January is Braille Literacy Month

Submitted by Lighthouse Volunteer, Caryl Melancon

Young man sitting in front of a braille embosser.

Ninety percent (90%) of employed persons with vision impairments use braille to effectively read and write. Unfortunately, only 10% of children with vision impairments are currently learning braille.

There is a literacy crisis among the blind in America. Literacy is defined as the ability to read and write. For many persons with total or profound vision loss, the only way they can effectively read and write is by using Braille, a system of raised dots invented by a blind Louis Braille.

The Braille code was introduced in the United States in 1869, but was not adopted as a Standard English code until 1932. From that point into the early 1960’s, many blind children were taught to read and write using Braille. Unfortunately, from 1965 on, the Braille literacy rate declined. Today, according to the National Federation for the Blind (NFB), over 90% of the 1.3 million legally blind people in the United States do not read Braille, and it is being taught to only 10% of blind children.

A number of things have contributed to this extremely low literacy rate for persons who are blind. Since the passage of the Rehabilitation Act by Congress in 1973, thousands of children are now enrolled in the public school system rather than in specialized schools for the blind. The problem, however, is that only a small number of public schools can afford to hire or train Braille teachers.  There, also, is the misguided idea that technology—such as audio books and talking computers—are a substitute for Braille. Therefore many educators think Braille isn’t necessary. Children with some residual vision are being denied Braille instruction because of the emphasis on print magnification. However, even with magnification, many children with low vision cannot read print effectively.

Being literate is essential to succeed in life. While the rate of unemployment for persons who are blind is extremely high (70%), it is interesting to note that 90% of blind individuals who are employed are Braille readers. The NFB, the oldest and largest organization of blind persons in the U.S., has been the champion of Braille literacy for decades. They have initiated a campaign to double the number of Braille readers by 2015.

The President and Congress recognized the critical role Braille plays in the independence and success of the blind with the passage of Public Law 109-247 in July 2006. The law authorized the minting of the 2009 Louis Braille Bicentennial Silver Dollar. Louis Braille was born on January 4, 1809 in Coupvray, France and became totally blind by the age of 5. As a young child, while attending a school for blind children, Louis became disenchanted with the books for the blind that had large letters embossed on the pages. As a result, he started punching holes in paper and developed what we know today as the Braille code. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of 2009 Louis Braille Bicentennial Silver Dollars goes toward the Braille literacy campaign. The coins can be obtained from the U.S. Mint or from the NFB.

Another effort to spread the word about the importance of Braille was the “Let Freedom Ring” book. This is a book of 100 letters to the President of the United States from blind children, adults and senior citizens that explains Braille’s role in their lives. On February 1, 2010, Arn Duncan, Secretary of Education accepted the book on behalf of President Obama from Fred Schroeder, NFB’s First Vice President.

The Annual Braille Challenge, also, promotes Braille literacy and competency. It is a national academic competition open to all blind students up to grade 12.  The Challenge stresses reading comprehension, spelling, Braille speed and accuracy, proofreading and the reading of tactile charts and graphs.

The Lighthouse for the Visually Impaired and Blind offers free training in Braille reading and writing for persons who are blind and visually impaired of all ages, living in Pasco, Hernando and Citrus Counties. We are also seeking donors in support of our babies, children’s and adult literacy activities. Please contact the Lighthouse for more information:

Lighthouse for the Visually Impaired and Blind
8610 Galen Wilson Blvd., Port Richey, FL 34668
Phone: (727) 815-0303, Toll free: 1-866-962-5254

References

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