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We have become so comfortable with traditional ideas about braille writing that it is becoming sidelined in the braille literacy revival taking place today. We need to ensure that braille writing not only remains a vital part of the literacy experience, but is encouraged and facilitated to evolve and meet the needs of students in coming generations.
Writing consists of both the process of writing, with all the abstract concepts that entails, as well as the physical act of writing. These two aspects are closely inter-related and are common to all children irrespective of their level of vision. What distinguishes blind or vision impaired (VI) children is that they must always use a tool for the physical act of writing. For a VI child, braille writing tools play a pivotal role in their early literacy experiences, especially when you consider that a sighted child often begins to write using finger painting, drawing in the sand or on a frosted car window, well before formal education begins.
A review of the history of braille writing tools reveals a lot about our current attitudes to braille writing and there are some excellent resources available on the web. The Callahan Museum at APH is one such collection, which can be found at http://www.aph.org/braillewriters/index.html. It often surprises people to see how much innovative thought and effort went into braille writing last century.
So how far have we come in the last 100 years? In the US today, the two most prevalent braille writing tools given to beginning braille learners are the slate-and-stylus and the Perkins Brailler. In 1829 Louis Braille not only gave us the braille code, but also the means with which to write it, the slate-and-stylus. The Perkins Brailler was developed at the end of World War 2. Would parents of sighted children today accept 2 writing tools of a similar vintage as the only options available for beginning literacy?
The reality is that sighted children have an extraordinary and growing choice of writing options yet we accept a lack of innovation and choice as the norm for a VI child. Why has the innovation process stopped so dramatically for braille writing? We all recognise writing as fundamental to the literacy experience and we don't have anything better than braille. We do have electronic braille writers and braille note-takers with refreshable braille, but the numbers of these being used as a first braille writing tool are negligible.
What have been the barriers to innovation? The first is attitudinal. Teachers of VI children have correctly been taught that the process of writing is what's important, and it doesn't matter which writing tool is being used. But when this is combined with the prevailing 'attitude of scarcity' where VI teachers are "grateful for what we have" and are not demanding what is best, stagnation has resulted.
Secondly, VI teachers are a small, geographically isolated community, and it is often hard to know what is happening in the next state, let alone in other countries. Best practice is being defined within a personnel preparation system that is chronically under-funded and not able to afford the best technology options available. A recent survey of 600 VI teachers in the US revealed that only 5% of respondents were made aware of alternatives to the Perkins during their teacher preparation program. Additionally, a lack of funding for professional development compounds the problem. As new technology arrives, it is often left to VI teachers to train themselves on its use and to understand where and why it should be used. A current example of this is the confusion and lack of research data on the role of braille writing versus braille note-taking.
And thirdly, people need to recognize what the real cost is of so-called "free" technology. The Federal Quota system has been a source of materials and products which have made a tremendous difference to millions of young blind Americans. However, when it comes to braille writing technology, it has had a profoundly negative effect. There are simply many new braille writing options available in other countries that never get sold in the US because they cannot compete with the "free" Perkins. Competition and innovation have effectively been stifled.
We live in an age where technology is changing so many aspects of our lives, yet we are failing to question this stagnation in braille writing technology. There is an abundance of evidence that it has resulted in reduced choice of braille writing options, reduced educational opportunity for students, and worst of all, low expectations. How many sighted children would struggle with a 50 year old typewriter as their first writing tool? Students today need cool tools! Blind students are no different.
And each year there are new challenges and pressures. Within general education there is a tendency for the classroom teacher to focus on a VI student's differences and not those things that are the same, such as literacy instruction and the writing process. We need tools and strategies to take the mystery out of braille.
There are also major changes in student's skill requirements involving not just computer skills, but different methods of information retrieval, and dealing with multi-format and multi-media information. Students need to learn these technology skills from an increasingly early age, integrated into their overall literacy experience and not separate from it.
There is also an increased focus on experiential learning and we need tools and strategies that will enable that. For VI students that will mean having exposure and access to braille writing tools well before formal education has begun.
For all these challenges, the VI community relies on professional research data to determine best practice and to evolve new strategies, ideas and curricula. However, a review of the professional literature suggests that braille reading has far and away been the focus of professional research, with braille writing relegated to a very minor position. This lack of research into braille writing has resulted in a lack of understanding of the writing process and associated concept development, and often led to inappropriate tools and strategies being used (a speech based note-taker like the Braille'n Speak Scholar being used as a first tool for braille literacy is just one common example).
One of the few research projects focussing on braille writing has been the Emerging Braille Literacy Research Project in British Columbia Canada, conducted over 1998 - 2000, by Cay Holbrook (UBC), Anne Wadsworth (PRCVI) and Elaine Ferguson (SET-BC). The project involved 16 primary aged students, their teachers and parents over a three year period and was aimed at developing objective data to guide technology policies for early braille literacy. The results indicated that the use of an electronic braille writer had very positive effects on braille reading and writing skills in addition to enhanced opportunities for inclusion (full results can be found at http://www.setbc.org/projects/braille_lit/default.html).
And it is very exciting that a new project focussing on braille reading and writing in Texas is now underway, called the Written Communication Technology for Early Braille Readers Project. This is a collaborative project between Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI) and selected regional Education Service Centers throughout Texas. The purpose of this project is to increase the quantity and quality of literacy experiences for early braille readers in general education classes and will be administered by the TSBVI Outreach staff.
Students who graduate in 2015 will be living in a world that we can only imagine. But we can be certain of some things; they will have to be literate, and technology will play a larger role in their lives than it does in ours. The VI education community simply has to come to grips with technology, including the costs, training and implementation of new products and strategies.
I'd like to finish with two points. The first is that not all technology is so-called 'high' technology involving electronics and computers. The slate and stylus is also technology, and has also been allowed to stagnate. Imagine what braille writing options would exist if innovation of the slate and stylus had kept pace with innovations in computer technology. The Jot-a-Dot is an example of a new low-tech braille writing device and symbolic of what can be achieved through innovation.
Secondly, I hope I have been able to demonstrate that no single product is the answer. What's important is recognising the role of innovation and how it is driven by consumer demand, and ultimately by the expectations we have for our VI students. By 2015, there is every chance that braille will have become fully digital, with full page refreshable braille displays of all shapes and sizes. Our policies, attitudes and practices of today will determine if that prediction becomes a reality or not. And remember, a beginning braille learner of today will be using technology all his or her life, and they will begin that journey with the simple act of writing braille.
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