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Nation Losing Touch With Braille

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is re-printed from the Washington Post, May 1, 2001.

As a child, Theresa Nettles delighted in competing with her cousin to see who could jump higher or run faster. Blind since birth, Nettles often found herself on the losing end, until one day when she challenged her cousin to a battle she knew she would win.

"I can read in the dark, and you can't," she said with glee to her sighted cousin.

Now 41, Nettles, of Bowie, is still challenging people to reach beyond their limits, especially the visually impaired, who are, studies show, increasingly losing out on jobs and other opportunities because they do not know or use Braille. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, nearly 70 percent of blind, working-age adults are unemployed. Just 10 percent of school-age children who are legally blind use Braille as their primary source for reading.

The figures trouble advocates of Braille, who fear that the decades-old method of touch reading and writing could become obsolete because of the advent of voice-activated computers and other devices helping the blind.

Nettles also attributes a decrease in Braille readers to an increase in people with multiple disabilities or with medical conditions who may not have the physical or mental capabilities to read Braille. Diabetics, for example, can have a hard time reading Braille because of the loss of sensation in their fingers. There is also concern that it has driven some students away because it can be expensive and somewhat tedious.

Consider what it takes to learn Braille.

Named for Louis Braille, the French man who developed it, Braille uses a series of six raised dots to form punctuation, letters, words and numbers. As a teacher for the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind, a Washington-based group that receives grants from social-service agencies to help the visually impaired obtain and maintain independence, Nettles uses a muffin tin and six tennis balls to show students how to form letters. When they master that, they start on the Brailler, a wide booklet of raised dots used to teach reading.

Students learn Braille much the same way that sighted people learn how to read ~ first by identifying the letter, then by sounding it out and forming words. "It really is easier to listen to tapes or work on the computer," Nettles said. "But if you can't read Braille, you're really limiting yourself."

Kim Spence, assistant principal of the Maryland School for the Blind in Baltimore, agreed. At her school, which helps children from infancy through age 21, students are introduced to Braille as early as age 4. By the time they leave, most can Braille at literacy levels equal to their seeing counterparts. "It's called Braille literacy," Spence said. "If you don't know it, the world is shut off to you. But once you start to Braille, that world opens back up."

Much of the concern about Braille illiteracy surrounds those who never learned the tactile language or adults who have lost some or all of their vision after years of seeing.

Burnell Brown, a 58-year-old mother of two grown sons who is slowly going blind, is trying to retain her literacy. But it hasn't been easy. A District resident, Brown began to lose her hearing at age 3, the result of a medical condition called Usher syndrome, a progressive condition that affects hearing and vision. It wasn't until she was 44 that a doctor discovered she was losing her sight. Brown had gone to the doctor to treat an injury to her eye. Before that, she noticed she was having trouble seeing at night and while driving. The prognosis was grim: She would eventually lose most -- if not all - of her vision. Today, Brown's vision is extremely blurred, and she can see objects only if they are directly in front of her.

Not wanting to lose her ability to read, Brown signed up for a Braille course with Nettles. Brown studies for about three hours a week with Nettles and at home daily. During a lesson last week at Columbia Lighthouse's satellite office in Riverdale, Brown impressed Nettles with her deft handling of the Perkins Brailler, a typewriter-like machine with keys that punch the raised dots. Brown also demonstrated her growing Braille reading skills, moving her two index fingers over a series of small raised dots and reading aloud. Nettles, instructed her student to read a beginner's sentence on the Brailler. Her hands quivering slightly, Brown slid her index fingers over the raised dots. "He . . . took . . . a . . . late . . . nap," Brown read.

"Very good," Nettles said. "Next line." Biting her lip, the student pressed her fingers back to the dotted page. "He ate a hot dog," Brown said with more confidence and glee. "Excellent," replied Nettles. The praise was comforting to Brown, an avid reader who initially thought she was too old to learn to read and write again -- without her eyes.

But she put aside her fears after she considered what life would be like if she could not read a newspaper or a menu, which often are available in Braille. "I don't know what my future holds for me, and I don't want to rely on anyone," said Brown, who uses a walking stick and relies on buses to get around.

So Brown, who lost her bookkeeping and accounting job during a company downsizing in 1999, plunged ahead. In time, Nettles said, Brown will be able to slide her fingers across the page. She won't need to dig into the dots as most new students do. As she becomes more proficient, she will also be able to read more material in less time.

Brown, an avid newspaper and book reader, liked the sound of that. The lesson now over, Nettles chuckled and then shared with her student the best part about knowing how to read Braille: Reading in the dark.