Non-blind biases still affect Braille education, even if the latter is essential for the blind.
Sometimes it is. Braille readers can read in the dark under the covers after being sent to bed without the glow of a flashlight giving us away. Print readers can’t do that!
For many, their immediate unconscious reaction to the question posed in the headline is “of course not!” That response is rooted in an implicit bias against disability and impacts our blind children.
If you’re blind, being a Braille reader isn’t better — it’s essential. But, the bias towards visual methods of learning robs blind children of equal access to literacy and education. “Ableism is the idea that it is obviously better to be non-disabled than to be disabled. Systemic ableism oppresses disabled people in all facets of our society including education” says Dr. Natalie Shaheen, a blind professor of education at Illinois State University who prepares teachers of blind students.
Resistance to Braille
Braille is a code that enables us to read with our fingertips using a system of six raised dots -— like print, it imparts grammar, spelling, punctuation, and even mathematics and music. It is beneficial to blind people across the spectrum of blindness, from those who have no vision to those who have some. Just as print is the key to literacy for non-blind people, Braille is the key to literacy for blind people.
Tragically, Braille is often the last educational resort for blind children, especially those who have some vision. Due to systemic ableism within education, blind children are often only taught Braille after numerous attempts to make them “normal” print readers have failed, even when reading print causes intense pain, frustration, and discouragement. This practice unintentionally tells children that their value is directly tied to how much they can see.
The educators who teach blind children are not bad people. Dr. Shaheen says that in her experience “most teachers of blind students are caring people who want the best for blind children. They don’t realize the ways in which their implicit biases impact their interactions with their students and cause harm.” Though often unintentional, the impact of the harm remains.
Increasing Braille literacy rates requires getting blind children better and earlier access to Braille literacy instruction and Braille-rich environments where nonvisual methods of learning, like Braille, are viewed as equivalent to visual methods. Getting all blind children that access requires challenging how people view blindness, which is no small task.
Equity in education
For decades, blind people have leveraged technology to get greater access to print material in accessible formats, like digital Braille. So, it is much easier to get hold of a book in Braille today than it was 20 years ago. Yet, many literacy-hungry blind students are still waiting for the opportunity to become Braille-literate. There is hope and work being done to improve that.
The National Federation of the Blind is a membership and advocacy organization of blind people who lead the way every day for the rights of all blind children to learn and have access to Braille, alternative techniques, and accessible information. We also test innovative educational approaches and help develop Braille related technologies. And blind faculty, like Dr. Shaheen and Dr. Edward Bell, are cultivating a belief among their students — future teachers — that non-visual learning is equivalent to visual learning.
Improving literacy is more than reading — it’s connecting, understanding, and improving our beliefs about what it means to be blind.
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