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Technology Replacing Braille

Only 85,000 of the 1 million legally blind people in the U.S. use the venerable system. Reliance on audiotapes and magnifiers leaves many others functionally illiterate.

July 28, 1999|SCOTT MARTELLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jeffrey Senge remembers exactly when Braille went out and the audiotapes came in.

It happened at the end of fourth grade at a Santa Rosa elementary school, nearly 40 years ago. During the summer, for reasons he never learned, his teacher was replaced. And so was the Braille-based program he was using to improve his reading skills.

Fifth grade, Senge now believes, marked the end of his own literacy.

"I really missed out. I've struggled," said Senge, 50, who used tapes and letter magnifiers to earn a master's degree in special education from Cal State Fullerton. "Everybody was sincerely trying to do a good job, but they did not think about it clearly, as far as the effect on literacy is concerned."

To Braille advocates, Senge's experience represents the early stages of educational changes that are now coming home to roost: a ballooning population of intelligent, blind adults who are functionally illiterate. The American Foundation for the Blind estimates that out of about 1 million legally blind people in the country, only 85,000 use Braille.

The reason, they say, is increasing reliance on tape recorders, letter magnifiers and computer voice translators leaves the visually impaired with a shaky grasp of the underlying structure of language. In fact, last month, Wells Fargo agreed to provide talking ATMs instead of its current machines with Braille instructions because so few blind people can read Braille.

And the numbers are increasing. The percentage of legally blind students learning Braille--a reading method that breaks language into a code of raised dots--has dropped precipitously from 53% in 1963 to 10% in 1997, according to statistics compiled by the American Printing House for the Blind in Louisville, Ky., a not-for-profit company that conducts an annual national census of blind students.

Statewide, about 21% of the visually impaired school age children capable of learning to read use Braille as their primary method, according to statistics compiled last year by state education officials. In Los Angeles County, the number is 35%; in Orange County, 20%.

Yet Braille can be the key to quality of life for the blind. Nine of 10 blind adults who have jobs read and write Braille, making Braille literacy critical for a segment of the population suffering from 70% unemployment, said Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind in Baltimore.

Harder to measure is the intellectual and artistic void that illiteracy leaves. Unable to read, large numbers of blind Americans find themselves sealed off from the kind of sustenance that can come from losing oneself in a good book.

"It's difficult to say actually how many people use Braille," said Frances Mary D'Andrea of the foundation. "Some use it for labeling or just know the alphabet for home use. They may not be people who sit down and read a Braille book. It's really hard to get numbers for that."

Reading Braille can be laborious. The system, designed by Louis Braille in Paris in 1824, uses a series of six raised dots, in a pattern like the number 6 on game die, to represent the alphabet. It is read by running the fingertips over the dots. Although it is time-consuming, advocates say, it still is faster than using magnifiers.

Benefits of Early Training

Literacy rates among the blind could be improved, according to a 1996 doctoral study by a graduate student at the University of Washington, by teaching Braille to the visually impaired while they are young, at the same time seeing students are taught to read.

The study found that legally blind students who learned Braille at the same time sighted students learned to read achieved, at the high school level, literacy rates similar to their sighted classmates. But students who learned Braille later or were taught to read using their limited vision and magnification devices suffered high rates of illiteracy.

The study's author, Ruby Ryles, now an adjunct faculty member at the Louisiana Center for the Blind and Louisiana Tech University, said the work affirmed the importance of Braille in helping young blind students understand the basic structure of language.

Jan Wadsworth, program specialist for the Azusa Unified School District's program for visually impaired students, discounted the link between Braille literacy and employability, arguing that social skills play a more significant role for blind job-seekers. The reason: They need to win over potential employers who are uncomfortable with directing blind staffers.

"[Employers] react personally to the fact that they can't make eye contact," said Wadsworth, whose program provides services for blind children in 11 nearby school districts.

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