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|December 11-17, 2008
An endangered language
Balancing tradition and technology in pushing Braille literacy
By Eric Adler
The defiant one settles herself with teenage confidence at the end of the classroom table.
She is, by her own account, a “stubborn” and “ornery” student here at the Kansas State School for the Blind.
“A handful,” teachers agree.
They’ve given her a cane. She refuses to use it.
They try to teach her Braille.
“I hate that I have to learn it,” said Hannah Nistler, to whom, at age 16, the tools of blindness are uneasy reminders that, one day, in an instant, her already murky vision could go completely black.
“It’s scary,” she said. “That’s not something I’ve wanted to accept.”
What’s equally scary, say advocates for the blind, is just how few visually impaired children outside of places like this school are being instructed in Braille.
Whereas about half of them were taught the reading and writing method in the 1960s (usually at state institutions, a cheerless affair for families often forced to send their children hundreds of miles away), the number now instructed in it, with “mainstreaming” in public schools, has fallen to 12 percent.
The decline in this foundation of literacy in the blind community since the early 1800s parallels an explosion in technologies designed to help the blind access everything from novels to the Internet: “talking” computers, magnifiers, audiobooks.
Perhaps at a price.
“There is technology that can read print to you, but that is not the same as being literate,” said Chris Danielsen, spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind. “If you listen to books, you don’t learn how to spell from that. You don’t learn how to write from that. You don’t learn how to do punctuation from that.”
His organization hopes the bicentennial anniversary of Braille creator Louis Braille’s birth on Jan. 4 will raise awareness of what it’s calling a crisis in Braille literacy.
“Society would never accept a 10 percent literacy rate among sighted children,” he said. “It would be outrageous.”
Some of the outrage may need to be tempered.
Although only 12 percent of visually impaired children are learning Braille, it’s also true that only about 10 percent are completely blind.
Most of the remaining 90 percent are like Hannah and have some limited vision, or enough to use devices that make Braille less vital.
“In a lot of ways, it is better to be blind now, especially in the United States, than it has been in history,” said Reinhard Mabry, president of Alphapointe, an association that supports the blind and visually impaired in the Kansas City region. “Technology is better than it has ever been.”
Others note that one downside to great technology, however, is that it can allow mainstream educators to get off too easily.
Instead of investing in Braille teachers, who are in short supply, or committing themselves to the expense and effort of teaching Braille, too many school districts convince parents that their visually impaired children can get by primarily using talking computers and the like.
A talking computer, Braille proponents say, won’t read your shopping list in the aisle of a grocery store. It won’t select your floor in an elevator. And what happens when the power lines go down?
“I don’t know anyone who thinks the trend away from Braille is a good one,” said Gary Mudd at the Kentucky-based American Printing House for the Blind.
They also offer this clincher: Of the paltry 30 percent of blind or visually impaired people who are fully employed, 90 percent know Braille.
Hannah and her classmates know all of this, of course.
“They like to pound it into your head,” she said of her instructors.
Founded in 1867, the Kansas State School for the Blind is a series of nondescript brick buildings set on 10 acres in downtown Kansas City, Kan. About 50 children between ages 3 and 21 attend the school daily, with half living relatively close by. The other half come from towns far enough away to require them to sleep in the school’s dormitory during the week.
Hannah, with short auburn hair and gray-blue eyes made fiery green with contacts, comes from tiny Herington, Kan., about 160 miles away.
She recently spoke about how awful it was to grow up tall, at 6 feet 1, having once worn thick glasses in a town where kids taunted her as “stick” and “twig” and “beanpole.”
“I was fitted with glasses before I was in preschool,” she said. “I was told when I was little, I used to run into walls all the time.”
Hannah had been unhappy for years. Her parents, Kyra and Mark Nistler, knew she was angry. She fought in and out of school and once ran away from home. Add to that attention-deficit disorder and depression.
She got eye exams, but only four years ago at the University of Kansas Medical Center did the family get the proper, and dire, diagnosis: retinitis pigmentosa — a degenerative disorder.
For much of Hannah’s life, she’s looked at the world through a black circle, as if peering through the end of a thin straw. At night, she is totally blind.
Whether the straw will stay open, no one knows.
In 2005, she began to lose her colors.
“First, my reds and greens went,” Hannah said. “Then the blues. Then the rest.”
She now sees in shades of black-and-white and grays, some of it gorgeous.
“Roses. They’re beautiful in black and white,” she said.
But her plan had been to be an artist, or perhaps a photographer or interior designer.
“It pretty much crushed my dream,” she said.
That dream, anyway. Now she thinks of going to college to study child development. Since entering the school for the blind, her grades, like her life, she said, have only improved.
“Some of the best grades I ever got,” she said.
At the other end of the English class table sits Chad Rohr, 18, of Lee’s Summit — 6 feet 5 and 245 pounds — with his guide dog at his feet. Hannah and four others sit nearby.
He unfurls his textbook on the table — broad white sheets, the size of placemats, each embossed with hundreds of Braille dots.
His hands sweep across the pages, his large fingers gliding left to right, row after row.
A tumble off an all-terrain vehicle cracked Chad’s skull and nearly killed him at age 13.
“I had traumatic brain injury, and the swelling in my brain pinched my optic nerve,” he explained.
Braille is easy for him now, but he understands Hannah’s reluctance.
“There were days when I just wanted to burn the books I was reading,” he said. “I hated it that much.”
It’s instinctual, he said, to use the sight one has while it’s still there. Thinking about the day it’ll be gone is hard.
Plus, Braille is hard. The system of raised dots was adapted in 1821 from “escriture nocturne,” or “night writing,” a way for soldiers to communicate in the dark on the battlefield.
The code is based around “cells” of six dots.
“Like you’re looking at a muffin pan, horizontally,” said Christian Puett, 16, who, like Hannah, has retinitis pigmentosa. He can see a fog of light and images, but his vision since the eighth grade has been all but gone.
Christian, accomplished in Braille in English and, increasingly, in Spanish, views it as a godsend, giving him the independence to dive into the books he loves.
“I’m not an audio learner,” he said. “I’m a visual learner. It was actually hard for me to do well in school by listening. I could listen to a book like three times and have no idea what I was listening to.”
But he also recognizes how frustrating Braille can be with 189 different cells representing either a letter or a contraction that stands for a whole word or part of a word. The contraction “FR” means “friend.” “GD” means “good.”
“There are so many nitpicky rules,” he said.
To start with, he said, all the dots feel the same. It can take months and, for some, years to master reading them.
But after a while, it’s like visual reading: fluid, unconscious. The independence it offers is freeing.
“Right now,” Christian said, “I’m reading ‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.’ “ The Braille version came out the same night as the print version.
Even as Braille instruction has dwindled, the amount of material available — often free and downloadable onto digital Braille readers — has erupted.
One magazine program at the Library of Congress alone offers more than 50 periodical titles, as varied as Martha Stewart Living, Seventeen, Playboy (just the articles) and Muse: The Magazine of Life, the Universe and Pie Throwing.
Hannah is working on a book of her own.
It’s slow-going. Sometimes she still peers down at the cells, she says, to see if she’s got them right. But in Omaha soon, there’s going be to a Braille reading and writing competition.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I thought I’d try.”
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