Jeffrey Senge remembers exactly when Braille went out and the audiotapes came in.
It happened at the end of fourth grade at a Santa Rosa elementary school, nearly 40 years ago. During the summer, for reasons he never learned, his teacher was replaced. And so was the Braille-based program he was using to improve his reading skills.
Fifth grade, Senge now believes, marked the end of his own literacy.
"I really missed out. I've struggled," said Senge, 50, who used tapes and letter magnifiers to earn a master's degree in special education from Cal State Fullerton. "Everybody was sincerely trying to do a good job, but they did not think about it clearly, as far as the effect on literacy is concerned."
To Braille advocates, Senge's experience represents the early stages of educational changes that are now coming home to roost: a ballooning population of intelligent, blind adults who are functionally illiterate. The American Foundation for the Blind estimates that out of about 1 million legally blind people in the country, only 85,000 use Braille.
The reason, they say, is increasing reliance on tape recorders, letter magnifiers and computer voice translators leaves the visually impaired with a shaky grasp of the underlying structure of language. In fact, last month, Wells Fargo agreed to provide talking ATMs instead of its current machines with Braille instructions because so few blind people can read Braille.
And the numbers are increasing. The percentage of legally blind students learning Braille--a reading method that breaks language into a code of raised dots--has dropped precipitously from 53% in 1963 to 10% in 1997, according to statistics compiled by the American Printing House for the Blind in Louisville, Ky., a not-for-profit company that conducts an annual national census of blind students.
Statewide, about 21% of the visually impaired school age children capable of learning to read use Braille as their primary method, according to statistics compiled last year by state education officials. In Los Angeles County, the number is 35%; in Orange County, 20%.
Yet Braille can be the key to quality of life for the blind. Nine of 10 blind adults who have jobs read and write Braille, making Braille literacy critical for a segment of the population suffering from 70% unemployment, said Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind in Baltimore.
Harder to measure is the intellectual and artistic void that illiteracy leaves. Unable to read, large numbers of blind Americans find themselves sealed off from the kind of sustenance that can come from losing oneself in a good book.
"It's difficult to say actually how many people use Braille," said Frances Mary D'Andrea of the foundation. "Some use it for labeling or just know the alphabet for home use. They may not be people who sit down and read a Braille book. It's really hard to get numbers for that."
Reading Braille can be laborious. The system, designed by Louis Braille in Paris in 1824, uses a series of six raised dots, in a pattern like the number 6 on game die, to represent the alphabet. It is read by running the fingertips over the dots. Although it is time-consuming, advocates say, it still is faster than using magnifiers.
Benefits of Early Training
Literacy rates among the blind could be improved, according to a 1996 doctoral study by a graduate student at the University of Washington, by teaching Braille to the visually impaired while they are young, at the same time seeing students are taught to read.
The study found that legally blind students who learned Braille at the same time sighted students learned to read achieved, at the high school level, literacy rates similar to their sighted classmates. But students who learned Braille later or were taught to read using their limited vision and magnification devices suffered high rates of illiteracy.
The study's author, Ruby Ryles, now an adjunct faculty member at the Louisiana Center for the Blind and Louisiana Tech University, said the work affirmed the importance of Braille in helping young blind students understand the basic structure of language.
Jan Wadsworth, program specialist for the Azusa Unified School District's program for visually impaired students, discounted the link between Braille literacy and employability, arguing that social skills play a more significant role for blind job-seekers. The reason: They need to win over potential employers who are uncomfortable with directing blind staffers.
"[Employers] react personally to the fact that they can't make eye contact," said Wadsworth, whose program provides services for blind children in 11 nearby school districts.
Kim Lindley, director of staff development and former coordinator of special education for Capistrano Unified School District, argued that visual impairments vary too much to apply general approaches. Some children have enough vision to read traditional textbooks using enlarged print or magnifiers. And some children with vision problems might also have motor skills problems that make reading Braille especially difficult.
"Many things come into literacy and effective comprehension," she said. "It's not a black and white issue."
Theresa vanEttinger falls into that gray area. Born blind, vanEttinger's school in her native Montana initially insisted she be taught her ABCs using her extremely limited sight and enlarged print, despite her family's request that she be taught Braille as a hedge against the future.
