Research center to aid blind

When it opens a $19.5 million research and training institute in South Baltimore today, the National Federation of the Blind hopes to usher in a new era of empowerment for the blind -- training more teachers of blind children, offering new employment programs and reversing a decline in the use of Braille.

The institute, a 170,000- square-foot structure of brick and seafoam glass next to the federation's national headquarters, will house math and science summer camps where blind teen-agers will learn from National Aeronautics and Space Administration scientists. A new course, to be unveiled at a grand opening celebration tonight, will help train teachers for blind children online.


Inventor Ray Kurzweil, who produced the first print-to-speech machine with the federation 30 years ago, will collaborate with the institute on a portable reader that can be used to read everything from the label on a can of soup to a memo on an office wall. And there's room, if the funding can be found, for a business incubator where companies could develop other new products.

"We want to push the field," said Betsy Zaborowski, the institute's executive director, who is blind.


"We come from a philosophy that we believe in blind people, that they can do most any job commensurate with their abilities and skills," Zaborowski said. "The institute will be a center of innovation."

Statistics show the institute is facing a daunting challenge.

Of about 500,000 legally blind people of working age in the United States, about 25 percent are employed.

A 2000 study found that 5,000 additional teachers are needed for about 93,600 schoolchildren with low vision around the country, but university programs to train those teachers are producing only 250 graduates a year.

And Braille -- which the federation has long promoted -- is read by an estimated 10 percent of blind people. Forty years ago, nearly half were proficient.

Robert A. Burns, director of the state Division of Rehabilitation Services, which runs employment programs for 1,200 visually impaired people each year, said the training center's main asset is that it will be run by blind people.

"I think they will be able to push both the science and art of blind services and employment," Burns said.

"The ways we delivered services to the blind 10, 15 years ago are vastly different than they are today," he said. "Blind people, by tradition, were directed into certain occupations and certain jobs. Now we're trying to take those kinds of ceilings and limits off."


When Kurzweil developed the first reading machine with the NFB, it was bulky -- the size of a washing machine -- and cost $30,000 to $50,000, the Boston-based inventor said.

The institute, Kurzweil said, will be a perfect showcase for the technological leaps made since that initial device. When the portable reader is ready for distribution in 2006, it's likely to cost about $2,000 and be the size of a digital camera. Further advances could make the reader even smaller, and global positioning technology might one day allow it to automatically read signs and warn a blind person of obstacles.

The institute, he said, will get the word out to employers about such advances -- letting them know that blind employees can do almost any job. "You do have a lot of old-fashioned ideas about why people are dependent on society and can't contribute," he said.

In its teaching programs and development of technology, the institute will be geared to integrating Braille, a system of writing and reading developed in the 1820s.

Over the past 40 years, as technology such as talking books evolved and greater efforts were made to teach visually impaired children in regular schools, Braille proficiency declined, Zaborowski said. But among blind adults who are employed, 85 percent use the system.

"Our culture really viewed Braille as the last resort, only for the totally blind," Zaborowski said.


Some worry that the institute's programs could overemphasize Braille.

Phil Hatlen, superintendent of the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, said he welcomed the institute's potential to help train more teachers. But he said he hopes the federation's emphasis on Braille doesn't squeeze out print reading for children with partial sight.

"Over the past 50 years, what educators have learned is there are children who are legally blind who can be primarily visual learners, and that they should be given that opportunity," Hatlen said. "I think we have a very valid difference of opinion on that."

Zaborowski said that the new training programs, which will be designed in collaboration with universities and other teaching partners, won't discourage the instruction of print reading skills to children able to tackle it "efficiently."

But, she said, the programs will stress Braille instruction so that partly sighted children will have a way to read if their vision worsens.

The institute also plans to develop training materials for parents whose children are newly blind and computer technology that will help the blind use the Internet. It hopes to expand resources for senior citizens, 5.5 million of whom are blind or visually impaired.


"That is a forgotten population," said Carl Augusto, president and chief executive officer of the American Foundation for the Blind in New York. "Often there is little that needs to be done to get them to functional independence. The more we can do to reach out to the older population, the greater the chance they will be able to stay in their homes."