Rise in illiteracy among blind prompts drive to restore emphasis on Braille

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Kenneth Silberman was in graduate school when he realized that he had to learn to read and write.

Mr. Silberman, who is blind, discovered that the tape recorders and computers he had always used to get through school were of little help in the advanced studies required to earn a master's ++ degree.


He ended up teaching himself Braille and received the degree, in aerospace engineering, from Cornell University. But he is still bitter that, as a child with limited vision, he was not taught Braille and thus found himself illiterate in his mid-20s.

Mr. Silberman's predicament is not unusual.


Braille, once taught to all the visually handicapped, has been partly supplanted in the last 40 years by such technological aids as tape recorders, voice-activated computers and machines that translate print into voice.

As a result, illiteracy is on the rise among the nation's 13 million people with visual handicaps. The most recent figures available, from the American Printing House for the Blind, show that in 1989, only 12 percent of visually handicapped students read Braille, down from nearly 50 percent in 1965.

The illiteracy rate is at the center of a battle over whether the best approach is technology and some Braille, or a wholesale return to Braille. The conflict pits advocacy groups dominated by those without visual handicaps against more militant groups dominated by the blind.

Those without visual handicaps want to teach Braille selectively. They say the other aids have a valid place and that the pool of visually handicapped people includes those with other disabilities, like mental retardation or tactile insensitivity, that would preclude them from learning Braille.

But the groups dominated by the blind argue that Braille should be mandatory for any visually handicapped person who is able to learn it.

Both sides agree on the stakes: whether more people with visual handicaps will become independent, productive members of society, or will remain largely on the fringe.

Seventy percent of the visually impaired who are of employment age are unemployed or underemployed, according to Susan Spungin, associate executive director of the American Foundation for the Blind.

Dr. Spungin's group is run generally by people without visual handicaps. By contrast, the more militant National Federation of the Blind is dominated by those with visual handicaps.


Still another group, the American Council of the Blind, is similar in philosophy to Dr. Spungin's group and is run by handicapped and non-handicapped people.

The struggle between those who would require Braille to be taught and those who argue that it should be taught only when necessary has gathered force since the passage last year of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The law prohibits discrimination against people with physical and mental impairments. It would, for example, require restaurants to assist blind customers by providing Braille menus or having a waiter read selections.

The tension over the teaching of Braille grows out of changes in education in the last 50 years. Historically, all people with vision handicaps had been taught Braille in separate schools for the blind.

But in the 1950s and 1960s, there was a shift toward integrating these students into public schools and encouraging them to use whatever vision they had.

Mr. Silberman, 30, an administrator at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., is among those who entered school in that period, just as such technology as tape recorders, computers and machines that translate print into voice were becoming cheap enough for classroom use.


The technology was considered a boon to those with visual handicaps, particularly people with "low vision," like Mr. Silberman. Some felt that Braille was obsolete.

A person classified as visually impaired is one who has some sight but requires care from an eye specialist. A legally blind person is one whose peripheral vision is reduced to 20 percent or who can see only the top "E" on the optical examination chart.

For Mr. Silberman and groups like the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind, Braille is the solution to illiteracy, as well as dependency on machines or on others.

"There are a lot of blind people who can't take advantage of better employment opportunity simply because they can't use written words with facility," said Marc Maurer, president of the federation.

"It isn't that we're opposed to technology. Technology has enhanced Braille, has made it cheaper, made it more accessible and opened up more jobs for those who are blind."