"They said she didn't need [Braille] because she could still read print," said her mother, Ruth vanEttinger. "So we went through the back door. I wasn't a teacher of the blind and I knew nothing but I decided I'd better learn it and teach it to her."
The family sued the state and won access to Braille instruction. The mother eventually became certified to teach Braille and, after the family moved to California, became a teacher of the visually impaired in Azusa.
Theresa vanEttinger, now a 22-year-old music student at Citrus College, says: "My literacy is as good as any sighted person."
California regulations require schools to assess individual students' problems and devise an Individual Education Plan, and to make Braille instruction available. However, the laws do not require schools to teach Braille to blind and visually impaired students.
Pro-Braille activists say a tide of educational and technological changes have worked against Braille literacy. Key among them is the 20-year-old practice of integrating blind students into regular public school classes, diffusing the population of blind students and making it more difficult for teachers to specialize and keep up with Braille.
As it is, few teachers even accept the calling. Only 10 students trained as Braille specialists graduated this spring from Cal State L.A. and San Francisco State--the only colleges in the state that prepare teachers of blind and visually impaired students, said Jamie Dote-Kwan, coordinator of Cal State L.A.'s teacher training programs in visual impairment and blindness.
"We have had shortages of teachers in this field for 20 years," Dote-Kwan said. "There are positions all over the state that we can't fill."
Jack Hazekamp, a consultant in the state Department of Education's Special Education Division, acknowledged that mainstreaming programs, while well-intentioned, have hindered the teaching of Braille.
"It really takes intense teaching, particularly at the primary level," he said.
At the same time, the number of people with visual impairments has risen, according to the American Printing House for the Blind. The total number of blind students eligible for specialized reading materials more than tripled from 1963 to 1997 from 17,300 to 56,690, the organization found. At the same time, the number of Braille readers dropped from 9,123 to 5,439--a 40% decrease.
Some of those statistics can be attributed to such factors as increased numbers of critically ill and premature babies who survive, often with multiple disabilities that would make it difficult for them to read under any circumstances. Also, the growing population of elderly people means that more are going blind late in life, when it is more difficult to learn a new method of reading.
Technology Has Limits
Advocates for the blind say the trend away from Braille has not turned around despite several years of lobbying for better state and federal laws. "The infrastructure isn't there," said Maurer of the National Federation of the Blind. "In order to have people who are literate who are blind, you have to have folks who believe in blind people, who believe in Braille, and somebody prepared to produce it."
Technology can be seductive, he said, but the machines have their own limits. For example, early vocalization software, which converted text to sound, worked well. But later innovations--particularly on the Internet--have reduced their effectiveness. The flashy images that make Web sites appealing for the sighted wreak havoc on the vocalization programs, rendering them ineffective about 70% of the time, he said.
Rachel Heuser, who teaches visually impaired students at Castille Elementary School in Mission Viejo, said she believes Braille is critical for blind students to become literate. But sometimes, she said, the difficulty of Braille precludes students from learning it.
Readers of enlarged print take 50% longer to read the same material as a sighted reader. Braille readers take twice as long as a sighted reader to absorb the same material.
Kelli Kay of Rancho Santa Margarita never had a choice of instruction for her son, Derek Czajka, who was born totally blind. When her son was 3, she said, he was exposed to Braille through programs at the Braille Institute, and has continued with Braille instruction under Heuser at Castille Elementary.
Last year, as an 8-year-old second-grader, he excelled on a literacy test that measures reading ability for Braille readers from third grade into adulthood, Kay said.
Paradoxically, publishers of Braille material say they are producing more books now than before, as Braille readers continue seeking out material to read. The Los Angeles-based Braille Institute has its own Braille Press--the largest Braille publisher on the West Coast. Over a 20-year span, the Braille Press has more than tripled its output, from 1.9 million pages in 1977 to 5.8 million pages in 1997.
For Senge, though, the increased amount of Braille reading material represents lost opportunity. With his limited literacy, they are books he will probably never read.
"Think about the challenges people have in life who don't have a sufficient mastery of the written language," said Senge, director of a Cal State Fullerton program that transcribes reading assignments into Braille for California college students. "It puts you in the category of being illiterate."
The limits of technology, from tape players to computerized reader, quickly become evident, he said.
"It's seductive at the beginning," he said. "When you're a little kid, you think this is easy, you don't have to struggle with [learning to read]. You become attracted to it. But at some point, it comes back to bite you."