Tip #2: Make Braille a Priority
Young children are like sponges when it comes to languages and literacy, so if your child has a degenerative eye condition such as RP, allow them to learn Braille early on, instead of waiting until their vision declines or until adulthood, when it will take far more time and effort. If your child cannot read print, then Braille is obviously their main ticket to being literate, and there is usually no question about whether they should learn it.
But it’s often a gray area in the public school system when it comes to children with more useable vision.
Though my sister and I had IEPs and a Vision Itinerant growing up, Braille was not something that was recommended because we could read print. In talking to my mom now, she remembers it coming up in discussion briefly but does not remember the details surrounding the conversation. She thinks that since inclusion into the mainstream classroom was such a priority, perhaps they didn’t want to take time out of our regular instruction to teach Braille. There were other organizational skills the Vision Itinerant was working on with us (which I will discuss in an upcoming post!)
Given the fact that our Retinal Specialist indicated that we might lose significantly more vision as teenagers or in college, I think that we should have learned Braille. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, and given our immense discomfort surrounding our vision loss as children, we probably would have fought this at first, though my mom does tell me that we were very curious about Braille when we were little. I have a vague recollection of this. On one hand, I saw it as something that “blind people” used, and I was not blind in my definition of blindness. On the other hand, I remember being fascinated by this other way to read.
I seemed to pick up tactile activities very easily as a child. For example, my entire 2nd grade class was taught the skill of typing, and I memorized the keyboard immediately and never really remember a time when I didn’t know how to type after learning to read. Despite the fact that I didn’t use computers regularly in 3rd, 4th or 5th grade, I never lost my ability to type since it was ingrained at such a young age. I sometimes wonder if that’s how it would have been if I had taken Braille as a child, even if I went long periods without using it.
I also wonder if I would have been a better Braille reader than print reader. I’ve always been a very slow reader, and I’ve never been able to scan pages quickly like many classmates, despite the fact that I’ve devoured books from the time I could read. I’ve always excelled in reading and writing, but I wonder if I could have read with more ease using Braille. I remember being thrilled to be in Honors English as a freshman in high school, but then devastated when my teacher took me aside the first week of school, following a timed reading test, telling me that my reading and fluency rates were way too low for her class, but because it could be a vision-related issue, she would allow me to stay in the class on a trial basis. I worked hard to prove myself, and she was impressed enough with my reading comprehension and writing skills that she continued the trial throughout the entire year. I got an A in the class and continued in Honors English throughout high school, but i always felt like the underdog, like I had to work extra hard to prove myself, and like I could never read through the books and other materials as quickly as the other students.
I was recently discussing this with my technology instructor, who was born completely blind, and she shared mixed feelings about the topic. She told me that she attended a school for the blind as a child, and that there were several children in her class who could still read print, and they “cheated” at Braille by using their eyes to read it instead of their fingers, so they never really became proficient at it. She pointed out that if a child doesn’t have a “need” for it, they probably wil not use it often enough to really keep their skills up. She went on to say that even now as a blind adult she tends to only use Braille for small bits of reading, such as children’s books and labels and elevators, as she would rather listen to longer books digitally since Braille novels take up a lot of space. On the other hand, I know people who went blind as adults, learned Braille, and regularly read novels in Braille.
If your child is not currently learning Braille in school, I would suggest bringing it up at your next IEP meeting. If you’d rather your child learn it outside of school, there is a summer BELL (Braille Enrichment Literacy and Learning) program for elementary students that is now offered in 29 states.
I guess as parents, we never know what our kids will adapt to, and perhaps your child would still prefer print after learning Braille, but I feel strongly that kids should at least be given the opportunity to learn both so that they can decide what works best for them.