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Staying in touch through Braille; Reading: The use of Braille has declined sharply, but some advocates for the blind are working to reverse that trend.


The raised dots and flat areas of his Braille page take Jeremy R. Lincicome through the hills and plains of the stories he loves. He may be revisiting his favorite book, "Aliens for Breakfast." He may be reading about a hospital in a book by television's Mister Rogers. Or his fingers may be telling him about Stevie Wonder.

Jeremy, an 11-year-old fifth-grader, is the only blind student at Johnnycake Elementary School in Baltimore County and one of about 200 visually impaired students learning Braille in Maryland.

Use of Braille has declined sharply in the United States since World War II. Three decades ago, 44 percent of the nation's blind used Braille; now that's only 9 percent.

In Maryland, about 15 percent of the 1,356 visually impaired students ages 3 to 21 are studying Braille, according to the most recent statewide school survey in 1995.

But advocates are urging a resurgence -- and have helped enact laws making Braille instruction available.

"Blind children need the same opportunities as sighted children to read by 9 years old," says Barbara Cheadle of Catonsville, president of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children and a staff member of the National Federation of the Blind.

In the late 1980s, Cheadle and her husband, John, won a long battle to have Baltimore County schools teach Braille to their son, Charles.

That victory helped spur the General Assembly to enact a 1992 law providing that every visually impaired child who wants to learn Braille can do so.

In 1997, federal legislation required much the same.

In Maryland, Braille use has increased since the state legislation, says Loretta McGraw, who oversees state education services for the visually or hearing impaired.

She says instruction in Braille is available for all students who want it.

But the relatively low percentage of Braille readers continues to be of concern for advocates.

In the 1995 survey of Maryland's visually impaired students, twice as many students -- about 30 percent of these surveyed -- were nonreaders as were studying Braille.

Some of these students have other disabilities such as mental retardation, cerebral palsy, learning disabilities and motor deficits that limit their ability to read. But the survey results do not bode well, according to Braille advocates.

Many blind people are "exceedingly successful" without Braille, but "the percentages of success for many are better if they do know it," says Marc Maurer, president of the federation. Others echo that feeling.

"If a blind person doesn't know Braille it isn't devastating, but Braille does offer much to enrich lives," says Fredric K. Schroeder, commissioner of the federal Rehabilitation Services Administration.

Schroeder is the highest-ranking blind presidential appointee, but he does not use Braille. He relies instead on tape recorders, books on tape and people reading to him. He became totally blind at 16 and began teaching himself Braille but is not proficient.

Because about 80 percent of legally blind Americans are not totally blind and can make some use of print, Schroeder argues, the best approach for many is striking a balance between reading some print and Braille.

Link to employment

But Braille promoters say the blind need it to be literate, fully educated, employable and independent. The National Federation of the Blind says that, while 70 percent of the country's blind people are unemployed, 91 percent of those with jobs are proficient in Braille.

Rather than learning Braille, many blind people rely on such devices as tape recorders, taped and large-print books, and magnifiers. Some educators and parents lack knowledge of Braille and enthusiasm for it. In some cases, that's because parents and children with partial sight may feel that using Braille stigmatizes children with their peers.

Braille makes use of raised dots in various combinations that are read by fingertips moving from left to right. The dots are arranged in a basic module called a cell, a rectangle of two columns of three dots each.

Different combinations of dots and cells express the 26 letters of the alphabet, numbers, capital letters and punctuation. Speeding the process is an American Braille list of 180 contractions of frequently used words and groups of letters.

A blind French teen-ager, Louis Braille (1809-52), invented the system in the 1820s, when he discovered that the blind could not easily write using the existing methods of reading raised lines.

Braille is not easy, but blind children can learn to read using it in the same amount of time as sighted children of equal ability, supporters say. Braille readers are considered proficient if they read faster than they normally talk.

Jeremy Lincicome, who has cerebral palsy that affects some movement of his left hand, isn't fully proficient yet by that standard. He has been studying Braille for more than five years.

"Best thing about Braille is it gives me the capability to read and write myself," says Jeremy. "The worst thing is if I ordered a whole Bible, it would take up a whole bookshelf. About 28 books. The heavy paper and dots make it so bulky."

