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A New Perspective on Literacy for Students with Low Vision

By guest author Allison Hilliker

Photo of Allison HillikerImagine a reading solution where students with low vision could read for an extended period of time without eye fatigue. A solution where their ability to distinguish among letters was not dependent upon print size, contrast, lighting, color, or font style. Where skimming or rereading a paragraph or page wouldn’t be cause for frustration or eye strain. Where students could easily discern the subtleties of spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and paragraph layout. Imagine a reading option in which individuals didn’t have to hold the book close to their face or hunch over a tablet screen in order to read. Well, there is a reading solution that enables students to accomplish this and more. That solution is Braille.

Braille? Seriously? Why?

Braille readers who have varying degrees of usable sight have demonstrated how they have been able to read on or above grade level simply by using Braille. For decades, Braille has enabled individuals to compete effectively with their sighted classmates while in higher education and with colleagues in the workplace. Studies have shown that, while there is a high rate of unemployment among adults who are blind or visually impaired, the majority of those individuals who are employed use Braille. (Bell & Mino, 2013; Ryles, 1996). These facts demonstrate that there is a tremendous benefit to students who obtain Braille skills and use Braille consistently.

But Wait!  These Students Have Partial Sight

An individual need not be totally blind, or even close to it, in order to benefit from reading Braille. Many young students with low vision are able to keep pace with their peers in primary grades because the print is large and/or minimal on any one page. As these students progress to upper grades, however, the print decreases in size and increases in volume. These changes often cause frustration and lead students to avoid reading altogether or resort to using audio only. This causes a wider gap between students with visual impairments and their peers. In contrast, when a student with partial sight becomes proficient in Braille, the student has the option to choose which reading media (print or Braille) works best in any given situation. As a result, low vision Braille readers will be equipped with multiple tools to obtain success.

Isn’t Braille Difficult and Time Consuming to Learn?

No. It’s often believed that Braille is difficult, tedious, and time consuming to learn, and it results in low comprehension levels. However, experiences reported by Braille-reading adults have demonstrated the opposite. Many adult Braille readers read with a proficiency level equal to that of their sighted friends and colleagues. (Ryles, 1996). Students who learn Braille and are encouraged to practice it daily emerge with reading speeds and comprehension skills that are comparable to their sighted peers.

During preschool, a sighted child typically begins to learn reading skills in print. When a preschool-aged child with a visual impairment learns reading in a similar manner to sighted classmates, but uses Braille instead of print, both learners typically develop similar reading abilities. It may or may not take a little longer for older students just beginning Braille to become proficient readers. However, with daily encouragement and practice, all students can develop Braille skills quickly and become fluent readers like their sighted counterparts who use print.

Braille itself is not inherently slower or more difficult to read than print, it’s just that when individuals learn anything later in life, it may seem harder at the beginning. The important thing is for teachers to have a positive attitude about Braille so that students will be motivated to use it even if it is difficult in the beginning.

Won’t My Students Resist Learning Braille?

If an instructor is excited about Braille, students are likely to be as well. Enthusiasm for Braille will reduce resistance to using it. Exposing students to role models who use Braille (especially individuals who are the same age as the learners), can be encouraging. Often, students learning Braille feel isolated because they believe they are the only Braille readers in the area or because they are the only Braille reader they know. Introducing students with low vision to other Braille users can normalize Braille and motivate them to learn to read just as well or better as others in either Braille or print.

It is normal for children, and some adults for that matter, to resist working on tasks that are difficult at first. Just like with other skills, daily practice will make Braille much easier. A positive attitude about Braille will go a long way toward encouraging students. If an instructor has the attitude that Braille is important, exciting, and fun to use, students will be more likely to believe the same.

What about Audio Reading, Isn’t That Sufficient?

While listening to a book may seem to be a viable alternative, it has some limitations. Adults who primarily listened to books instead of actively reading for themselves when they were younger often discovered they later struggled with academic writing. The audio format prevented them from obtaining proficiency in spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and other writing skills. Not every writing challenge can be resolved through spell-check, and two words that sound the same can be spelled differently. Limited opportunities for interacting with text while young can create difficulties with writing while pursuing higher education or employment. Braille, when presented in a positive way and reinforced with practice, eliminates those deficiencies.

In addition, an audio format does not allow students to review notes while giving a presentation or reading a speech aloud. This may not seem like an important task for younger students, but presentation skills are often required in higher education and some employment settings. Holding a printed page close to one’s face, or speaking to a group with an ear bud in one ear, may not present a professional impression. On the contrary, a skilled Braille reader skimming Braille notes while facing and engaging the audience can be extremely effective. In this way Braille can enable students to read aloud with confidence and poise.

Braille may also be preferable to audio options for labeling important items such as medication bottles, school folders, etc. Braille can be useful for making board/card games accessible, reading books aloud to younger children, or even keeping lists for groceries, passwords, guests, and so on.

Does Learning Braille Mean That Students Can Never Use Print?

