BALTIMORE — Jordan Gilmer has a degenerative condition that eventually will leave him completely blind. But as a child, his teachers did not emphasize Braille, the system of reading in which a series of raised dots signify letters of the alphabet.
Instead, they insisted he use what little vision he had to read print. By the third grade he was falling behind in his schoolwork.
"They gave him Braille instruction, but they didn't tell us how to get Braille books, and they didn't want him using it during the day," said Jordan's mother, Carrie Gilmer. Teachers said Braille would be "a thing he uses way off in the far distant future, and don't worry about it."
That experience is common: Fewer than 10 percent of the 1.3 million legally blind people in the United States read Braille, and just 10 percent of blind children are learning it, according to a report to be released Thursday by the National Federation of the Blind.
By comparison, at the height of its use in the 1950s, more than half the nation's blind children were learning Braille. Today Braille is considered by many to be too difficult, too outdated, a last resort.
Instead, teachers ask students to rely on audio texts, voice-recognition software or other technology. And teachers who know Braille often must shuttle between schools, resulting in haphazard instruction, the report says.
"You can find good teachers of the blind in America, but you can't find good programs," said Marc Maurer, the group's president. "There is not a commitment to this population that is at all significant almost anywhere."
Illiterate and unemployed
Using technology as a substitute for Braille leaves blind people illiterate, the federation said, citing studies that show blind people who know Braille are more likely to earn advanced degrees, find good jobs and live independently.
One study found that 44 percent of participants who grew up reading Braille were unemployed, compared with 77 percent for those who relied on print. Overall, blind adults face 70 percent unemployment.
The most recent report pulled together existing research on Braille literacy, a method that its authors acknowledge was less than comprehensive. The 10 percent figure comes from federal statistics gathered by the American Printing House for the Blind, a company that develops products for the visually impaired.
The federation also did some original research, including a survey of 500 people that found the ability to read Braille correlated with higher levels of education, a higher likelihood of employment and higher income.
'My hands on a page'
The report coincides with the 200th birthday of Louis Braille, the Frenchman who invented the Braille code as a teenager. Resistance to his system was immediate; at one point, the director of Braille's school burned the books he and his classmates had transcribed. The school did not want its blind students becoming too independent; it made money by selling crafts they produced.
The system caught on, but began declining in the 1960s along with the widespread integration of blind children into public schools. It has continued with the advent of technology that some believe makes Braille obsolete.
"Back in about 1970 or so, I was heading to college, and somebody said to me, 'Now that you've got the tape recorder, everything will be all right. In the early 1980s, somebody else said, 'Now that you've got a talking computer, everything will be all right,"' said Marc Maurer, president of the federation.
"They were both wrong. And the current technology isn't going to make everything all right unless I know how to put my hands on a page that has words on it and read them."
'Orderly lines of words'
Audio books are no substitute, said Carlton Walker, an attorney and the mother of a legally blind girl from McConnellsburg, Pa. Walker once met a blind teenager who had only listened to audio books; the teen was shocked to discover that "Once upon a time" was four separate words.
Walker also had to lobby teachers to provide Braille for her 8-year-old daughter, Anna, instead of just large-print books.
"At 3 years old, Anna could compete with very large letters. When you get older, you can't compete," Walker said. She once asked a teacher, "'What are you going to do when she's reading Dickens?' She said, 'Well, we'll just go to audio then.'
"If that were good enough for everybody, why do we spend millions of dollars teaching people to read?"
Jordan Gilmer, now an 18-year-old aspiring lawyer, worked on his Braille in a summer program when he was in middle school and can now read 125 words a minute, up from his previously rate, an excruciatingly slow 20 words a minute.
"Just try it," Carrie Gilmer said. "Go get a paragraph, get a stopwatch and try to read 20 words a minute. Try and read that slow and see how frustrating it is."
Fluent Braille readers can read 200 words a minute or more, the federation says.
Carrie Gilmer is president of a parents' group within the federation for the blind. She believes poor or haphazard instruction is largely responsible for the decline in Braille literacy, but she says sometimes teachers push Braille only to meet resistance from parents.
"They're afraid of their child looking blind, not fitting in," Gilmer said.
The report outlines ambitious goals for reversing the trend, including lobbying all 50 states to require teachers of blind children to be certified in Braille instruction by 2015. But its immediate goal is to simply make people aware that there's no substitute for Braille. It's not just a tool to help people function — it can bring joy, Maurer said.
"The concept of reading Braille for fun is a thing that lots of people don't know," Maurer said. "And yet I do this every day. I love the beautiful, orderly lines of words that convey a different idea that can stimulate me or make me excited or sad. ... This is what we're trying to convey."
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