By Bill Glauber
of the Journal Sentinel
Posted: Feb. 2, 2010
Ronnay Howard is 9 years old and legally blind with cornrows in her hair and a smile on her face.
She sits in front of a keyboard in the resource room for the visually impaired at Engleburg Elementary School, her small hands moving methodically over six large keys.
She is writing in Braille, spelling out a single word – furious.
“I know I’m really good at it,” she says.
This is how Braille is learned and how it is preserved, one student at a time, one word at a time.
Technology has been a great leveler, a blessing in this modern age for those with visual impairments. It has enabled tens of thousands of people to access written material quickly, to hear what they cannot see.
But there is an underside to the use of technology, to all the cassette tapes and digital recordings of everything from romance novels to textbooks to government forms.
It is called Braille illiteracy.
The National Federation of the Blind has been waging a campaign to ensure that those who are visually impaired learn how to read Braille.
According to a report issued last year by the advocacy group, fewer than 10% of the 1.3 million people who are legally blind in America are Braille readers. Reasons for the low rate of Braille literacy include a shortage of Braille teachers, schools not offering Braille to students who have low vision and a so-called “spiral of misunderstanding” that the system is slow and difficult to learn.
The report also zeroed in on the “paradox of technology,” which makes Braille more available than ever before yet also makes more audio available, too.
Now, people routinely use audio to read, with digital technology or computer software that translates the written word into speech.
“Every time a new technology came along, they said this is the thing that can replace Braille,” says Marc Riccobono, executive director of the National
Federation of the Blind’s Jernigan Institute in Baltimore.
Braille Takes Back Seat
Riccobono, a Milwaukee native who was diagnosed with glaucoma at age 5, says that during the 1960s and 1970s there was an influx of blind students into the public education system. With a shortage of Braille teachers, a convenient way to educate the children was with audio devices.
“You had a whole generation that grew up without Braille,” he says.
The bicentennial of the birth of Braille’s creator was celebrated last year. A blind Frenchman named Louis Jean-Philippe Braille created a system of raised dots to allow the blind to read. He did it by modifying a French military code that was used by soldiers to communicate in the dark without using lanterns.
Braille opened up a new world of possibility and education.
During the middle of the 20th century, about half of visually impaired school-age students in America read Braille. Now, it’s around 1 out of 10.
In Milwaukee Public Schools, about 20 students – out of 130 visually impaired – read Braille. Some students in the system have multiple disabilities.
“People realize that Braille is literacy,” says Hope Good, who works in program support at Engleburg Elementary. “You can’t spell or punctuate with a tape recorder.”
Marilyn Harmon, who teaches the visually impaired, says most Braille readers “catch up with their sighted peers by the fifth grade.” For adults, it’s trickier.
Harmon took a semester-long course in Braille and needed two tries to pass a state certification exam.
“Braille is making a comeback,” she says.
And Milwaukee provides a key to that resurgence.
At the central branch of the Milwaukee Public Library, a remarkable collection of transcribers and technicians keeps Braille alive. This is the home of
Audio & Braille Literacy Enhancement Inc. – known as ABLE. The nonprofit group provides Braille transcriptions as well as audio items for those unable
to use print materials.
Cheryl Orgas is ABLE’s executive director. Blind since birth, Orgas was the first member of her family to graduate from college. For her, Braille is a cornerstone of education.
“Seventy percent of the blind are unemployed in this country,” Orgas says. “Of the remaining 30% who have jobs, 80% of them know Braille.
“Braille is attached to literacy and to success in employment.”
For audio material, the group uses 24 volunteer readers. For Braille, there are 12 volunteer transcribers. Most of the volunteers work at home. It takes
around 20 hours to transcribe, proofread and then print 69 pages of Braille. The organization transcribes around 1,000 items into Braille each year.
“We’re doing estate plans, tax returns, opera librettos and symphony orchestra programs,” Orgas says. “The budget for this organization is in Braille.”
Cheri McGrath, ABLE’s board president, has been blind since birth. She recalls that when she was a child she knew she needed to learn Braille. She remembers being in a bathtub and discussing with her mother the various spellings and meanings for teddy bear, bare arms and Bayer aspirin.
“If you didn’t have a written language, you’d be the odd man out,” McGrath says. “Spelling brings us together.”
Reproduced from http://www.jsonline.com/news/milwaukee/83312802.html