Myths & Realities of Learning Braille

1 Aug
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Jerry Whittle
Jerry Whittle, a Louisiana native, is instructor emeritus at the Louisiana Center for the Blind in Ruston.

While teaching for 27 years at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, I personally timed over 80 readers who read braille at 300 to 500 words per minute…as fast or faster than the educated classes of America. All of them learned braille before elementary school started, used the two-handed reading method, and had multiple fingers on the line for scanning purposes. I also timed several who read between 120 and 300 wpm. Most of these used only one hand or had some variation on a lesser reading method.

One would think that these statistics alone would quash any myth that braille is slow, obsolete, or impractical, but it’s been my experience that more explanation is needed.

Myth #1: Braille is slow

Perhaps the most often cited myth about braille is that it is inherently slow. Many of the adults whom I taught for periods of six to nine months were born blind or with degenerative eye conditions. As a result, they should have learned braille as children while their sighted peers were learning to read print.

While not based on empirical research, it has been my observation over the years that the average adult who learns braille after the age of 21 will probably read 30 wpm. However, using the techniques that I will share later in this series, many students who entered our center not knowing one character of braille read 60 to 100 wpm upon graduation, while those students who entered reading 60 to 100 wpm doubled and tripled their reading speeds. Yes, some did not improve, but this happened because they did not complete the page goals assigned to them or refused to use the two-handed method.

Therefore, I say braille is not inherently slow. When blind people, or those with degenerative eye conditions, learn braille as children, they can read as fast or faster than their sighted peers.

Myth #2 Braille is obsolete and has been replaced by text-to-speech software.

The great tragedy is that many so-called professionals in the field of blindness have written off braille as obsolete. This surmise about the death of braille is simply hogwash. Research confirms what I already know from years of experience: knowing braille means employment and true literacy.

One of the major problems I encountered while teaching braille to adults was the poor word recognition ability of my students. Take, for example, the word “quiche.” When first seeing the word in braille, my students would read “quishy” (as in the word “squishy”). Quiche is not the most common word in the English language, but I include it here only for the sake of an example.

With poor word recognition, students’ language skills are so impaired from a lack of literacy skills that they could not advance as quickly either through the braille code or increase their speed after learning the code. One of the most critical components of learning to be a competent reader of braille is a good reading vocabulary.

It’s no surprise, then, that research from Louisiana Tech University’s Institute on Blindness that braille readers have far better language skills than users of large-print or audio-only materials, scoring as well as their sighted counterparts who use regular print. We can deduce from this that braille skills lead to true literacy and that braille readers can compete on terms of equality with their sighted peers.

Spelling is not obsolete, and it’s very difficult to learn spelling through incidental learning with any auditory-only learning system.

Myth #3 It’s hard to use braille at work or school.

It’s depressing that only 10 percent of the blind know braille, and currently only 10 percent of the blind children in my home state of Louisiana are learning braille in school. However, research conducted by Dr. Ruby Ryles, professor emeritus at Louisiana Tech University, concluded that the average braille reader reads at 120 wpm (two words per second and, incidentally, the same speed at which we usually speak aloud to one another). Furthermore, of the blind who are employed, 80 to 90 percent use braille on a daily basis.

Recent advances in technology—such as refreshable braille, bluetooth, and the availability of braille embossers—have actually made braille more practical than ever before. No longer must blind people wait for another person to scan, proofread, translate, and emboss documents, for now they can use portable devices to read electronic documents and books immediately. Because blind people have proven that they can read just as fast and just as easily with braille, the code is not slow, obsolete, or difficult.

Reality: Reading braille efficiently means using the right technique.

Over the next two weeks, I will share how anybody can learn braille in six months. The key elements are good sensitivity in the hands (though we’ll also explore how some people have used their lips to read braille!), use of the two-handed technique, placing multiple fingers on each line, good word recognition skills, and a willingness to work consistently. If one removes one of these keys, then the acquisition of good reading skills will be impaired. However, if students possess all of the attributes, then they can achieve true literacy, particularly when taught from the onset of formal education.

