Promoting Braille and Literacy

by Peggy Chong

In the past few years, the NFB has gotten Braille Literacy Laws passed in many states throughout the country. The first Braille Literacy Law was passed here in Minnesota. This was not a new issue for our organization. At our 1926 state convention, resolution 26-02 was passed calling for all teachers of the blind and schools for the blind to teach grade 2 braille. The United States was the only country still teaching and printing most braille materials in grade 1-1/2. Many leaders corresponded with people in other countries as well as in our own country and saw the need for blind persons to communicate in the same braille code. There was so little in braille as it was. The Library for the Blind in Faribault was cleaning house and members of the organization asked if the Home and Center could have all the braille books that the library was going to throw away. This included several books by authors such as Dickens and Hawthorn. These books were in New York Point but there were many members who had been taught this form of braille and so the books were widely read.

In 1930, a bill providing appropriations for advanced reading for the adult blind was introduced in Congress. Our organization took an active part in educating the members of Congress about the bill and to see to its passage. This led to the current National Library Service and funding for the brailling of books at a national level.

In 1934, Resolution 34-04 addressed the importance of braille as the basic form of literacy. Talking Books were becoming popular and had already caused the decline in the production of braille. Though our organization was greatly in favor of the new technology, it did not want to see the use of braille diminished. In 1946, our Minnesota Bulletin was put into grade 1-1/2 braille. This was done in response to a survey of the membership. Many adults at that time had not been taught grade 2 braille. In 1955, the Minnesota Bulletin was finally put into grade 2 braille. There has always been a braille edition since 1946. By the early 1970's, technology was being developed that would make the production of braille much easier and faster. At our 1973 summer quarterly convention, resolution Q-73-02 encouraged the use of computer technology to improve services to those who read braille. A committee was formed to work on this issue with State Services for the Blind. This was one committee on which everyone wanted to serve. In early 1976, the State Council for the Handicapped and the Department of Education conducted a study with very interesting results. The study concluded that all legally blind children in Minnesota should be taught braille and cane travel in elementary school. As so often happens in government, little attention was paid to this study since it was not what the professionals wanted to hear. At the same time, evidence was plentiful that tape recorders were replacing braille in the schools. Children were not being given the basic literacy skills they needed. Resolution A-76-01 called for quality education for all blind children in the public school system.

Also, in 1976, the St. Paul Public Schools applied for grants for a program to teach use of the Optacon and talking calculators. The reasoning behind this program was that the Optacon was much faster than braille. Little support was given to the schools. No grants were approved for this project, so there was little more said about it. But again, we saw braille being de-emphasized. The Optacon at best was slow and not a replacement for braille. There was no way to write with an Optacon.

Blind persons throughout the state were becoming more aware of their rights and of the importance of braille in their lives. Yet State Services for the Blind would put road blocks in the way of a blind person who wanted to learn braille but would not go to the Minneapolis Society for the Blind. The NFB of Minnesota began teaching braille classes for blind persons who could not get State Services for the Blind to fund them to take braille classes. In the early 1980's, new educational opportunities for blind children were opening up. Some parents who knew the problems of having a blind child in the public schools decided to enroll their child in a private school where they thought they could have better control of the quality of their blind child's education. But this was not so. The "Vision Team" of special-education teachers and the private school had turf disputes and the child was only offered one hour of braille instruction a week. Our Director of Educational Programs worked with the private school, parents, and Vision Team to increase the hours of braille instruction each week.

And so the quest for quality braille education for all blind children continues. We continue to promote changes in state and federal law to insure quality education and quality educators for blind children.

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