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Teaching Blind Students to Work With Sighted Readers

Editor's Note: The following article is excerpted from a piece entitled Of Readers, Drivers and Responsibility which appeared in the Fall 1994 issue of Future Reflections, the NFB U.S. magazine for parents and educators of blind children. As we in the NFB:AE strive to increase our access to information, it is tempting to think only in terms of technology and of making material available in alternative formats. This article emphasizes the oldest and still most versatile technique for gaining access to printed material. Because it offers such clear information for parents of blind children and for people who are just beginning to use the services of sighted readers it seemed to be a valuable edition to the Canadian Blind Monitor. Future issues will contain more discussion on the topic of using readers on the job. As always, your comments are encouraged. Here is what Peggy Elliot has to say about working with readers.

When I talk to school children about blindness, as I often do, I tell them I'm going to talk about alternative techniques such as Braille. Of course, they think this is interesting. I tell them that Braille is the same as print; they are alternatives to each other. When you're talking with second-, third-, or even fourth-graders, this concept is a bit of a reach; so I use an example. Here's what I say.

I ask the children if their moms have a place in the kitchen where they keep cookies. The kids usually giggle and say, Yeah. Do you know where that is? I ask. Yes, they know where Mom keeps the cookies. Then I ask them if Mom can reach the cookies easily just by standing on the floor. They say, Oh, yeah, of course. She can reach them just standing on the floor. I ask, Can you reach the cookies standing on the floor? No!, uh uh. We're not supposed to get into the cookies. Do you know a way, when Mom's not in the kitchen, that you can get to those cookies? They always giggle and give me various methods (usually involving counters and stools) that they have figured out for getting to the cookies. So I say, Now, see, your mom's taller than you, so she can reach the cookies by standing on the floor. But you can still reach the cookies by using an `alternative technique'. The point is, you get the cookies, right? Anyway, kids always like this subject, so I have found it to be a good way of explaining about alternative techniques. What I stress to the kids is that it isn't really important how you do it (get the cookies); the important thing is to get it done.

As parents of children you need to be concerned with making sure that your children learn techniques and approaches which they can use throughout their lives so they can get it done--whatever it is. Today, I'm going to help you with this job. I'm going to give you some pointers on what to teach your child about using readers and drivers. First I'm going to talk about what we--blind adults--do with readers and drivers.

We all know about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). We all know about the Braille literacy laws we have gotten passed in 25 states. We know there are lots of sources of reading material in alternative media (such as Braille and tapes) used by the blind. But, despite all this, I will tell you flat out that it is not possible for all printed or written material ever to be simultaneously available in an alternative medium accessible to the blind. It is just not going to happen. For example, in my own practice (I'm a lawyer) I get a lot of stuff in handwriting. This type of material will not be readily accessible in my lifetime or even the lifetime of your children in any way other than through the use of a reader.

A reader, by the way, is a sighted person who conveys to the blind individual the print or pictorial information on a piece of paper. Every blind person needs to be able to use readers as one way of getting information. This is true for students in college, and it's true for blind people in most any job. Therefore, it's important to keep in mind that readers are going to be a part of any blind person's life. I remind college students of this all the time.

I was talking just the other day to someone who was complaining about not getting a book in time for the beginning of a class. (It happened to be a college student, but it could have been a high school student.) I said that in a job the employer is not responsible for such details; the blind person is. One can't walk into the employer's office and say: You have to provide me with this or that. The blind employee has to be able to walk into that office and say to the employer: Tell me what I can do for you and by when you need it done. The use of readers gives blind people the flexibility needed to take on this responsibility. So understanding readers and learning how to use them are important techniques for parents to help their children learn to use.

Readers, in my view, are (as I once said to the consternation of some of my readers) information-acquisition tools. Some readers find this description a bit cold. I do not intend to be cold, but information acquisition is my goal when I use a reader--not friendship or companionship or anything else. The fact that the information is acquired through the use of another human being instead of through Braille, a tape recorder, or some other tool or device in no way changes the fact that I am using an alternative to get information others would get with their eyes. I think it's important for everyone concerned to understand that the sighted reader is first and foremost an information-acquisition tool for a blind person.

Most blind adults pay for readers. You simply cannot get readers on a regular basis in college, on the job, or even for personal affairs if you don't pay them. This makes reading an employer/employee relationship. The reading is then a service bought and paid for, not a favor to the blind person. The blind person needs to understand this and teach it to the reader. Reading is a service that's being provided. It's something I need. It's something for which I'm willing to pay. It is not a favor.

The most important and fundamental responsibility of the blind person in a reader relationship is to be in charge and to make all the decisions about what is read. This is easy to say but sometimes hard to implement. Sighted people who are new readers often want to tell the blind person what they think needs to be read; not what the blind person really wants to know, but what the sighted person finds of interest. Therefore, when using an information-acquisition tool that happens to be human, the blind person has to be very clear that he or she is the one making the decisions and furthermore needs to convey this politely and firmly to the reader.

