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I recently had the opportunity to speak with teachers of students who are blind, as well as government ministers in both Europe and the United States about the type of educational learning tools preferred in their respective countries to teach braille.
One issue raised by several people is whether the low-tech tools which have been standards over the years for teaching and for daily living - the slate and stylus, and the mechanical braille writer - are still relevant given the advent of high-technology tools such as personal computers with audio translation, electronic notetakers with refreshable braille and braille embossers.
The fundamental question is: Is it better to' leapfrog' the low-tech tools and teach braille to young children using the high-tech tools, or is there still a need to introduce braille and early literacy on low-tech devices?
As someone who is new to the blind community, I wanted to get an objective viewpoint from people who a) have experience with and access to both low-tech and high-tech tools, and b) are skilled in teaching children who are blind and visually impaired.
This is not intended as a scholarly article, simply as a
report on a topic of interest, based on interviews and opinions of local
experts. I sought the advice of several European and American specialists including:
The majority of teachers and administrators with whom I spoke assert that low-technology devices are still a powerful entry-method - according to some, the most powerful - for teaching braille to young children. Clearly, anybody who wishes to succeed in today's wired, internet-enabled society must be skilled in the use of high-technology devices. The question is not whether to introduce high-technology, but when.
The ideal situation is to be able to select from a range of tools for teaching - high-tech plus low-tech - although most of the experts with whom I spoke believe that the best way to use high-technology effectively is after a child learns the basics through hands-on, low-technology tools.
The responses fall into two categories as to why low-tech devices are still the preferred way to teach early learners. The first are pedagogical and the second are functional.
1. Pedagogical/Educational Rationale
a. Spatial Concepts and Abstract Thinking
Most of the teachers interviewed believe that high-technology devices which use audio to ‘translate’ braille or have only one line of refreshable braille do not allow children who are blind to perceive spatial concepts. Claire Wilson says that this is a discussion that she and her colleagues have had in the past. They have concluded that “with paper, you can move your fingers up and down, right and left, letting children incorporate concepts such as a ‘page’. Most Notetakers and computerized products do not do that.”
Anna Swenson agrees. “You can’t develop an appreciation for top, bottom, left, right on a Notetaker. It is essential to have the concept of ‘book’ and ‘paper’. Young children aren't ready to grasp abstract concepts. They have to have the paper in front of them and physically feel and manipulate it. As an example, when teaching children to write a letter, you have to develop their understanding of the different parts -- the heading, greeting, body, and closing -- and how they are formatted. Concepts like centering, indenting, and starting a new line need to be tactile in order for students to understand them."
This is echoed by Shelley Rhodes. She says, “When you are blind, nothing
exists till you put your hands on it. Only when you hit adolescence, do you
begin to gain the capability to do abstract thinking. I want the concept of
braille to be tangible, concrete, instant… Young children don’t have the
capability to understand the concepts of ‘file’ or ‘save’ or ‘delete’. You have
to start with the low-tech device first and later introduce high-technology.”
Mathematics requires a spatial orientation in order to teach the basic concepts of numbers and graphing. According to Anna Swenson, "Mathematics requires the ability to scan rows and columns. Children learning to add, subtract, multiply, or divide in Nemeth Code need this tactile information to understand the place value of each digit and the overall spatial layout of the problem."
Shelley Rhodes offers, “You can’t touch ‘over there’. It doesn’t register as
a concept. A sighted kid will understand ‘you’re next in line’. But a kid who is
blind will say ‘what is a line?’ They don’t know that a group of students is a
line. If you never touch a page of paper, you never know what the top of a paper
is. It is bigger than literacy. You have to know the abstract mathematical
concepts for your entire life.”
c. Basics First - Providing a Foundation For Literacy
In order to become completely literate, a child must be fluent in the basics of building and dissecting words. Just as sighted children are taught to write with a pencil and paper before they use a computer, and to add and subtract before they are introduced to a calculator, children who are blind and visually impaired must be completely connected to the basics of language by physically loading the paper, centering it and feeling the letters and numbers produced.
According to Annelies Buurmeijer, “It is easier to understand the concept of making words if you type them out on a brailler. The braille dots are numbered. If you know that K equals dots 1 and 3, and you can feel it on a brailler, it is very different than simply typing a key on a keyboard where all the keys feel the same. You need to be able to feel the difference between a K and a B, which is dots 1 and 2. That is the way to absorb the concept of letters into your system.”
Where sighted children can understand the concept of paper or a book by seeing it, children who are blind must feel it and create it in order to ‘own’ it on a basic level. “Children who are blind are usually bad spellers. If they don’t get the tangible, tactile experience at the beginning of spelling words and feeling them, they won’t learn them,” says Shelley Rhodes.
Low-tech devices are more affordable, reliable and functional. For many
families without significant means, they are the only option.
Claire Wilson adds, “The high-tech devices assume you have the financial means to upgrade the software. On the other hand, my brailler is 40 years old and I still use it every day. Plus, the high-tech devices are fragile. When you are teaching children, they drop things and spill liquid on them. The low-tech devices can take just about anything.”
Brian Charlson says, “I can sit at my computer and type on a PC. That costs
$1,500. The PC talks to me and that is $1,000. It translates into braille using
translating software for $500 - $800. And then I send it to the braille embosser
for a hard copy and that starts at $3,000. Or I can use a brailler for a
fraction of the cost of the high-tech devices and not worry about needing an
electricity supply or having a catastrophic breakdown where I lose all my
In addition, the low-tech devices provide accessibility. They do not rely on electricity, are durable and are not subject to frequent and costly upgrades of software or breakdowns. As Brian says, “I am sitting here talking to you with a pencil and paper in my hand. And I teach computers! Would you want your sighted children to not be able to use a pencil and paper? And furthermore, what happens if the electricity goes out - we leave them with no means of written communication? In my opinion, that is not acceptable.”
“Kids like to read in their beds,” adds Annelies Buurmeijer, “they don’t want to be attached to one place through a computer. If you go on holiday, if you go camping, you need to be able to read a book and also to write notes, which means you need to be able to use a braille writer.”
There are some tasks which are just accomplished best by low-tech devices. Producing labels for food or volumes of books are essential for a person who is blind to be able to manage their daily activities.
Clearly, the ideal situation is to have the option to use both high-tech and low-tech devices. In certain cases, introducing high-tech first may be the best viable option for engaging a very bright child. But even then, the ability to use a low-tech device is critical to avoid being unable to communicate if a high-tech device fails.
In summary, young children need to learn to read and write braille, learn mathematics and be exposed to abstract concepts. Most of the experts with whom I spoke assert that low-technology devices still provide the most fundamental, low-cost, reliable pathway to literacy.
This is not to disparage the use of high-tech devices. They are critical to future success. However, for most children, they should be introduced later in the learning process, after students are completely 'connected' to the basics of language and abstract thinking.