Braille, an essential tool at the heart of learning and school integration for visually impaired students

This text is largely based on the contribution of the teachers of the Braille Pole of the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles (INJA)

The article was provided by Marie-René Hector

 

Introduction

Braille, the tactile writing and reading system developed by Louis Braille, has been adopted in all countries of the world, regardless of language or alphabet. Braille can be adapted to all alphabets and, beyond that, to all writing systems (musical code, mathematical code and computer code in particular). In the French language, it is available in two modes:

– the integral braille which reproduces the words letter by letter ;

– abbreviated Braille in which words are represented by symbols. Since Braille documents are quickly bulky, abbreviated Braille saves space and increases the speed with which documents can be read.

Two abbreviation techniques coexist within the same text:

– letter assemblies (groupings of vowels, consonants or syllables): the use of assemblies represents about 80% of the whole abbreviated text: it is therefore an essential learning process;

– a lexicon of about 800 words that are always abbreviated in the same way. Some of these words are very common (bonjour: bj; merci: mc; monsieur: mr; remarque: rq, etc.); others are no longer used, or are used in very specific contexts only (fonctionnel: f^l; séculairement: scrm, etc.).

However, almost everywhere in the world, Braille is suffering. The intensive, even abusive, use of voice synthesis (computer Braille equipment remains very expensive) and the production of large printed texts (becoming increasingly easy to obtain) has given the illusion that Braille can be left aside: a very convenient solution for sighted people who no longer need to learn Braille to read the productions of the blind, and a solution apparently also very convenient for the visually impaired who imagine that they do not need to do this learning too often declared tedious and painful.

However, the more or less systematic use of audio (synthetic voice or human voice) as a reading mode can in no way replace independent visual or tactile reading. Only the latter makes it possible to distinguish words correctly from one another, to fix their meaning and spelling, to grasp the structure of a sentence and to appropriate its characteristics, to analyze a paragraph, then an entire text and to understand the stages of a reasoning. The rereading of a written work cannot be carried out with precision by the only recourse to the vocal synthesis (sequencing of the paragraphs, spelling and punctuation are not then really checked). It should be added that the use of voice synthesis is totally ineffective when it comes to dealing with mathematical statements.

However, some countries (such as the United States) are beginning to measure the catastrophic consequences of growing illiteracy in the visually impaired population. At the INJA (Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles, Paris VIIe) too, the findings are overwhelming: students unable to find their way in a text, unable to sequence the words of a sentence, unable to write a correct sentence, unable to construct an argument at the end of secondary school or high school years. Students for whom texts unfold in time but never in space, who have not learned to go back over their writings, to correct them, who are always content with approximations and find themselves all the more in academic failure because it is very difficult to relearn the basics when they have not been put in place in the first years of schooling.

 

Why use Braille when you can still see?

Beyond the Arial 18 bold and Arial 20 non-bold formats for printed texts, reading large documents is often problematic. This difficulty is also real for some students reading in Arial 16. Even for some students with low vision reading in Arial 12, reading a long text is often difficult because of the attention required and the eye strain it causes.

– Difficulties in understanding a text as a whole: several successive readings are sometimes necessary to go from deciphering to understanding and then to the analysis expected by the teacher.

– Difficulty in locating a page because of the space occupied by the words.

For example: finding punctuation, which is essential to the acquisition of meaning; grammatical research for subject-verb agreement; lexical research; finding the right words on a diagram, etc. Contrary to popular belief, a very visually impaired student working in print often has more difficulty finding his way around a page (and even more so in a long document) than a student with Braille.

– Difficulty in moving through the document due to the large number of pages.

Example: finding an exercise number, locating the structure of a chapter, etc. All of these demanding and visually tiring searches take up the student’s attention, to the detriment of academic learning. This difficulty is increased when the student has to go through several documents at the same time (for example, a course and exercises): the student must then put each of the documents in turn under the enlarger or on the computer screen, find the line on which he or she was working, and he or she shows himself or herself to be much slower in carrying out the tasks than his or her braille-using peers.

– Risk of confusion in science subjects when reading formulas. Confusion between letters and numbers, sometimes instinctively correctable in a literary text, becomes systematically a source of errors in a scientific statement.

For example: the misreading, by eye, of the word “balancaire” can, in its context, be restored to “balançoire”. On the other hand, confusing the signs + and – or the numbers 2 and 7 in a mathematical expression will cause an overall error in the exercise concerned.

– Loss of meaning in reading long and somewhat complex sentences or long scientific formulas that do not fit on a single line. Some students have great difficulty returning to the previous line or going to the next line: they often stay on the same line or, on the contrary, skip one or even two lines without realizing it.