I was a prosecutor when I first came out of law school. Most of the material that came across my desk had been generated that day. There was no way to get at that material without having a sighted reader under my direction to read to me what I needed to know. On the other hand, I would never have gotten anything else done if I had not known when to tell the reader to stop reading. People hand you a lot of material these days that you don't need to read. Blind people must know how to acquire and analyze material quickly, regardless of whether the information is accessed through their own hands (Braille) or through another person (a reader).

The first thing--and this is very important--that blind children need to learn is that using readers is okay. It is one of the many appropriate alternative techniques they will be using throughout life. Using Braille is okay. Using tapes is okay. Using readers is okay. A high school principal came to me once in consternation. She said that, because she couldn't get a certain book in Braille for a blind student on time, the student had been excused from doing a book report. I landed on that principal with both feet! I said, Why did the student get out of doing the book report? Don't you provide readers as an alternative when the book isn't available? Have you ever given the student experience in using a reader? The principal was surprised. She had never thought about that student's need to learn how to use readers. She didn't think of readers as an appropriate alternative technique. Well, they are. Obviously, the child first needs to know how to read and write--to be literate. But once that stage is achieved and the child has solid Braille skills, the next stage includes using tapes and readers.

How can you teach your child to use readers? For one thing, you can build it into the IEP (Individualized Education Program) when the child gets older (junior high or middle school). Determine in advance that certain material in certain classes will be read with readers. Research papers using reference material and other books from the library are good projects for reader use. Get the student involved in this procedure. He or she needs to play an active part in all the decisions regarding reader use. Parents, the student's Braille teacher, or blind adult role models can then conduct some reader training sessions with the student. Use a book the student has used and with which he or she is familiar. Ask the student to decide what should be read; then teach the youngster how to give oral instruction to move a reader through the printed material. You may even want to do a role reversal. Have the student be the reader with his or her Braille text, and you do the directing.

The important thing to remember is not to help the student too much. In fact, you may want to make a distinction between your teacher/reader role and your reader-only role. As a teacher/reader you will interrupt and make suggestions as your child practices directing you in reading. You may also discuss the layout and content of the book and the illustrations, etc. But in your role as a reader you will only read what you are directed to read, and you will not make comments or judgments about what you are asked to read or not read. Nor will you give information from the material which you have not been asked to provide (descriptions of pictures or illustrations or information about appendices, bibliographies, etc.)

It can be extremely difficult to do, but if the student does not ask you to read something, keep your mouth shut. Do not read anything except what you have been directed to read. Conversely, if the student asks you to read material you think is unnecessary, don't make any comments or judgments; just read. The student must learn to be in charge and to accept the consequences of decisions, including mistakes. Besides, you will find even in the early stages that your child is often right and you are wrong. Even if you are very familiar with the subject matter, the student knows more about the class, the teacher, and the teacher's expectations than you do. Remember, in this situation you are a reader--not a tutor, not a parent, not a teacher, not a mentor, not a friend, but a reader only. Be sure that others who read for your child understand this. As the parent you may have to be aggressive in insisting that those who read for your child follow these rules.

This is especially true since it is more common for blind children and youth to have volunteer readers as opposed to paid ones. Also, readers are more likely at this stage to be selected by someone other than the student--parents, teachers, etc. These circumstances combined with the youth and inexperience of the student tend to blur the issue of who is in control, who is making the decisions. The primary motivation of those who are paid for a service is clear--money. The connection between keeping their job and following the rules laid down by the student is also clear.

The motivation for volunteers is somewhat different. They want to help a blind person; maybe they are even friends with the student. Such volunteers tend to think of themselves more as partners than as employees receiving instructions. This situation requires more delicacy and tact if the blind student is to remain in control but still keep a reader happy and motivated to continue reading. If, however, a reader is a paid employee of the school, such as a teacher's aide, the student may still have a problem. Because the child is young and is a student, both reader and student may assume that the reader is automatically in charge by virtue of age and status as a school employee.

If a reader under these circumstances refuses to follow the directions of the student, the parent or Braille teacher or both must insist that the reader be replaced with someone who will cooperate.

Usually members of one's own family are a student's first readers. This can work well as long as the principle is established and followed that the student is in charge of the reading. However, if siblings are required to read, there need to be trade-offs. Siblings need to feel that they get something out of this arrangement too. Maybe they will be paid (if so, then the blind student needs an equal opportunity to do work for which there is pay), or maybe an exchange of services can be made between the blind student and sighted sibling. For example, one student allowed his older sibling to read his taped books from the Library for the Blind in exchange for reading services. Whatever the circumstances, the objective is always the same: for the blind students to get the printed information they want-- not what someone else thinks they should have.