by Mitch Pomerantz
Perhaps this particular column should have appeared sometime during 2009, the 200th anniversary of the birth of Louis Braille. Then again, now that the pomp and circumstance of that historic anniversary has come and gone, it may be useful to reflect a bit on the code which has had such a profound effect on tens of thousands of blind people for so long. Actually, given the lead time necessary to publish "The Braille Forum," this piece is being written the day after Thanksgiving, 2009; hence, I'm at least doing my reflecting during the 200th year since the great man's birth.
I've been a braille reader since my introduction to it in kindergarten, or possibly first grade. As I may have mentioned previously in these pages, I attended elementary school at one of only two K-through-6 dedicated day-school programs for blind children in the country during the 1950s. In those days, every teacher, except for the lady teaching the "sight-saving" class, knew and taught braille grades 1 and 2, and the Nemeth Code. There was absolutely no question that every blind child was going to learn to read braille, even if he or she had some usable vision, as I did at the time. This did not mean, however, that I was an enthusiastic student. I tolerated those lessons and the boring little books we had to use. The Dick and Jane readers were not attention-holders for me or many of my classmates.
My mother, thankfully, changed all that when I was about 7. She was constantly trying to encourage me to read braille. She signed me up very early for the National Library Service. The closest regional library to our home was housed at the Braille Institute in Los Angeles, just a few miles away. As I recall, the book she ordered -- and which sat in its container for months -- was "Little House in the Big Woods," by Laura Ingalls Wilder. It was in grade 1 or possibly 1 and a half and was single-spaced, something which I was struggling to master. The big volumes seemed overwhelming to me. I would read a page or two, then put the book aside for a week or so. After considerable nagging, I finally decided to read a whole chapter, or at least more than a couple of pages. For whatever reason, the proverbial light went on and I became thoroughly engaged in finding out what happened to the characters. As that old saying goes, the rest is history.
As I proceeded through the primary grades, I read pretty much everything for boys in the school's meager library. When I was 12, my mother and I took a car trip down the East Coast and one of our stops was in Washington, D.C. Along with the time spent in the Senate Gallery listening to the debate over some long-forgotten piece of legislation, the other highlight for me was a visit to the Library of Congress where I got the privilege of going up and down several of the aisles and reading the titles embossed on the covers of the shelved books. I could have spent days, even weeks, just looking at everything.
Reading generally, and braille reading specifically, has been a passion of mine for 50-plus years. While the balance has unfortunately shifted over the decades from braille to cassettes, braille has been an integral part of my working life and leisure time activities. In my nearly 34 years in human resources and ADA compliance, any report of even minor significance was first drafted in braille. Notes to myself, my personal calendar, material related to the Americans with Disabilities Act, all were at my fingertips thanks to braille. Yes, once the computer became prevalent in our office and I needed to edit the work produced by my staff, I turned increasingly to speech for that aspect of my job. Nonetheless, I am living testimony to the statistic released by the American Foundation for the Blind a number of years ago that 70 percent of all braille readers of working age are employed.
Unfortunately, my leisure time braille reading is limited these days to "Syndicated Columnist Weekly," that excellent publication produced by National Braille Press, and CCB's magazine, "The Blind Californian." However, just as when I was working, everything pertaining to ACB, my personal files and whatever else I need to access on a regular basis is in braille; in this case, on VersaBraille disk (thereby upholding my previously discussed reputation as a dinosaur). My one disappointment since retiring has been my lack of spare time in order to read an honest-to-goodness novel in braille. Ah well, someday ...
So, aside from 2009 being Louis Braille's 200th birthday, what got me musing about the present and future of braille? It probably began a few months ago when it became apparent that there was a growing threat to the continued existence of residential schools for the blind across the country. With the demise of several of these facilities and the growing shortage of qualified teachers with specialized VI (vision impairment) credentials, I began wondering just who is going to teach braille reading and writing to the next generation of blind children. Additionally, the two generations of blind children following my own were largely raised to believe that tape recorders (in the case of the first generation) and computers and other audio technology (in the case of the second generation) were perfectly appropriate substitutes when it came to reading and writing.
Such musings were crystallized into the basis for this column a week ago (as this is being written) while attending the semiannual meeting of the National Council of State Agencies for the Blind (NCSAB) in Phoenix. I listened to a presentation on technology, particularly technology which allows us to read almost anything: print menus, street signs, print meeting agendas, and yes, currency. It isn't especially important to mention who the speakers were. What struck me as I listened was the thought that if blind children are presented with such technology at an early age, what interest or incentive will they have in learning to identify those funny little dots and figure out each individual letter or sign in the braille cell? If blind children can learn to use cool, hand-held gadgetry, or nifty laptop computers in school and elsewhere, why should they become familiar with braille at all? And, if there continues to be a shortage of qualified braille teachers, who will be available to even attempt to motivate them in the first place?
It is my personal and strongly held belief that assuming someone is unable to comfortably read print for any length of time, unless they can read and write braille sufficiently well to understand a note from someone else, such individuals are illiterate, in the strictest sense of the word. Whatever one's primary written and spoken language is -- English, Spanish, Tagalog, whatever -- if a blind person can speak, but not read or write that language, that's illiteracy, purely and simply. Sorry, utilizing spell- and/or grammar-check for one's written communications doesn't count or substitute for knowing how a word is spelled or a sentence is constructed. Obviously, it becomes far more difficult to learn braille if someone loses their sight later in life, but it's certainly not impossible. The Hadley School for the Blind and many other outstanding organizations teach braille to hundreds of people annually who have recently become blind.
It seems to me that all of us who use braille as a primary medium for reading, or simply to jot down telephone numbers or shopping lists, have a tremendous responsibility to be strong advocates for the teaching and learning of braille. Within ACB, we should be encouraging more of our students to become teachers of blind children. Outside of the organization, we must challenge any and all efforts at closing the few remaining VI teacher preparation programs. We need to begin today to take the steps necessary to ensure that succeeding generations of blind people will celebrate and honor Louis Braille's 250th and 300th birthdays, just as we have done his 200th this past year.