These difficulties are increased when the reading is done on the computer or with a high-magnification remote magnifier. Indeed, some students, believing they are acquiring a better reading comfort, tend to magnify the characters, even when it is not really necessary, an illusory comfort since they lose as much in reading efficiency.

The same text takes up almost less space in abbreviated Braille than in Arial 22. In addition, moving around in Braille text is easier than in Arial 22 printed text: the fingers move around the entire page at the desired pace, and there is no need to plug in any device to read: reading is completely independent, regardless of the location, lighting, or natural light.

The student who uses a text  magnification tool loses both time and accuracy in his reading. The overall meaning of the texts and exercises becomes more difficult to grasp.

 

 

 

Writing and rereading the production in print

  1. Handwriting and reading one’s text

Many students are able to handwrite but then cannot their own text  effectively: confusion between letters, between numbers, or even a total inability to read the whole of their manuscripts; moreover, their handwriting is often difficult to read, even for an adult with excellent eye condition.

  1. Writing and Proofreading with Computers

Students who use the computer and word processing with ZoomText can write well, but find themselves confronted with the same problem when reading as when using a remote magnifier: reading the equivalent of one line or even one word at a time. Loss of the overall meaning of the sentence or scientific formula that is only read little by little. The student is subject to great visual and cerebral fatigue over a full day of classes, especially since he or she often prefers to use the mouse to the keyboard, which is recommended. It is not uncommon for migraines to ensue, which are often persistent and very incapacitating.

In addition, there is the problem of handling the media when several documents need to be written on simultaneously. For example, in modern languages, the student is often asked to do exercises or refer to a text and at the same time to write down new words in another document “on the fly”. It is difficult for the student using a remote magnifier to find the right place on the document on his table and to quickly position the corresponding sheet of paper he has to write on in his binder. Braille users usually perform better on this type of task.

As far as scientific writing is concerned, the computer does not solve the problems of writing formulas, since it is a slow and tedious process because of the search for signs in a list, using the mouse. Example: to write a fraction correctly (without using the slash /), the manipulation is as follows: enter the Math Type software, go and find the fraction on the toolbar with the mouse, type the numerator, locate it on the screen, click on the denominator, write the denominator and validate it, finally close the software.

 

Interest in learning Braille for visually impaired students

  1. Gaining precision and ease of use
    Learning Braille allows the student to avoid confusing characters.
    The general structure of a lesson is perceived more clearly and accurately when reading on paper Braille, especially when compared to reading the same documents on a computer, because the spatial representation is easier on paper than on screen.
    In addition, since Braille reading is analytical, the student is able to appropriate the spelling of the words more easily, and no longer simply tries to guess the meaning after a global visual reading.
  2. Work longer without fatigue
    The student can work longer, without the risk of becoming overly tired: the more he practices Braille, the more he acquires ease, reflexes and efficiency in all the activities of reading documents, taking quick notes (especially in abbreviated form) and correcting his papers. This margin of progress depends, of course, to a great extent on the student’s personal investment. Most students can become very good braille users, while the margin of progress in print is less obvious. Functional remnants obviously cannot be “extended” by will alone.

 

  1. Building a Tool for the Future
    Many visually impaired students have progressive diseases (worsening of the visual impairment). It is much easier for them to learn Braille when they are in elementary or junior high school than when they are in high school, or especially in university.
    – Academic: it is possible to adjust the schedule in middle school; it is difficult in high school and almost impossible in university.
    – Cognitive aspect: the younger you are, the better it is for the acquisition of certain techniques, in particular those related to touch.
    – Psychological aspect: one can “gently impose” a learning process on a child or a young teenager; as he grows up, he is persuaded, wrongly of course, that the computer tools made available to him bring a miraculous solution to his difficulties, in particular by the systematic use of voice synthesis. But from experience, the teachers at INJA now know that this idea is totally illusory and seriously harms academic and professional success. The use of a computer requires the implementation of a methodology and the appropriation of strategies that are all the more complex as the cognitive difficulties increase. In this respect, it is not excessive to state that in many cases, the use of new technologies tends to cause a disservice to tudents rather than systematically improve their work conditions.
    – Institutional aspect: it is much better to learn Braille in a school, guided by competent teachers: this offers the guarantees of a serious training and the means to perfect it through daily use in class.
    It is very difficult to learn Braille without the help of a specialized teacher, in parallel with a university course or professional training. Learning braille then becomes an obstacle course which the person gives up most of the time, because of the lack of an adequate structure, but also because of the lack of psychological support.
  2. Limits to the use of speech synthesis
    If it allows to quickly take note of a text in its entirety, the voice synthesis does not at all take into account the structure of a document, the spelling of the words; its use requires a very important concentration. The student is no longer immediately involved in his reading and, discovering the very real advantages of a new, easier, faster and more relaxing way of reading, he becomes more and more passive in his learning: appropriating elements of a document while listening is possible, to a certain extent, but requires exceptional mental capacities of representation. Understanding a complex text, including for example passages in parentheses, quotation marks, highlights, dashes, etc., can only be done visually or by reading on a Braille computer display (scrolling the text in raised Braille characters on a single line at a time), as synthesis does not provide this level of detail and precision.
    As a result, the transition to writing also becomes problematic: loss of control over spelling, punctuation, syntax, paragraphing, organization of ideas, and meaning. For example: whether the student writes “est” or “ait” (is or the subjunctive form of have), the voice synthesizer will always pronounce it the same way. The same is true for all homophones and ambiguous writings such as: “Les fils des pantalons de mes fils” or “Jean a mis son jean” (John puts on his jeans) (in French, fils is the plural of fil meaning thread, and fils also means sons).
  3. Having two reading tools
    Eventually, the visually impaired student has several reading tools at his disposal:

