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.

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.

Consistent braille and computer instruction at Perkins changed his academic future, he says. As a dean's list student at Keene State College where he will be junior this fall, Yerardi reads textbooks using a PAC Mate personal digital assistant with audio instruction and a refreshable braille display. He plans to teach technology to the blind after he graduates in 2009.

Technology brings braille to PDAs

The fusion of braille and technology presents an intriguing challenge to the blind community. Some worry that the growing emphasis to modernize will eliminate braille, but this worry is not evident at the Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton, Mass.

On the last Friday of June, three collegiate students gathered in a small classroom with Brian Charlson, Carroll's vice president of computer training.

Mr. Charlson praises the technological advances he's seen during the past decades. Gone are the days when students had to manually make dot combinations with styluses or Perkins Braillers, the common braille typewriter. Now students can electronically scan pages and translate them to braille with Duxbury translation software. They can even print the pages with braille embossers. Refreshable braille displays with changing dot combinations, sleek voice recorders, and the JAWS computer screen-reading program are just a few options available for blind students.

Charlson points to large volumes of braille books in his office shelves. The books are expensive to produce because of the thick paper and size requirements, he says. Unlike print, braille cannot be reduced in size.

So when the Hogwarts aficionados leave the Midnight Madness party early Saturday morning, they each will be toting the 10 braille volumes that make up Potter's final adventures in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows." Each set weighs 12 pounds and costs about $62 to produce, although the NBP will charge the same price sighted readers will pay for the book in an effort to promote parity.

"When everybody talks about technology killing braille, it's the other way around," Charlson says of refreshable braille displays. "Technology is growing braille, because braille is no longer an issue of size. It's still an issue of expense, though."

All three students in Charlson's class say their public school districts funded their Carroll technology class. All know braille, and all have expensive refreshable braille personal digital assistants. And Charlson says each pupil is an example of how such opportunities are "exclusively" available for students or the employed. He reiterates that about 70 percent of the blind population is unemployed and will not have access to such expensive technology.

Renn Bailey of Albuquerque, N.M., enrolled in Charlson's class to prepare for his freshman year at the University of New Mexico. The New Mexico Commission for the Blind provided his BrailleNote – a note-taking device with refreshable braille display and audio instruction. The latest version sells for about $6,000.

"I had a social studies book in audio once, and it was terrible," he says of his preference for reading rather than listening.

Mr. Bailey's classmate Danielle Senick of Norwich, Conn., says she read her first braille book at age 5. Ironically, the book was about the man who changed blind literacy and opened the door to her education.

"I remember sitting out on the porch at this family gathering and everyone was like, 'Read us a book,' " says Ms. Senick, a soon-to-be freshman at Curry College in Milton, Mass. "So I read them this book about Louis Braille. I've used braille a lot ... for pleasure, for education. I just feel I'd be lost if I didn't know how to read it."

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