Future Reflections        Summer 2013

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It's a Happy Story
The Braille Summit, a Parent's Perspective

by Penny Duffy

Penny DuffyFrom the Editor: Parents sometimes feel that they will be unwelcome and out of their depth at professional conferences. Yet, as Penny Duffy explains, parents can both learn and contribute to conferences that are largely geared toward professionals in the blindness field. Penny serves as president of the New Hampshire Parents of Blind Children, and her work appears frequently in Future Reflections. You can visit her blog at <visionfora.blogspot.com>.

About two months ago, while browsing on the website of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (or NLS for short), I tripped over information about an upcoming conference called the Braille Summit. "NLS invites you to participate in the NLS Braille Summit at Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts, June 19-21, 2013, to help determine the best ways for libraries to promote and support Braille literacy," I read. "The conference will bring together librarians, Braille literacy professionals, Braille readers, and other stakeholders."

At first I ignored the notice. It didn't say anything about parents of children who read Braille, so I decided it wasn't for me. Then I went back and read it again. I am a stakeholder, I thought. I have an interest in NLS's services. I am the parent of a child who reads Braille. My daughter receives her Braille books from the Perkins Regional NLS Library.

The conference was to take place the week my kids finished school. I checked with my husband, Chris, and decided that I could go--in fact, that I should go. The Perkins School for the Blind is about an hour and a half drive from our home in New Hampshire. It would be a long commute, but I couldn't afford a hotel room. I would have to drive into Boston-area traffic every day of the conference, but I decided to register.

So, on June 19th, 20th, and 21st, I drove each day to the Braille Summit. I am going to give a detailed, and perhaps wordy, summary of my experience. If you are too busy to read everything I have to say, please watch the video of the panel on Braille Literacy and Promotion at <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2hRYsks7Jj0>.

On Wednesday, June 19th, I dropped Abby off at Track Camp (yes, she went to Track Camp and loved it!) and drove to the Perkins School in the early afternoon. The summit started after lunch. I was proud that I made it on time. After I registered, they handed me a name badge and a packet that included the final agenda. On the cover of the agenda, in big bold letters, I read: "THE FUTURE OF BRAILLE."

I did a quick double take when I read those words. All of the other titles for conference events said, "That All May Read." Something about the phrase "The Future of Braille" makes me light-headed. This is serious business! A title is just a title, but it sets the tone for all that follows.

While the primary focus of the summit was on NLS and how to improve its Braille services, I think the focus was much broader. Some of the discussions may change the landscape of Braille in the future. I don't mean changes in the mechanics of Braille, such as the adoption of Unified English Braille (UEB). I mean changes in a larger sense that is hard to express. Truly we were talking about "The Future of Braille."

I quickly realized that people from all over the world were attending the summit, representatives from some of the world's major Braille and blindness organizations and companies. I was just a parent, and I'm pretty certain I was the only "just a parent" there. A few other parents of blind children attended, but they were all there in some professional role. Everyone seemed impressed by my presence, but I didn't feel I had done anything remarkable by attending. I was sure that many more parents would have done the same if the conference had been promoted to them.

So many smart and interesting people were at the conference! Many of them already knew each other very well, and at times I felt as though I was crashing a class reunion. That was okay; I was there to learn and to share my ideas. The chance to be so close to so many interesting people who love Braille as much and even more than I do made the trip more than worthwhile.

Day One

The day's agenda consisted of welcoming remarks, a presentation on Braille policy, and a panel of Braille readers. Many comments stood out for me. I heard the alarming statement that Braille is on life support. There was talk about Braille on demand and the idea that the model of "perfect Braille" needs to be adjusted. I heard that we have to focus on the positive aspects of Braille, and that the public view of Braille has to change.

That afternoon we heard an announcement that the US Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), had released a policy letter on Braille teaching. You can find this letter in MS Word and PDF formats at

At the end of the day, we had the first of six breakout sessions. The group was split into four subgroups. Because the groups were randomly assigned, I was in a new group for each of the six breakout sessions. This system made the experience fun and interesting. For each topic we shared our ideas about what was important. All ideas were accepted. Each group member was given three tokens, and we voted on the group's ideas as we chose. In other words, you could vote by giving one token for an idea, or if you felt very strongly, you could vote all your tokens for one idea. It was really hard when all of your tokens were gone and you had no votes left! It was a neat and successful model.

Most of the real work of the conference took place during the breakout sessions. One suggestion that came up was the idea that NLS might provide Braille displays to its patrons. (It's nothing more than an idea at this point!) The other major topic was the idea that NLS could run a "Braille Is Cool" campaign--again, just an idea so far.

At the end of the first day there was a reception. I almost didn't go, but I decided to stay and avoid the rush-hour traffic. I am very glad I stayed. There was yummy food, and I had the chance to talk to some interesting people. At the reception they announced the release of the third edition of a book called World Braille Usage. I knew nothing about this book, and I was surprised to learn that the first edition was released more than fifty years ago. More information can be found at <www.perkins.org/worldbraille>. The book describes the many ways that Braille is used around the world.

Day Two

I started the day with quite an adventure in traffic, and I arrived an hour late. I missed the first panel, which was on Braille selection, but I made it in time for the first breakout session. I'm a bit of a book nerd, so I was fascinated to learn about the process by which books are selected and released to the NLS collection. Later I heard an exciting pie-in-the-sky panel on Braille technology.

Day Three

This was the last day of the conference. I got there on time, and I was very happy about that. The day started with a wonderful panel on Braille literacy. There were also two final breakout sessions. As an added bonus, there was a "Show and Share" time when organizations demonstrated some of their products. I had the opportunity to thank Perkins Products for my family's wonderful visit from Marty the Smart Brailler; we had Marty on loan.

During the last breakout session I suggested that conferences such as the Braille Summit should include blind children and teens who are Braille readers. After all, the future of Braille is, quite literally, in their hands. Everyone seemed to think that was a good idea.

I missed the closing statements and the final report on the breakout sessions. I had to leave early or I would end up in the car for hours. On a Friday, late afternoon traffic on 93 North is always horrible. Fortunately, I was home in time to pick up Abby at Track Camp. Because the conference was captured on video, I could watch all of the sessions I missed when I got home. You can find the videos at <www.pathstoliteracy.org/resources/proceedings-first-ever-braille-summit>.

Looking back, what do I think? What did I take away from the conference? I learned that I, personally, need to work harder to promote Braille. I also learned that I, personally, love Braille. This was quite a revelation, considering that I really can't read it yet. I plan to take steps to change that. In fact, I have enrolled in my first Braille course through the Hadley School for the Blind.

I am very passionate about Braille literacy. I feel passionately that all of us, as members of the blind community, need to work harder at promoting Braille and sharing how important it is. All at once I am excited and concerned over the future of Braille. The summit was an excellent event.

I am grateful to NLS for keeping this event open to stakeholders and for encouraging all participants to share their ideas. A closed event would have been much less powerful. Many of the participants were Braille readers who came because they love Braille and wanted to be there.

The whole event was a love letter to Braille. How fitting that it ended on the first day of the 2013 Braille Challenge finals! Tell me, how great is that?

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