Future Reflections January- February 1984, Vol. 3 No. 1

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by Joyce Scanlan, President, National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota

Reprinted from the Summer, 1983 issue of THE BLINDSIDE. THE BLINDSIDE is an award winning newsletter published by The National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota.

Who uses braille? Blind people, of course. But blind also describes people with some sight, and braille is used by these people as well.

In the last issue of The Blindside, we discussed braille and how valuable it is in performing every day activities. Individuals completely without sight rely on braille -- that's taken for granted. But some people resist the idea that partially blind persons can benefit by skills in braille.

"I'm angry that I wasn't taught braille as a child," says an NFB member. "Because I had some sight, I was forced to read print, but I could never read at the speed of the fully sighted students in my classes. Reading was such a chore and even though I liked to read, I stuck mainly to shorter magazine articles. I remember launching into Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; after ten pages, I gave up. It was just too much."

We frequently encounter this -- slightly sighted people not being taught braille. They are told, "You should read print, braille is too slow." But because of their reduced vision, they can never achieve speed in reading. In fact, reading braille is not slow. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when braille is equated with slowness and inferiority. How many sighted people would ever have built up speed reading print if all they ever heard was how difficult and slow reading was? If braille were taught as a reading skill in the same fashion as print, you would find no difference in reading speed abilities.

Isn't large print an appropriate alternative for a partially blind person? It can be. The ways in which partially blind persons see vary a lot: the equipment used in providing the large print material, lighting, eye strain and fatigue, different types of print such as handwriting or typewriting. All these contribute to the effectiveness and efficiency of a partially blind person's ability to read print.

A partially blind person can also experience physical trauma when reading print -- upper arm, back and neck strain are common complaints. Holding a book close to the eyes or bending and stretching the head down to the book can all lead to discomfort. Blind people who use print while making presentations before groups find it difficult to follow their notes while still facing the audience directly.

Braille, on the other hand, involves no real physical stress or awkward positions. And when making presentations, braille allows the speaker to look out at the audience and speak much more naturally and effectively.

I am not comfortable with the term "partially blind." Those who fall into the partially blind category quite understandably have difficulty with identity: they are not sighted and they're not blind. Attitudes commonly held in our society generally lead one to take extreme measures to deny any identification with blindness and to "pretend" to be sighted. In other words, use print no matter how great a struggle.

In the Federation, we define a blind person as anyone who has enough loss of sight to make the use of alternative techniques such as braille helpful. When we can believe at a gut level that it is respectable to be blind, we will not deny what is probably obvious to everyone else. Then we will use braille and other alternative techniques to our best advantage. More and more blind persons with some remaining sight are requesting the opportunity to learn braille in addition to print. By knowing braille, each blind person is better equipped for independent living in today's society.

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