Braille literacy flags, even as technology makes it more urgent
Only 12 percent of legally blind children in the US can read braille.
At 12:01 a.m. Saturday, their fingers will race across the pages of J.K. Rowling's final Harry Potter installment. They'll be dressed – just like Potter – in wizard robes and Hogwarts school uniforms as their fingertips absorb the raised-dot combinations known as braille.Skip to next paragraph
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Potter's much-awaited fate will be revealed to these blind children at Boston's Midnight Madness party at the National Braille Press (NBP). It will be a time of celebration, as the party marks only the second time braille readers have had simultaneous access to a new Harry Potter book release.
But these braille-literate children are a clear minority in the blind community. The NBP estimates that today only 12 percent of 55,000 legally blind children in the United States can read braille – named for founder Frenchman Louis Braille. Although the number does not account for those cognitively unable to read, the literacy rate is down significantly from 50 percent in the 1960s.
It seems the time, effort, and money it takes to teach children braille is sometimes passed over in favor of less expensive and less time-consuming audio and computer aids. To many within the blind community, this trend holds serious ramifications.
"[Literacy] is the biggest single determinant of a person's ability to be successful," says Steven Rothstein, president of Perkins School for the blind in Watertown, Mass. "If literacy rates had gone down for the general population, there would be a political uproar in this country."
Mr. Rothstein estimates that braille literacy is closer to 20 percent and considers the decline an "enormous crisis" requiring a civil rights movement for America's disabled.
According to statistics from the American Foundation for the Blind, only 32 percent of the blind in the US are employed. But several studies indicate that at least 90 percent of that population who hold jobs are braille literate.
The decline in literacy is generally linked to the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, which mainstreamed blind students into public schools where teachers were often unprepared to teach them. Today about 85 percent of blind schoolchildren are enrolled in public schools.
According to the National Federation of the Blind, 33 states have enacted bills promoting braille instruction within K-12 school systems.
NBP vice president Tanya Holton says this "grass-roots" effort began in the late 1980s when blind adults became concerned that American youth were not receiving adequate braille instruction. She says guardians should be educated about such legislation and prepared to fight for braille education.
Trials in seeking better teaching in schools
Stephen Yerardi, class president of Perkins's 2004 graduating high school class, soberly recalls his family's fight for braille education in the New Hampshire public school system when he was 9. He says teachers suggested a "life-skills program" with no academic instruction and no hope for college.
"I hated going to school," Mr. Yerardi says by phone. "The teachers didn't really understand how to teach me, and they were kind of negative toward me."
Yerardi says he received braille instruction just twice a week – significantly too little time, he says – from a teacher who mistakenly reversed dot combinations.
"They had no experience teaching a blind student," he says. "I was the only person with a physical disability in nine towns."
At age 13, Yerardi says school system administrators paid for his instruction at Perkins after coming to the conclusion that they could not provide adequate resources.