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Changing The Public's Attitudes: Signs of Inevitable Success

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Braille Monitor, July 2006. The report mentioned here, titled "Changing the Public's Attitude Toward Braille: A Grassroots Approach," by Sheri Wells-Jensen, Jason Wells-Jensen, and Gabrielle Belknap, appeared in the March 2005 issue of the Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, Vol. 99, No. 3: 133-40.

I've read that the braille literacy rate is somewhere between 10 percent and 25 percent. I've also read that the unemployment rate in the blindness community is around 80 percent. If these numbers are correct, and we have no good reason to suspect they are not, we have a lot of work still ahead of us.

What can any of us possibly do to make a difference? It feels overwhelming. Some days it feels to me as if the social patterns that created and reinforce these situations are carved in unyielding stone and I am powerless to change them. But there are things--important things--we can do.

I am not here to offer the usual encouragement: steady on, do what you know is right and have faith; we're in this together. I'm here to tell you about tangible scientific facts that demonstrate that you already do make a difference, probably every day of your ordinary life. You alone, without any organized program, without public funding, without even thinking about it make significant, measurable differences in how people feel about blindness, braille, and blind people.

Here's how I know:

My training is in linguistics, and I teach at a large public university in Ohio. I like my job. I meet a startling variety of people, and lots of them are very interesting indeed--like the colleague (from another department thankfully) who came into my office one afternoon to wax poetic about how blessed the university was to have me and how inspirational I must be to my students.

Besides wishing she'd write all that down in proper academese and maybe send it to my future tenure committee, I started wondering about her remarks after she left. I sat at my desk, looking for the pieces of the good mood I'd been in before her visit. I wondered grouchily if there were any way of defusing people like that before they got into my office. If I set up some kind of maze in the hallway? Maybe a series of really rude cartoons on my door.

Then, I wondered, trying desperately to be fair, if there were anything at all to what she'd been saying. Clear hyperbole aside, does my presence in the classroom actually do something to change the way people feel about braille and about blindness?

Every semester, my students do see quite a bit of braille. I braille their names on the corners of their quiz papers so that I can return them efficiently in class. I use a braille notetaker (voice turned off) to read my lecture notes and write reminders to myself. Those who are paying attention will have noticed me consulting the braille room number on the door of the classroom as I enter. If they come to my office, they will notice the braille display on my computer and see any number of untidy piles of brailled material and print material sporting braille labels.

In my work, braille is as omnipresent and as necessary as gravity or oxygen. I don't make a point of talking to my students about it any more than a sighted professor would expound on all the print material in an academic setting, but it is everywhere. Does it make a difference? I wondered if there was some way I could really find out.

The very next semester, I suddenly found myself in exactly the situation to address this question scientifically. I have a colleague at work who went to the same graduate school as I did. We took the same classes and read many of the same books, and we share a perspective about linguistics and how to teach it.

That semester, we each had a section of the same introductory linguistics course. We used the same book and gave many of the same assignments, and our students came from the same cohort: all future public school English teachers. One difference you could note, however, is that while I used significant amounts of braille all the time, my colleague, who is sighted, did not.

That semester, we went about business as usual. And, about two-thirds of the way through, we both handed out a survey on attitudes toward braille and blindness. We didn't ask them questions about how competent or self-reliant blind people are, since my students might have been afraid to answer honestly. We kept the questions about braille and about blindness in the abstract or about the students themselves.

Although under ordinary conditions you might expect differences like the gender of the instructor to be important, it was my supposition that blindness is a much more salient factor. We hypothesized that differences between attitudes toward braille and blindness in our two classes might be traceable to the presence, or absence, of a blind, braille-using instructor.

If you want to read the whole set of results--with five-part harmony and feeling as it were--it was published in the Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness in March 2005, but here's the short story.

Students in my class had significantly better attitudes about braille. They viewed it as easier to learn and less complicated than did their peers. Perhaps even more important, they were much more likely than their peers in the other section of the same class to say they would make learning braille a priority if they lost the ability to read print, and that they would be able to learn it. They also had more positive perceptions of blind people, and many of them were strong advocates for braille signs and braille menus. Significantly more of my students were indignant about the lack of braille signs in parts of the university.

We ran the appropriate set of statistics on our findings, generating lots of printouts and little boxes with asterisks in them. The statistics told us that there was less than a one out of one hundred chance (in some cases) that these numbers were some kind of fluke. Although we can't prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that the differences were real and that they were caused by the presence of a competent blind person in the classroom, the results stood up to the standard tests of significance used in psychology today.

If these numbers are correct, and we have no good reason to suspect that they are not, we have been making some excellent progress. Every day, walking, reading, talking, working, interacting, all of us incrementally change perceptions of blindness and about braille. So social patterns may be carved in stone, but if they are, each of us is a little drop of water, slowly, inevitably doing what water does to stone. We always felt this way: now we have a few figures to back us up.