Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Is Braille becoming a thing of the past?

The defiant one settles herself with teenage confidence at the end of the classroom table.She is, by her own account, a "stubborn" and "ornery" student here at the Kansas State School for the Blind."A handful," teachers agree.They've given her a cane. She refuses to use it.They try to teach her Braille."I hate that I have to learn it," said Hannah Nistler, to whom, at age 16, the tools of blindness are uneasy reminders that one day her already murky vision could go completely black."It's scary," she said.

"That's not something I've wanted to accept."What's equally scary, say advocates for the blind, is just how few visually impaired children outside of places like this school are being instructed in Braille.Whereas about half of them were taught the reading and writing method in the 1960s (usually at state institutions), the number now instructed in it, with "mainstreaming" in public schools, has fallen to 12 percent.

The decline in this foundation of literacy in the blind community since the early 1800s parallels an explosion in technologies designed to help the blind access everything from novels to the Internet: "talking" computers, magnifiers, audiobooks.Perhaps at a price."There is technology that can read print to you, but that is not the same as being literate," said Chris Danielsen, spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind. "If you listen to books, you don't learn how to spell from that. You don't learn how to write from that.

You don't learn how to do punctuation from that."His organization hopes the bicentennial anniversary of Braille creator Louis Braille's birth on Jan. 4 will raise awareness of what it's calling a crisis in Braille literacy."Society would never accept a 10 percent literacy rate among sighted children," he said. "It would be outrageous."Some of the outrage may need to be tempered.

Although only 12 percent of visually impaired children are learning Braille, it's also true that only about 10 percent are completely blind.Most of the remaining 90 percent are like Nistler and have some limited vision, or enough to use devices that make Braille less vital."In a lot of ways, it is better to be blind now, especially in the United States, than it has been in history," said Reinhard Mabry, president of Alphapointe, an association that supports the blind and visually impaired. "Technology is better than it has ever been.

"But a talking computer, Braille proponents say, won't read your shopping list in the aisle of a grocery store. It won't select your floor in an elevator. And what happens when the power lines go down?Advocates also offer this clincher: Of the paltry 30 percent of blind or visually impaired people who are fully employed, 90 percent know Braille.Nistler and her classmates know all of this, of course.

"They like to pound it into your head," she said of her instructors.For much of Nistler's life, she's looked at the world through a black circle, as if peering through the end of a thin straw. At night, she is totally blind.Whether the straw will stay open, no one knows. She has retinitis pigmentosa — a degenerative disorder.In 2005, she began to lose her colors. "First, my reds and greens went," Nistler said. "Then the blues. Then the rest."

She now sees in shades of black and white and grays, some of it gorgeous."Roses. They're beautiful in black and white," she said.At the other end of the English class table sits Chad Rohr, 18, with his guide dog at his feet. Nistler and four others sit nearby.He unfurls his textbook on the table — broad white sheets the size of placemats, each embossed with hundreds of Braille dots.

His hands sweep across the pages, his large fingers gliding left to right, row after row.A tumble off an all-terrain vehicle cracked Rohr's skull and nearly killed him at age 13."I had traumatic brain injury, and the swelling in my brain pinched my optic nerve," he explained.Braille is easy for him now, but he understands Nistler's reluctance."There were days when I just wanted to burn the books I was reading," he said. "I hated it that much."It's instinctual, he said, to use the sight one has while it's still there.

Thinking about the day it'll be gone is hard.Plus, Braille is hard. The system of raised dots was adapted in 1821 from "escriture nocturne," or "night writing," a way for soldiers to communicate in the dark on the battlefield.The code is based around "cells" of six dots."Like you're looking at a muffin pan, horizontally," said Christian Puett, 16, who, like Nistler, has retinitis pigmentosa. He can see a fog of light and images, but his vision since the eighth grade has been all but gone.To start with, he said, all the dots feel the same.

It can take months or even years to master reading them.But after a while, it's like visual reading: fluid, unconscious. The independence it offers is freeing."Right now," Puett said, "I'm reading 'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.'" The Braille version came out the same night as the print version.Nistler is working on a book of her own.It's slow going. Sometimes she still peers down at the cells, she said, to see if she has them right. But in Omaha soon, there's going be to a Braille reading and writing competition."I don't know," she said. "I thought I'd try."


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