Chapter Four – Learn Braille Later in Life

Many of the suggestions presented in earlier sections can also be used with adults. However, we shall first consider the areas of difference which must be considered. Older people often find it very difficult to learn braille. Some of the reasons are listed here and then each is discussed later.

Language patterns are established in the brain around age 12
A change from visual mode to tactual mode is difficult
A shift from a gross perceptual system (words & phrases) to a fine perceptual system (single letters & characters) is confusing
There may be a negative attitude to blindness and thus to braille
There may be a lack of self-confidence
Loss of vision affects other parts of the brain as well as visual parts
The cause of blindness may affect other functions as well
The elderly have impairments in other areas too
The elderly may not see a need for braille
The braille code itself is too complex

1. Language Patterns are Established in the Brain

People who study language and the brain tell us that before age 12 the brain is open for new language and it is easy to establish language and code patterns. After age 12 the brain is closed for easily learning new language codes and it is a difficult task to learn a new language or a new code for a language.

Remember the Network of Associations Loop mentioned in the discussion of the importance of oral reading. In adults the loop is now closed. Forcing information inside requires associating new information with the old information already in the loop. Many repetitions and experiences are necessary using ears, lips, tongue, vocal chords and fingers to connect and reinforce the new skills into the memory. Again oral reading is essential. For a person learning braille later in life, since braille was not part of their original language learning, it will be a long time before the language in the memory can be activated by the finger’s tactual input. It may take thousands of repetitions before this becomes automatic.

Input from into to produce
vocal chords
tongue reading

2. A Change From Visual Mode to Tactual Mode

A sighted person learns most of what he encounters through vision and relies on the other senses very little. The nerve endings in the fingers have not been stimulated by use. The pathways of learning by touch have not been well established. It is often very tiring and frustrating to have to use the sense of touch which has not been well developed.

A word here on hand usage for reading braille. Encourage use of both hands but do not insist upon it. Some people can sort out information from 2 hands but others cannot. If person shows a definite preference for reading with right hand alone or reading with left hand alone there is probably a good reason. There are many excellent readers who use just one hand.

The knowledge of print symbols is usually firmly established on the loop of associations in the brain. To remove the print symbol and then replace it with a braille symbol requires much time, patience and practice.

3. A Shift From A Gross Perceptual System to A Fine One

Sighted people can see whole words and even phrases at a glance. Most words are recognized as wholes. They can rapidly glance back and forth over a print word or phrase to instantaneously determine letter patterns and word patterns.

When people switch to braille they must read letter by letter because they can feel only one letter at a time. They cannot quickly glance back or forth over a word or phrase. They must read putting together the pieces in the right order to make a whole. This involves a reorganization of thought processes and it is difficult and it is slow.

4. Attitude Toward Blindness

Some people reject the study of braille as an escape from the acceptance of blindness. They may not want to admit to themselves or to others that they have this handicap. They may look upon learning braille as an admission of defeat. They may see blindness as another sign of old age. They may have had very little support from ophthalmologists who tend to look upon blindness as a medical failure. Like doctors, they are trained to cure not to help those they cannot cure.

5. Lack of Self-Confidence

Especially for those who have been losing their sight gradually or for those who have always had only a little vision there may be a lack of self-confidence and a feeling of failure. This is most evident in teenagers who have been unable to find acceptance or understanding from their peers in the integrated school system. For them, trying to learn braille may be associated with a fear of appearing different as well as a fear of making mistakes and feeling humiliation.

6. Loss of Vision Affects Other Parts of the Brain

Because so much of the electrical activity in the brain is stimulated by vision in sighted people, when this visual stimulation is cut off, all the brain processes receive less electrical activity and are affected. In young blind children the brain is able to compensate for this lack of visual stimulation by reorganizing but for older people compensating is more difficult.

7. The Cause of Blindness May Affect Other Functions

In adults, the leading cause of blindness is diabetes which may also affect sense of touch, sense of hearing and level of energy. Some other diseases cause hearing loss as well as vision loss. Accidents may result in other physical injuries. If blindness is caused by a brain tumour, the operation or the tumour itself may affect other processes as well.

8. The Elderly May Have Impairments in Other Areas

Elderly people often have poorer touch sensitivity, poorer short term memory, less energy, slower thought processes, poorer hearing, less finger dexterity, and less ability to concentrate. They may find it difficult to have patience, enthusiasm and a sense of humour – all of which are needed to learn braille in later years. The older you are the more difficult it is to learn anything new.

9. The Elderly May Not See A Need for Braille

Young children are motivated to learn braille for their school work. Because braille needs much repetition and years of practice children usually have the time to become proficient with it but the elderly usually don’t have that time. The elderly can listen to books on tape and usually don’t need braille enough to make the effort to learn it.

10. The Braille Code Itself is Too Complex

In Grade Two Braille there are many short forms to memorize and people sometimes become so discouraged trying to learn them that they just give up.
If more books were available in Grade One Braille, which is written out letter by letter with no short forms, more people would be able to use braille. Most elderly people if they learn braille at all learn Grade One Braille.

Perhaps surprisingly, after considering the above ten difficulties, many adults can and do learn braille. There are three categories of adults who may want to learn braille.

those who used print well and want to learn braille so they can read and write again
those who had poor print literacy skills and who not only want to learn braille but they also want to learn to read better and write better
those who always used braille but used it poorly and want to improve their braille literacy skills

Step One is the same for all groups

Learn to read and write only the braille letters.

When this has been accomplished follow separate plans for each group.

Group 1 – Those who used print well

After learning to read and write the braille letters follow the program for young adults by reading stories in Grade One Braille aloud and following while others read aloud. Punctuation and composition signs are learned from the context.

After the student is a fluent reader with Grade One administer the tactual discrimination test and only begin teaching contractions if score on test is over 90%. Otherwise continue using Grade One Braille. Remember – the student has the right to the code which is best for her/him. If the score is less then 90%, Grade One is the best code for him/her. If score is over 90% Grade Two is probably the best code for her/him.

Group 2 – Those who used print poorly

After learning to read and write the braille letters, give the student the auditory perception skills test and if the test indicates a need give the necessary auditory training skills.

Next follow the written phonics program. When that is completed read simple stories. Then give the tactile discrimination test. If score is under 90% do not teach contractions. Nearly all people in this group will be best served if they always use Grade One.

Group 3 – Those who used braille poorly

The most common reason for using braille poorly is Grade Two Braille. If a person wants to use braille better, they need to use Grade One. Once that is established follow steps for Group 2 above.

There is a slight chance that other reasons contributed to poor use. Still follow the above steps. If the student should learn Grade Two it will show up on the tactile discrimination test when it is time. Then and only then, if the score is over 90%, reintroduce Grade Two.

Nearly all people in this group will be best served if they continue to use Grade One.