, has dozens of contractions to represent common letter combinations, prefixes, and suffixes. Braille that is used in public spaces, as in elevators or on corridor signs, is Grade 2 Braille.
The contractions help make Braille books smaller, though a Braille book like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, released simultaneously with the print edition, is still 1,100 pages over 10 volumes, compared with the 759 pages of the regular edition.
Because relatively few children need Braille instructional materials, getting textbooks to students has been a continuing problem, educators say. “There is still the challenge to make sure kids get their books on time,” said Tanya Holton, the vice president for development of the National Braille Press, a producer of Braille books based in Boston.
But technology offers some hope with that problem as well. The 2004 IDEA reauthorization includes provisions that are intended to ensure that Braille textbooks are produced faster. Though the books will still need a human touch to make sure that the Braille is error-free, the hope is that books will start getting to schools more quickly.
But will Braille knowledge ever approach the 50 percent to 60 percent literacy rate of several decades ago that is often cited by educators in the field? Though the reading method is in use, it is still used sparingly, according to statistics compiled by the American Printing House for the Blind, located in Louisville, Ky.
Congress provides money to states to purchase Braille materials, based on a state’s population of people who are blind or visually impaired. The program began in 1879, to assist what were then relatively new schools for the blind. Since that time, the American Printing House has provided some of those materials and maintained the count.
In fiscal 2006, about 58,000 people from infancy through adulthood were counted through that program. The count differs from the numbers collected under IDEA because APH includes children with disabilities other than blindness, while IDEA allows children to be counted in only a single disability category. So, children who are blind and have other disabilities might be counted in the “multiple disabilities” category established by IDEA, instead of being counted in the “visual impairments” category.
Only about 5,600 of the 58,000 counted by APH were listed as Braille readers, and that’s the proportion Braille advocates use when they describe what they believe is a troubling 10 percent Braille literacy rate.
More than half the 58,000 people registered in the program were listed as nonreaders or pre-readers, however. When they are taken out of the count, the Braille literacy rate jumps to 24 percent among the students who remain. Mr. Wittenstein at the California School for the Blind considers that to be a more accurate percentage.
Many of the students who are being counted as not reading Braille are children whose disabilities are so severe that they would not read print if sighted, educators say. Others are children who, after evaluation, have stable enough vision to read print using their remaining eyesight.
Phil Hatlen, who recently retired as the superintendent of the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, in Austin, said his field needs to make sure that it’s exploring the best ways to instruct children with multiple disabilities. Good Braille instruction also has to be provided to children in more isolated areas, where trained teachers may be scarce, he said.
“If we can do that, we are probably serving children appropriately,” Mr. Hatlen said. “I don’t think teachers are coming out of school with no respect for Braille.”
But that’s not the belief of Frederic K. Schroeder, a research professor at the Interwork Institute at San Diego State University who focuses on vocational rehabilitation. Mr. Schroeder also served in the U.S. Department of Education as the head of the Rehabilitation Services Administration during the Clinton administration.
“I’ve talked to parents who have pushed for Braille, and they are told, ‘Why are you going to make your child more handicapped than he really is?’ ” Mr. Schroeder said.
He also notes that although many blind children have residual vision, there’s no guarantee it will be stable enough to allow them to use it to read throughout their lifetimes. Mr. Schroeder, an officer with the National Federation of the Blind, began losing his sight at age 7. He did not become completely blind until he was in his late teens, which is when he taught himself Braille.
“The default, in my mind, ought to be Braille,” he said. “How exactly have you harmed a child by teaching them Braille?”
Alarmed by what they see as low Braille literacy rates, advocacy groups like the national federation have fought successfully for national policy changes. To counter the notion that Braille is a second-best option behind print reading, the 1997 and 2004 reauthorizations of the IDEA require a child who is blind or visually impaired to be taught Braille unless the team developing that child’s education plan agrees that Braille is not appropriate. Thirty-three states have passed similar laws.
Braille advocates say such policies are needed to stress that Braille should be presumed to be the most appropriate way for a child who is blind or visually impaired to attain literacy. They cite statistics that show the one bright spot amid otherwise dismal employment numbers for the blind or visually impaired is Braille knowledge. An often-cited study published in 1996 surveyed 74 blind adults; those who knew Braille had a significantly higher employment rate than those who did not.
For the students participating in the Braille Challenge, held June 28, there’s no question about the primacy of Braille in their lives.
“In the long run, it’s imperative that you learn Braille,” said Caitlin Hernandez, who will be attending the University of California at Santa Cruz this fall, with plans to become a middle school teacher. She won the Braille Challenge in her grade category this year. “You need to learn and spell and punctuate. I don’t know how I’d live without it,” said the 18-year-old Danville, Calif., native, who has been blind since birth because of a genetic eye disease.
“There’s no reason you shouldn’t learn Braille, just like there’s no reason for sighted kids not to learn print. There’s no reason to be illiterate,” said Joshua Pearson, a 16-year-old high school junior from Barre, Mass. He developed an eye disease soon after he was born called retinopathy of prematurity.
M. Cay Holbrook, an associate professor and the director of the training program for teachers of the visually impaired at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, has questions about some of the often-cited numbers about the decline in Braille use. But within the field, she said, there’s no question about the importance of Braille in the lives of students who need it.
“We in the field embrace a full continuum of services,” Ms. Holbrook said. “The issue is not Braille vs. print. The issue is literacy.”
A version of this article appeared in the July 16, 2008 edition of Education Week as Braille Makes a Comeback