Staying in touch through Braille

Reading: The use of Braille has declined sharply, but some advocates for the blind are working to reverse that trend.

February 09, 1999|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

The raised dots and flat areas of his Braille page take Jeremy R. Lincicome through the hills and plains of the stories he loves. He may be revisiting his favorite book, "Aliens for Breakfast." He may be reading about a hospital in a book by television's Mister Rogers. Or his fingers may be telling him about Stevie Wonder.

Jeremy, an 11-year-old fifth-grader, is the only blind student at Johnnycake Elementary School in Baltimore County and one of about 200 visually impaired students learning Braille in Maryland.

Use of Braille has declined sharply in the United States since World War II. Three decades ago, 44 percent of the nation's blind used Braille; now that's only 9 percent.

In Maryland, about 15 percent of the 1,356 visually impaired students ages 3 to 21 are studying Braille, according to the most recent statewide school survey in 1995.

But advocates are urging a resurgence -- and have helped enact laws making Braille instruction available.

"Blind children need the same opportunities as sighted children to read by 9 years old," says Barbara Cheadle of Catonsville, president of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children and a staff member of the National Federation of the Blind.

In the late 1980s, Cheadle and her husband, John, won a long battle to have Baltimore County schools teach Braille to their son, Charles.

That victory helped spur the General Assembly to enact a 1992 law providing that every visually impaired child who wants to learn Braille can do so.

In 1997, federal legislation required much the same.

In Maryland, Braille use has increased since the state legislation, says Loretta McGraw, who oversees state education services for the visually or hearing impaired.

She says instruction in Braille is available for all students who want it.

But the relatively low percentage of Braille readers continues to be of concern for advocates.

In the 1995 survey of Maryland's visually impaired students, twice as many students -- about 30 percent of these surveyed -- were nonreaders as were studying Braille.

Some of these students have other disabilities such as mental retardation, cerebral palsy, learning disabilities and motor deficits that limit their ability to read. But the survey results do not bode well, according to Braille advocates.

Many blind people are "exceedingly successful" without Braille, but "the percentages of success for many are better if they do know it," says Marc Maurer, president of the federation. Others echo that feeling.

"If a blind person doesn't know Braille it isn't devastating, but Braille does offer much to enrich lives," says Fredric K. Schroeder, commissioner of the federal Rehabilitation Services Administration.

Schroeder is the highest-ranking blind presidential appointee, but he does not use Braille. He relies instead on tape recorders, books on tape and people reading to him. He became totally blind at 16 and began teaching himself Braille but is not proficient.

Because about 80 percent of legally blind Americans are not totally blind and can make some use of print, Schroeder argues, the best approach for many is striking a balance between reading some print and Braille.

Link to employment

But Braille promoters say the blind need it to be literate, fully educated, employable and independent. The National Federation of the Blind says that, while 70 percent of the country's blind people are unemployed, 91 percent of those with jobs are proficient in Braille.

Rather than learning Braille, many blind people rely on such devices as tape recorders, taped and large-print books, and magnifiers. Some educators and parents lack knowledge of Braille and enthusiasm for it. In some cases, that's because parents and children with partial sight may feel that using Braille stigmatizes children with their peers.

Braille makes use of raised dots in various combinations that are read by fingertips moving from left to right. The dots are arranged in a basic module called a cell, a rectangle of two columns of three dots each.

Different combinations of dots and cells express the 26 letters of the alphabet, numbers, capital letters and punctuation. Speeding the process is an American Braille list of 180 contractions of frequently used words and groups of letters.

A blind French teen-ager, Louis Braille (1809-52), invented the system in the 1820s, when he discovered that the blind could not easily write using the existing methods of reading raised lines.

Braille is not easy, but blind children can learn to read using it in the same amount of time as sighted children of equal ability, supporters say. Braille readers are considered proficient if they read faster than they normally talk.

Jeremy Lincicome, who has cerebral palsy that affects some movement of his left hand, isn't fully proficient yet by that standard. He has been studying Braille for more than five years.

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