South Dakota school continues teaching Braille despite trend

Published:

ABERDEEN, S.D. (AP) -- Jordan Houseman, a 10-year-old student at the South Dakota School for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Aberdeen, is one of the 10 percent of the blind nationwide who are learning to read and write Braille.

The number of students learning Braille has declined each decade since the 1950s, when more than 50 percent of the blind learned it, according to a 2009 report from the National Federation of the Blind.

The reasons are many, including widespread integration of visually impaired students into the classroom, medical procedures that can improve vision, computer voice recognition technology, audio texts and other technology, according to the report.

The usefulness of Braille might be debated on the national level, but there is no doubt about its importance at the South Dakota School for the Blind.

"We have the latest technology with audio components, but we also teach Braille," said Marjorie Kaiser, superintendent of the school. "It comes down to this question, 'Is a person literate if he cannot read or write?' Braille is the way our students read and write."

At the Aberdeen school, 18-20 students live on campus, and another 10 attend classes during the day. The Aberdeen facility is just a small part of the school's mission. More than 180 students receive services throughout the state.

"Our school here in Aberdeen is just the tip of the iceberg," she said.

Students learn Braille at the school on 17th Avenue Southeast and from traveling consultants.

Braille has been around since 1825, when Louis Braille in France created an alphabet using raised dots that can be felt with the fingertips. Individuals skilled at Braille can read nearly as fast, and in some cases faster, than regular readers. They learn not only to read words but contractions of words that speed the reading process.

"It's not that hard to learn," said Jordan of Chamberlain.

He spends part of his day practicing running his fingers over the raised dots, decoding them into letters in his mind and reading them out loud as words. A teacher works with him one-on-one.

He also learns to write with a Braille writer, a six-key typewriter. By pushing a combination of the six keys, he forms letters into a word, hits the space bar and then starts on another word.

"We will always need a print medium for a blind person," said Diane Agnitsch, a certified Braille transcriber at the school. "This is their way of reading and writing. It is needed for lifelong use."

Some of the practical applications for Braille writing include writing notes and labeling items.

Braille is also essential for learning math, Kaiser said. Numbers have their own raised dot pattern. Students can learn how to do addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.

Technology has given visually impaired students other options for communicating, many of which are available at the school.

One of the popular computer programs used is Dragon Dictate, a voice recognition software program. Students can dictate a message into the computer, and it translates the words into text. Students have to learn to speak slowly, completely and with punctuation. They then can send the message via email or use it for other purposes.

There are also computers with programs where documents can be scanned and changed into voice messages.

The auditory experience is valuable and one where visually impaired students often have a sensitivity. Because they don't see well, they often rely on their other senses.

Jordan hears what is going on in the halls in school and can often figure out what is happening before a sighted person, said his Braille teacher Tevan Fischbach.

Students routinely listen to books on tape or compact discs. Many of the older students play them at a higher speed to learn the material more efficiently, Kaiser said.

"They can listen at speeds that would make me nauseous," she said.

While many students, like Houseman, are completely blind, the majority of students have some vision.

April Dominick, a junior in high school who lives at the school, has 20/200 vision in her left eye and 20/60 in her right eye. Glasses offer minimal help. She uses a computer program called ZoomText, which enlarges any image on a screen including text, graphics and pictures.

Dominick, who is from Timber Lake, said she learned Braille as a young child but has since forgotten it. She is able to see well enough to read with aids.

One of the things she has learned at the school is to make better use of her eyes by learning her null point, the spot in her eye where she has the most visual acuity. She has learned to tip her head to see better.

In addition to learning academic skills and sensory development, students learn mobility, daily living skills, social skills and self-advocacy. They also take time for recreation. Kaiser said the goal is to teach students to be independent and employable.

"In this country, part of being independent is holding a job," Kaiser said. "In the old days, the School For the Blind taught broom making, basket weaving and piano tuning because those were things blind people could do and the products were needed."

Computers now have opened up the world of work. People with vision problems can use voice activation software to work with computers. Even with education and advanced technology, only about 30 percent of the blind are employed, according to the National Federation of the Blind report.

Those who know Braille, however, have a better chance of having a job. One study found 56 percent of participants who grew up reading Braille were employed.

Want to leave your comments?

Sign in or Register to comment.