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As numbers learning system drop, program reaches out to
Tuesday, November 5, 2002 Posted: 11:29 AM EST
BOSTON, Massachusetts (AP) -- Like many girls about to turn 5, Mikaella Besson has started to learn to read. She even has a favorite book -- "Froggy Gets Dressed" -- which she reads with help from her mom.
"She wants to read it over and over," Nalida Besson says.
But Mikaella has never seen the words on the pages -- she has only felt them.
The Besson family is among many who are benefitting from an expanded plan to link blind youngsters and parents with Braille books.
The National Braille Press is working with the national Reach Out and Read program and the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind to distribute books, with the hopes of encouraging literacy among vision-impaired youngsters. The goal is to make people more aware of the importance of Braille, given that the number of children learning Braille has fallen 40 percent since the 1960s.
"From a little seed it's developed into one of our major programs," says Bill Raeder, president of National Braille Press, based in Boston. "We've set a goal of reaching every preschool blind child in the country."
About 55,200 children in the United States are legally blind, and of those, just 5,500 use Braille as a primary means of reading. Legal blindness is defined as having vision worse than 20/200.
However, the figures don't tell the whole story, because some blind children have multiple disabilities and do not read, while some children who don't meet the definition of legal blindness use Braille.
With Braille, those who are vision-impaired can read and write using a rectangular six-dot cell, with up to 63 possible combinations of one or more of the six dots. The Braille is embossed onto paper and read with the fingers moving across the dots.
The Besson family received books in Braille as part of an outreach program to encourage learning the reading system.
Nalida Besson wants to ensure Mikaella and her 13-month-old sister learn to read using Braille, as their father does. They all have congenital cataracts, and Mikaella, who also has glaucoma, has undergone eight eye surgeries.
She receives Braille instruction five times a week at the Agassiz School in Boston, and already she is catching on. "She can identify A and G -- they're her two favorite letters," her mother said.
"Most of the time Braille is a better way to read," she said. "Once children get older, if they lose their vision they become disinterested (in reading) because it hurts."
Raeder said parents of visually impaired and blind children need to be advocates for their child's education because schools don't automatically put blind children on a reading track.
The youth Braille program now has health care workers distributing print-Braille books -- which include the regular print with Braille overlays -- to blind children and blind parents involved in Reach Out and Read programs nationwide. The program was founded with a $120,000 grant from Mellon Charitable Giving Program and is being expanded through a $330,000 grant from Readers Digest Partners for Sight Foundation.
Until the 1960s and 1970s, many blind children attended specialized residential schools, where Braille was taught extensively. But mainstreaming sent many of those children to public schools, which had neither the trained staff nor the equipment to teach the alphabet.
At about the same time, according to advocates for the blind, audio equipment started replacing Braille in classrooms. It was more convenient, but didn't teach students how to read.
According to the American Foundation for the Blind, the shortage of Braille teachers is nearing crisis levels. Brent Hopkins, a spokesman for the foundation, says 5,000 more Braille teachers are needed to supplement the 6,700 full- time Braille teachers now in classrooms.
The foundation has sponsored legislation that seeks to make equal access to educational materials such as Braille textbooks mandatory. That bill awaits a Congressional committee review.
"Braille mastery and reading and writing are central to the success for anyone in the world, particularly for blind and visually impaired people," said Amy Ruell, director of the Braille Press program for youngsters. "Unless people can read and write and communicate clearly, there's no opportunity for them to compete equally among sighted people."