In the disability world, there is often a difference of opinion on whether it is more appropriate to enroll a disabled child in a school specifically geared toward him or her, or to mainstream the child with non-disabled children in the general educational system. The decision on how to enroll a disabled child has major implications on the way the child spends his or her life as an adult, and importantly, the type of career the adult pursues.
The degree of difference in educational approaches varies by disability — those with serious developmental disabilities are usually placed in disability-specific schools, while paraplegics and quadriplegics are generally mainstreamed. Some types of disability, especially deafness, lend themselves to more complex debates on educational approaches. Generally, if a disabled child is put in a school that specifically educates children with the same type of disability, he/she would get an education geared toward accommodating the disability, but at the expense of forgoing educational opportunities otherwise available to mainstreamed children. On the other hand, while the disabled child who is mainstreamed may develop a strong education and interact on a regular basis with non-disabled children, this would be at the expense of social development, especially where the non-disabled peers are not appreciative and accommodating of the child’s disability (up to the point of bullying, deliberate ignorance, or just an innocuous lack of awareness of the disabled condition). Technology has, particularly in the last decade, become a very strong influence in the decisions parents and professionals make in the education of disabled children.
This debate has been surprisingly consistent across all types of disabilities, including the deaf, the blind, the mentally challenged, etc. What is very interesting about this debate is that, depending on the disability, the benefits of one educational approach is more obvious, while with other disabilities, the benefits of either educational approach (mainstreamed and non-mainstreamed) are not as clear-cut and often result in very spirited and emotional discussions on the fate of the child. As a deaf person, I have often experienced a high level of tension in the dialogue between those who champion sign language as a primary mode of communication in education (usually requiring schools well-trained in sign language, or sign language programs within mainstreamed schools), while others emphasize the auditory-verbal method (which is used to a great extent in mainstreamed education and at oral schools for the deaf).
In the blind and visually-impaired community, however, there is stronger and stronger evidence indicating that as more blind children are mainstreamed, they are increasingly becoming divorced from Braille, a mode of communication that is essential to their ability to understand and interpret the written word. As a person who values the appropriateness of different modes of education for different people with the same disability, I tried over the years to find information on blind people who were able to lead quality lives without the use of Braille, and have come up almost empty in my research. Looking at the available statistics on employment and education for the blind, it is patently evident that the blind community has been very ill-served by the lack of use of Braille in education in the last three decades.
In 1973, Congress passed the Rehabilitation Act, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability in Federal programs, and in programs that receive assistance from the U.S. Government. Among the more well known sections of this act are Sections 504 and 508, which requires these programs to provide reasonable accommodations to children and adults with disabilities, using technologies that enable these people to have functional equivalence to those in the non-disabled population.
The passage of this act had a major impact on the education of people with disabilities, as it made it possible for PwD’s to receive an education in mainstreamed settings, increasing access to educational, professional and social options. Over the next few decades, however, the application of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 has been uneven, as many PwD’s saw their quality of life increase, while other PwD’s suffered. For the blind community, the 1973 Act has been an unmitigated disaster, with across-the-board declines in blind people’s quality of life. For many decades before the 1960’s, the blind and visually-impaired relied on the Braille system to help them read, and express themselves through writing. In an age where the written word, aided by the Industrial Revolution and its impact on book publishing and world literacy, became a crucial part of a person’s life, Braille enabled the blind to better understand and express the written word and keep themselves on a par with the seeing world. In schools for the blind, teachers used the Braille system to help blind children learn English.
Starting in the early 1960’s, and accelerating after the 1973 passage of the Rehabilitation Act, the decisions to educate blind children increasingly resided with administrators in thousands of school districts, and less on schools for the blind. With the advent of new technologies that enabled blind people to utilize more diverse tools to understand the written word, school districts increasingly determined that if blind students could rely on these new — and cheaper — technologies, it did not make sense for the schools to pay for the more expensive outlay of braille devices. So, a whole generation of blind children grew up with little access to Braille.
According to a study by the National Federation of the Blind, less than 10 percent of the 1.3 million legally blind people in the U.S. use Braille, compared to 50 percent a generation ago. Other statistics show that among legally blind children, just 12 percent read in Braille, and Braille literacy rates are declining around the world.
Employment statistics paint an even more powerful picture of how blind people live out their lives: 90 percent of blind adults who are Braille-literate are employed, while just 33 percent of blind adults who do not use Braille are employed.
Why the shift away from Braille? Budgetary reasons were the major driving force behind the school districts’ decisions, fueled by the districts’ perception that blind people would benefit from the new technologies that did not utilize Braille and render the raised-dot mode of reading unnecessary. Screen readers, raised print, and text-to-speech devices, especially in computers and the Internet, have widened the spectrum of selections available to blind people and given them powerful tools to read and interpret the written word. Unfortunately, all of these new technologies lack one essential ingredient that is very important to blind people: their ability to express themselves through the written word. Short of typing on the computer — which makes it more time-consuming to correct their own typing mistakes — there is no other technology short of Braille that enables blind people to accurately, expressively, and efficiently communicate in their writing style. While the average seeing person takes for granted the ease of picking up a pen and writing his or her words on paper, or pulling up a keyboard and typing away, this mundane but essential act of writing is not easily available to the blind person.
Proponents of alternate forms of technology point to the fact that non-blind people cannot understand Braille and thus would have a hard time communicating with them on legal documents, literature, newspapers, and other expressions of the written word. By enabling blind people to communicate on a platform that is easily understandable by non-blind people, they can better interact in the world at large. That may be true, but it fails to consider blind people’s ability to express themselves through the written word. The non-Braille technologies put the power of control in the hands of non-blind people. Braille gives blind people the ability to control their own flow of communication, and perform on the same functional platform as non-blind people.
Fortunately there has been a strong push by advocates for the blind community to return Braille to its rightful, historic place in the annals of the blind. Braille readers that transmit text from a computer, such as a document or a website, have been developed, and blind people sometimes prefer to input their words in Braille than on standard computer keyboards which require not only the ability to type, but also a speech synthesizer and a screen reader to read back what is written.
Nothing is more plain to the eye than a statistic that shows that 90% of employed blind people use Braille, while 2 out of 3 unemployed blind people do not use Braille.