When Jeremy talks, his sentences and questions tumble out in bursts of quick energy about computers, friends, playing drums at school and favorite sports such as fishing and ice skating: "This summer I'm going to learn how to swim. I want to be a lawyer. My mother says I know a lot of stuff."

A job for both hands

He likes to read and write Braille, although "the longer sentences are harder," he says.

He reads Mister Rogers' "Going to the Hospital" carefully but with determination, his right hand pausing every few words to make sure of them, his left hand marking the start of the next line of Braille -- an accommodation to his cerebral palsy. (Most Braille readers read with both hands.)

Later he shows off a pamphlet he wrote on a Braillewriter, a device like a typewriter. The book is called "My Family" about the Lincicomes of Catonsville: His mother, Judith Lincicome, and his siblings, Rebeccah, 18; Sarah, 12; Daniel, 12; and Kelly, 4.

All the Lincicome children have developmental disabilities and all were adopted by Judith, who was aware of their challenges. Jeremy is visually impaired because the need for extra oxygen led to broken blood vessels in his retina when he was born prematurely at 27 weeks.

"Here, let me read you some things," he says. " 'I live with my family. I help my family. My family helps me.' "

Suddenly, Jeremy looks up at the nearby window which has let in a burst of light. "The sun's out," he says. Matter of factly, he explains, "I have light reception."

Blindness is expensive

Jeremy says he sometimes feels discrimination because of his blindness: "Everyone else has these cool computer programs that don't cost much. Why do blind people have to spend so much more for software programs, the talking translators or simulators?"

Teaching children or adolescents Braille is easier than teaching adults, say two officials of the National Federation of the Blind.

The two, Aloma Bouma and Patricia Maurer, were born prematurely in the Midwest in the 1950s. Their retinas also were damaged when they received higher concentrations of oxygen, partially blinding them. Growing up, they had no easy options for learning Braille.

Maurer, however, pressed her parents and Kenneth Jernigan, a blind proponent of Braille then living in Iowa, to help her get instruction in Des Moines when she was a teen-ager. (Jernigan, who died recently, later moved to Baltimore as head of the blind federation.)

Bouma did not begin learning Braille until after college, and she concedes that Maurer can read and write more proficiently. They both use a slate and stylus to write by hand, a Braillewriter to type in Braille and a computerized Braille note taker.

Says Maurer: "I don't know how I could do my job without Braille." Bouma agrees.

Barbara Pierce, the blind editor of the Braille Monitor, a publication of the federation, adds: "No one mentioned Braille to me when I was growing up. If I had had that as a child, I would have had more opportunities."

Cheadle's National Organization of Parents of Blind Children tries to remedy that.

It assists Blind Industries of Maryland in a Kids Camp for the blind one week in August and sponsors "Braille Readers are Leaders," a competition encouraging children to enjoy Braille. The organization also helps get Braille tutors for blind children and provides information on the rights of parents and children in school districts.

'A fuller lifetime'

"Once you get good instruction and become Braille literate, your chances of employment are greatly improved, you can have a fuller lifetime of contributions," says Cheadle, who serves as the federation's point person for parents and students interested in Braille.

"But it requires concentrated formal instruction time in school," she says. "You can't count on parents; most won't learn it.

"And, [although] sighted people can learn print from infancy, [and] they learn all year round by looking at street signs, food labeling, television messages, blind children start learning Braille only in class."

Dr. Hilary H. Connor, 77, shows that the blind can learn Braille even at an advanced age. The Baltimore pediatrician could see perfectly well until temporal arteritis, a blood vessel disorder, struck him at 73 and he quickly became totally blind.

Eight months later, he began to teach himself Braille. He learned in six months and now reads mysteries and spy novels in Braille and hears other books on tape.

"I enjoy both Braille and books on tape," he says.

The International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind at the National Federation of the Blind, 1800 Johnson St., is the world's leading training center on new Braille technology. For more information, call 410-659-9314 for Barbara Cheadle at the federation.

Pub Date: 2/09/99

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