Absolutely not. Students with low vision are not required to use Braille exclusively. While individuals will become more proficient readers by using Braille daily, they may still read print when, and if, it meets their low vision requirements such as print size, color contrast, font style, etc. Having proficient Braille skills and the ability to read print presents students with two viable options: Braille or print. Many successful students with low vision are competent readers in both Braille and print (either large print or via magnification devices) and are skilled in deciding which reading media is best for any given situation. This expertise develops over time with practice and confidence. Experienced Braille readers often discover that Braille is the most effective option the majority of the time while other formats may be options when Braille is unavailable. In addition, students’ preferences for Braille over print are likely to increase as their reading becomes faster and more fluent. The optimal scenario for a student with low vision who is proficient in Braille is having several media options from which to choose.

Won’t Students Feel Self-Conscious About Reading Braille?

There is no shame in anyone with partial sight choosing to read Braille in addition to or instead of other formats. Braille has been a respectable method of media for over one hundred years. Many young students are amazed to learn that Braille was invented by a French boy, Louis Braille, at age fifteen — perhaps close to their own age. As with many subjects, an instructor’s positive attitude toward Braille helps students develop a positive attitude too.

Allison Hilliker demonstrating how she teaches braille using a muffin tin and balls Students with low vision may already feel self-conscious if they have to read enlarged text on oversized paper; hold papers close to their face; hunch over a table to read textbooks, worksheets, or tablets; or they must sit very close to a computer screen. Rather, students who perfect Braille reading skills may find that they are more like their sighted classmates because they are comfortable reading in a variety of settings.

Braille enables a student to sit up proudly while reading with confidence. Any student who reads well is more likely to be comfortable reading in groups, regardless of media choice. Moreover, Braille readers can read regardless of lighting quality or eye fatigue. The versatility of Braille may motivate a student to read more often. In addition, introducing students to Braille as young as possible can increase acceptance and lead to a smoother learning process.

Braille readers who can read fluidly, quickly, and without stress are more likely to be confident and have higher cognitive levels than poor readers who struggle to use the same media options (regular print) as their peers.

How Can Parents and Educators Get On Board with Braille?

The National Reading Media Assessment (NRMA) is a free assessment tool available to instructors that uses current research to determine whether a student with a visual impairment would benefit from learning Braille or print as their primary media. The results of this assessment may be shared with other members of a student’s education team such as parents, administrators, and other teachers. Seeing a demonstrated need for Braille instruction may help others understand the importance of Braille. With a positive approach toward Braille and the belief that Braille will help students be successful in education and employment, instructors may find that others will be more open toward Braille as an option. Feel free to explain to others that Braille does not mean the student with low vision will no longer use any remaining vision. Rather, Braille enhances one’s education by adding an additional literacy tool to use when vision may not be reliable. Through reading Braille, a student’s confidence grows because reading efficiently in any situation has occurred.

Does Bookshare Have Books in Braille?

Yes! All of Bookshare’s English language books are available in Braille Ready Format (BRF). Bookshare is currently testing Unified English Braille (UEB) which will be officially released on our site in early 2016. This feature will not only allow access to hundreds of thousands of books in this code, but will also allow instructors to be able to demonstrate the new UEB standard through books that will engage readers with diverse interests. Titles can be downloaded by logging into Bookshare, searching for a book, and then selecting BRF from the format dropdown box. Note that some DAISY readers can read the DAISY text format using an electronic Braille display. Such displays will show text in Braille even if it has not been directly translated into Braille by other means. We invite you to sign up and try one of our hundreds of thousands of Braille books today!

Additional Resources:

About the author: Allison Hilliker provides Bookshare customer support for Benetech’s Global Literacy program. She has a Bachelor of Science degree from Arizona State University, serves as secretary for the National Association to Promote the Use of Braille, and has been a part of the Benetech team for over eight years. Allison and her fiancé maintain the Blind Access Journal website and podcast and are expecting their first child in January. As a legally blind individual who has experience reading both Braille and print, Allison has a special passion for the topic of literacy for people who are partially sighted.

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Citations:

  1. Bell, E. C., & Mino, N. M. (2013). Blind and visually impaired adult rehabilitation and employment survey: Final results. Journal of Blindness Innovation and Research, 3(1). Retrieved from https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/jbir/jbir13/jbir030101abs.html. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5241/2F1-35
  2. Ryles, R., (1996), “The Impact of Braille Reading Skills on Employment, Income, Education, and Reading Habits,” Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness 90(3), 219-226.

2 Comments

  1. I recently met an older lady who has been reading Braille since she was a teen, which was some sixty years ago. And she’s fully sighted.

    Her story is inspiring: in kindergarten, she was diagnosed as mildly retarded, but her parents insisted she attend public school anyway. She struggled to read and comprehend and with intensive tutoring,made it through elementary school.

    In 7th grade, a teacher believed she had learning disabilities and suggested she try Braille. The hope was that other parts of her brain could compensate, and they did. Since her parents and friends had been reading to her since she was little, the love of books and the realization that she could now do so independently drove her to master the skill.

    She graduated from high school at the top of her class and went on to earn two masters in literature and education, all while reading Braille.

    This is the third person I’ve heard of who used Braille to overcome a serious learning disability. So it may not just be a solution for us vision-impaired folks.

    As a person who learned Braille at age five, I fully agree with everything in this blog post!

  2. Roberto Gonzalez

    Great article. The employment statistics for blind people that know braille versus those that do not are startling and cannot be over emphasized.

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