Brian Charlson lost his sight in an accident in 1966 when he was 11. The Lions in Milwaukie, Oregon, promptly gave him a Perkins Brailler, a Braille typewriter. Like tens of thousand of others with visual impairments, Braille improved his ability to learn and propelled him toward self-reliance. “I still use it [the Brailler] today,” says Charlson, a Lion in Newton, Massachusetts, and vice president of computer training services at the Carroll Center for the Blind. “Braille and the Lions were then, and continue to be, very, very important in my life.” Sadly, stories like Charlson’s are becoming less frequent as Braille literacy is rapidly declining. Only 10 percent of visually impaired children are learning Braille, according to the National Federation of the Blind. In its heyday in the 1950s and 60s, the rate of Braille learning topped 50 percent. Ironically, this year marks the 200th birthday of Louis Braille, who created the system of raised dots that represent the alphabet as a 15-year-old blind boy in France. The decline has multiple causes. Doctors are saving more medically fragile babies, many of whom are not only blind but also lack the physical or cognitive ability to learn Braille. More significantly, blind students typically now attend public schools. Instead of studying every subject using Braille each day, students receive sporadic instruction from itinerant Braille specialists. Yet another blow to Braille literacy are advances in technology such as software that “speaks” the text on a computer screen. Parents and tea chers of blind students embrace the slick technologies instead of old-fashioned Braille. But Braille literacy is a key to advanced education and better jobs, say advocates for the blind. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (interpreted by the American Federation for the Blind) shows that more than three-fourths of legally blind adults in the United States are unemployed or under-employed. Yet 90 percent of the blind who are employed use Braille. More than just a tool, “Braille seems to represent competence, independence and equality,” according to a U.S. Department of Education study. The crisis in Braille literacy needs urgent attention, says Steven Rothstein, a Lion in Newton and president of Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, which in 1887 dispatched a young new teacher named Annie Sullivan to Alabama to teach an unruly young girl named Helen Keller. “If literacy rates had gone down so dramatically for the general population, there would be a public uproar,” he says. The new technologies, though welcome, threaten to tarnish Braille as obsolete. “Society does not excuse sighted children from learning to read and write print just because they can watch TV and download audio books to their iPods,” says Rothstein. People with low or progressively failing vision struggle with large print and cumbersome magnifiers, straining to read print at a laborious pace, while Braille readers can keep pace with their sighted peers. The excessive time needed to read-by-listening causes students to fall behind both in school and in social interactions. “A student cannot learn spelling, grammar, and writing skills by listening alone,” says Roz Rowley, a partially sighted Braille teacher at Perkins. Perkins has been a longtime leader in Braille advocacy. In 1957, it introduced the Perkins Brailler, still in use today particularly in developing countries where electricity and computers are luxuries. Perkins also offers a more contemporary Brailler, the Next Generation Brailler, that offers greater portability and functionality. Lions, too, remain staunch advocates of Braille (as well as embracing other technologies): • The Ponchatoula Lions in Louisiana and Lions from four other clubs raised funds for a specialized electronic device to help an 8-year-old girl learn Braille. “She was ecstatic. She got on that thing right away. As far as computers go, well, those things will make a monkey of you. But not Emily. As fast as she could type, she could talk to you with that machine,” says Lion Wayne “Big Un” Aymond. • In the high-tech epicenter of California’s Silicon Valley, Salinas Host Lions support rehabilitation and education services for those living with vision loss including Braille instruction. “The written word is so powerful in becoming all you can be,” says Lion Liz Crooke. “Braille literacy opens up a whole world of knowledge to people who are blind.” When District 4-C6 Lions updated the Lions Silicon Valley Center for the Blind, they upgraded the Braille library and its computers that create, print and store documents in Braille. • The Metropolitan Lions of Jacksonville have supported Braille literacy for more than 30 years at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine. “We want to help, yes, but we want that help to be something that makes it possible for that person to participate in society,” says past club president Roger Palmer. “It’s like the movie Pay It Forward. I’m not doing it so I can see the results myself. Hopefully they will learn and grow and be able to do their part to help that next person forward.” Charlson, the Lion who was blinded as a boy, uses high-tech devices including computers with “refreshable” Braille. But he knows from experience the value of manual Braille. A few years ago his plane was landing when he pulled out his refreshable Braille device to check the address of his hotel. Its memory had failed. “I didn’t know where I was staying,” he says. “Now I always carry my itinerary on three-by-five cards that I made on my Perkins Brailler.”
Published by International Association of Lions Clubs . View All Articles.