Many low vision students have been denied the opportunity to learn braille. There are several excuses for this. I shall list some of these excuses given for not teaching braille to low vision students and then I will discuss why it is important to allow low vision students to learn alphabetic braille.
Excuse one: they won’t ever use it
Excuse two: they should use residual vision
Excuse three: there is more available in print
Excuse four: braille is too difficult
Excuse five: it makes them different
Fact 1: Braille vs print is not an either/or for low vision folks. You don’t have to stop using print to use braille. If you have some vision you can use both print and braille. If your only access to reading and writing is print which you can use only poorly, you cannot function at your highest potential. If you also have access to braille which you can use well, you can function at a higher level. It has been shown that when both braille and print are taught to low vision students, most will choose to do the majority of their writing and a great deal of their reading in braille. The point at issue here is choice – but if you are not taught braille you don’t have a choice.
Also at issue here is attitudes-subtle and unintended prejudices towards blindness and braille. Think about the messages conveyed when you say things such as “good, you were able to see that print word” “you don’t have to do as much as the rest because you get headaches when you read” “Fred can read print but Lorna has to use braille”. The messages conveyed are – it is good to see print which is better than braille, it is better to suffer from headaches and do less than use braille.
Another point for school teachers to consider is the future. Some low vision students will loose the useful vision they have after graduation. It is much easier if they already have braille skills established.
Fact Two: Again, if you learn braille it doesn’t mean you have to stop using print. When a person must hold a book right up to the face to see the print or when a person’s writing is so poor it can’t be read by self and/or others or when a person’s eyes get sore when reading for a few minutes or when a person gets headaches when reading or when a person can only read in a certain light then they deserve a break. If they have braille skills they can choose for what and when to use braille. Many low vision people are so grateful when someone teaches them braille.
Fact Three: Yes, there is more available in print but if you can’t read the print easily and quickly, it doesn’t matter. Many people use writing more than they use reading. This is often forgotten when people talk about reading and forget the writing. Again, if you learn to read braille, you don’t have to stop reading print.
Fact Four: Yes, contracted braille is too difficult for many people. Alphabetic braille is much easier. If a print user who has been struggling with print for several years learns alphabetic braille something amazing often happens. The print reading itself improves a little. It seems that if you attempt to help a person by using the same way that caused failure for so long, very little progress can be made. But if you enter by a new doorway which is not oriented to failure, success is much more likely. Students, who for years have had problems with reading and writing skills in print, are able to unlock many new strategies when they learn to read and write using a new medium, braille. The vision problems added to the reading and writing problems.
When vision was not used for the new learning not only was success achieved but an increased self-image and a positive attitude were evident.
Fact Five: Reading print poorly and slowly does not make you the same as people who read print well and quickly. It only points out to them your incompetence. Writing large print letters poorly does not make you the same as people who write small print letters well. It only points out to them your incompetence. So in this case print makes you appear incompetent. Incompetent is worse than different, if the difference is good. Using braille efficiently for reading and writing is good. It shows competence and demands respect.
If the low vision child is preschool, encourage them to touch and listen as well as to look. If the low vision child is in elementary school follow the suggestions for that area. If there are learning disabilities present, follow that program. If it is an adult who can read, follow the program for adults. If it is an adult who can’t read follow the literacy suggestions. In other words, follow the same program as you would for the totally blind – using alphabetic braille.