Braille Literacy Instruction for the Next Generation
Focus: School Years
Topic: Access to Literacy
Sally S. Mangold, Ph.D.
Exceptional Teaching Aids, Inc.
Exceptional Teaching Aids, Inc.
20102 Woodbine Avenue
Castro Valley, CA 94546
The recent unexpected and tragic world events have made us painfully aware of the fragility of our governments and very way of life. It is important that we focus our awareness on the positive events occurring in the world—of which there are many. The new generation of Braille users face new challenges yet looks forward to spectacular opportunities. Opportunities in the work place, in independent living, and recreation.
Educators need to become aware of these challenges in order to take maximum advantage of the opportunities they will undoubtedly provide. Paperless classrooms, schools without walls, and the ever expanding opportunities for distance education that spans the miles, bare little resemblance to the educational models of the past.
How can we learn to prepare students to function effectively in these new educational settings? Educators must strengthen the traditional building blocks needed to create a solid educational foundation and then combine these blocks to take maximum advantage of the inherent educational qualities made possible by the expanding educational and technological models.
No adult today knows how it feels to be six years old and totally blind; how it feels to be ten years old and using both print and Braille to complete assignments; how it feels to be fourteen and losing your vision. Adults cannot possibly know because we are not six, ten, or fourteen years old in today’s learning environments. Together teachers, parents, and students can develop educational models that address rapidly changing needs.
Educators agree on the importance of developing effective Braille literacy skills. Most services for the blind today are developed using a strong foundation based on well-tested educational theories. They, however, sometimes move much too slowly to keep up with rapidly changing educational models made possible do to technological advances. Innovative Braille literacy skills have been developed by creative blind individuals to perform specific tasks. They create new Braille symbols and applications that work on or off the job. They learn to function successfully in vocations never before held by blind individuals. The greatest challenge facing educators today is to keep up with rapidly changing technology. We must, and I believe we will, be able to make sure that this technology is accessible to blind users. Many of the Braille skills blind adults consider vital to their successes on and off the job are rarely acquired during their early education. They are acquired through experimentation or by sharing ideas with peers. This “folk process” is accelerating because of computers and on-line chatrooms. Young Braille users smile when they hear about the many uses of the Braille slate and stylus; Braille calendars that fit on a wallet-sized card; systems for making Braille labels when only four cells are available; and the many ways to integrate Braille displays, speech output, scanners, and voice activation. Some blind adults have met the challenges of using technology to create Braille in a print-filled environment. It is clear that the needs of the present generation of blind adults are very different from previous generations.
Blind students educated during the last twenty years of the twentieth century were introduced to one specialized piece of technology for the blind after another. The earliest devices had robotic voices that provided screen reading features and feedback about data entered through Braille keyboards or qwerty keyboards. Next, one cell and multiple cell dynamic Braille displays appeared on the scene. For the first time, Braille users could access written text independently. Synthetic speech, Braille displays, computer interface options, and software programs have steadily improved.
The advantages of adapted technology for the blind have been enjoyed primarily by individuals who are able to learn easily and execute complex commands. During the learning process, students who had only used paper Braille and mechanical writing machines were asked to suddenly use abstract indicators to represent format such as paragraphs, columns, centering and much more. Specific features allowed individuals to search, replace, mark, delete, and save their work. These were all very abstract concepts for those who had used only a Braillewriter or a typewriter.
Computers have opened up a vast New World for blind individuals. Educators of the blind generally agree that individuals of all ages learn best when a new abstract concept is introduced with concrete examples and then introduced by using abstract symbols. Blind students of the next generation can now be taught these concepts on embossed paper braille and then gradually moved to more sophisticated technological displays.
It is my pleasure to introduce you to SAL. SAL stands for Speech Assisted Learning. “SAL” allows students to learn using a full-page format on paper Braille. SAL provides immediate knowledge of results. Speech, bar coding, and Braille embossed paper worksheets are combined to create a stand-alone Braille learning station. It allows blind students to examine full-page Braille displays and then hear spoken feedback regarding the accuracy of their work.
There are no commands to learn as students study basic literacy skills of reading and writing. Press on a word to hear it spoken. Press again to hear it spelled and contractions described. When an answer is requested and the student presses his selection, a spoken message indicates if the answer is correct or incorrect.
Blind children in the primary grades can now be instructed in literacy skills that have been traditionally postponed until the student learns computer keyboarding. The next generation must be proficient in both uncontracted and fully contracted Braille for most languages. Most Braille notetakers and editing programs require uncontracted Braille for accessing or deleting files. The option of either uncontracted or fully contracted Braille is given in reading and writing modes. Delete, replace, mark, and tab for column formats can be practiced on SAL with concrete examples.
Once the skills have been mastered, the students may utilize the advantages of a host of adapted electronic devices that utilize Braille and/or speech features. The student must master the production of Braille in many media that will include Braille embossers, dynamic Braille displays, voice activated web browsers and more. It is hoped that a greater percentage of the next generation of blind students will move from hard copy paper Braille to computerized Web access more easily and with more confidence. The ultimate goal is to maximize abilities and thus minimize disabilities. Literacy skills are the key to independence in private and professional life.
Since the time of Louis Braille, each generation has developed innovative ways to use Braille in the home and in the workplace. Many of these techniques created by blind adults have never been documented. They are sometimes shared over the Internet or telephone. There are common threads of introspective views being expressed. Blind people who feel satisfied and content with their lives have many tools from which to choose. They feel skilled with the Braille slate and stylus, Braillewriter, personal computer, optical scanner, and live readers. They have learned to maximize their efficiency in the workplace so that they still have time to fulfill their personal aspirations.
There is a universal consensus that technological devices need to become more affordable and more intuitive. Young blind students should be encouraged to change the rules of Braille codes when doing so will make them more efficient at managing specific tasks.
The SAL learning station offers an opportunity to introduce computer instruction to young children while retaining traditional formats. The user does not need to know any commands and the material is presented in a full-page format. The wonderful thing is that there will surely be many innovative, computer-driven devices in the future.
We must not forget the methods and devices of the past, but we must not let the past hold us hostage. We must treasure and protect the knowledge from the past that can be used wisely today, merge that knowledge with new technology, and be willing to ride the winds of change.
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