The good news is that even if a blind person reaches only 60 wpm, he or she can certainly enjoy reading, using braille for personal enrichment, or be far more job-ready. Braille is not dead; braille is one of the keys to complete fulfillment and competence for blind people, for it allows for total independence and true literacy. After all, intelligence is measured by one’s ability to comprehend and to recognize words and their meanings.

Series: How to Learn Braille in 6 Months

  1. Myths & Realities of Learning Braille (August 1, 2013)
  2. 4 Habits of Highly Effective Students of Braille (August 17, 2013)
  3. How to Increase Your Braille Reading Speed (August 23, 2013)
The following two tabs change content below.
Jerry Whittle
Jerry Whittle, a Louisiana native, is instructor emeritus at the Louisiana Center for the Blind in Ruston.

6 Replies to “Myths & Realities of Learning Braille

  1. Pingback: How to Learn Braille in 6 Months: How to Increase Reading Speed | Blog on Blindness

  2. Pingback: 4 Habits of Highly Effective Students of Braille | Blog on Blindness

  3. I think Mr. Whittle makes interesting and valid points. I am a bit on the borderline between the 100+ readers and the over 300+ Olympians. When I did it his way, using my right hand, even the little bit I did use it, I did go from about 175 to about 312, if memory serves. I have found words look so strange in my right hand that I can only use it to read the last word or two at the end of the line. I have never needed more than one finger to scan a line and go to the next line. I do think, however, that learning braille, is not a guaranty of a job. If it were, I might own several. And trying to incorporate or intercalate braille and braille displays with several software packages can require phenomenal luck, connections with geek minds, and patience if it happens at all.

  4. Hello.

    I have been employed as a Braille Instructor.

    I love this subject. My current students have a great deal of respect for this system.

    It’s my gut experience that we, as a blind population, must be literate, regardless of one’s age.

    I’ve one student who put so much hostility towards this subject that I swear I did not believe I’d be successful in teaching him.

    He proves me wrong daily!! I mean daily!! I’ve found a technique that I feel is Braille User Friendly, simple, challenging at the start, but these students are getting it.

    It’s critical that we stress how gentle this system is and how empowering it can be, will be, must be in the eyes of the public.

    It is a beautiful system. I’ve some issues with some of the contractions, however, and will find a respectfuyl way in which to address these concerns.

    Nevertheless, we are so fortunate to have this system. I was employed as a VRC for years, found so much frustration in how my client/consumers were being taught this amazing method, that I found time to teach it.

    The first reality is that we must emphasize the beauty, intelligence. honor to know this remarkable way of reading, treat our hands with gentleness, calm these fingers so we can see loveliness, encourage our minds to slow down just enough to take in what our visual cortex can no longer do.

    Over and over again, I stres to my beginners these sharings:

    “Be gentle with these symbols. Don’t rub too hard. These dots want you to know what you are seeing. They will reveal themselves but only if/when you want to see them, know them, value your own internal wisdom. Be patient. These dots will show you the way”.

    Thank you for reading my observations.

  5. Thank you very much for your work with blind students. We have a blind granddaughter who has an eye disease that destroyed her sight at a very early age. She was adopted by our daughter and her husband from China. She learned Braille very quickly and learned spoken English in about one month. She has led her age group in the Braille Challenge, usually held in Los Angeles and was tops in reading Braille in the U.S. and Canada in the year she competed. She is a voracious reader, uses a computer equipped with Jaws software, and uses an operational iPhone 5 for voice communication and texting as well as web browsing. She recently obtained a free guide dog from MIRA.

    Again, thank you for your work.

  6. I absolutely agree with Jerry. I have been doing computer work of various kinds for nearly 37 years. My work would have been impossible without good braille skills.

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