– Braille (on paper or digital) for all textual school documents, regardless of the subject matter. For example: an exercise instruction, whether scientific or literary, remains text. It can therefore be read in Braille, whether it is an exercise in mathematics, French, foreign languages, science, history, geography, etc.
– print for all “visual” documents: diagrams, drawings, reproductions, etc. The reading of the diagram in relief and in parallel with the “ordinary” diagram allows the student to use both tactile and visual modes of reading for a complete understanding of the document.
– print, Braille or audio (natural voice or synthetic voice) for all leisure activities: reading a novel, audiodescription cinema, etc.

  1. Braille, one of the keys to success in inclusion
    The Braille writing and reading system must be taught in early school classes, both in special classes and in mainstream classes with the support of well-trained teacherS.
    Once learning is established, regular practice of Braille is absolutely essential.The interface with the teacher can be done in Braille if the latter has the necessary skills or through the use of a Braille block, a computer tool that produces ephemeral Braille in relief as well as a visible reproduction in ordinary characters on the screen.

 

Should educational materials, books, study materials, and exercise texts be transcribed into Braille? Depending on the level, the answer varies, not to mention the technical constraints. However, a general rule can be retained: any document that is actively used in class must be adapted, at least with the help of an in situ Braille printer. It is up to the external support services, in particular the student’s helper, to respond as fast as possible after the needs are expressed. From secondary school onwards, reference works can be consulted on the computer in the form of digital files that can be read, after adaptation, on the screen, on a Braille display or in audio.

However, Braille, let’s repeat it, retains its place at all levels as a support for reflection and expression, all before a printed restitution for the teacher.

 

Passing exams

Learning Braille gives you additional means to succeed in exams and competitive examinations: since Braille is uniform, each candidate in a competitive examination or oral can use it without difficulty and without being penalized by a disturbing environment: poor lighting can bother the visually impaired candidate, or even put him or her in a situation of failure, because of the sudden impossibility of reading or writing in print. Stress can cause the same problems.

 

For oral presentations, it is much easier to prepare a Braille outline if you have mastered this mode of reading, and then to read it again in front of an examiner, regardless of the lighting situation. The candidate’s skills will then be judged objectively. Depending on whether the candidate speaks with his or her nose glued to the paper or the screen, or whether his or her fingers are discreetly scanning a document, the face-to-face meeting does not have the same impact on the examiner.

 

The use of two reading modes will always be more beneficial to the visually impaired person, if he or she has a good command of the tools: he or she will always be able to choose the one that is most appropriate for the examination.

 

Teaching Braille at the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles (INJA)

  1. The mission of the Braille Pole of the INJA
    Braille is at the heart of teaching at INJA. Until the last decade of the last century, almost all students at the Institute read and wrote in Braille. Today, the situation has changed: many INJA students use “print” (enlarged or not). However, for students who are blind or have a severe visual impairment, Braille remains the only way to read and write texts in a completely independent manner. Learning braille at the Pôle Braille is therefore essential for the psychological and intellectual development of students. Each student benefits from individual instruction that can be modified throughout the year, according to his or her needs and progress: the amount of time and content of instruction are adjusted precisely to the needs of each student throughout the school year. Since braille is not a “school subject” but a reading/writing tool, a team of teachers from various subjects (French, mathematics, science, history and geography, etc.), all experienced in braille and all volunteers, take charge of the students in a collegial manner, in order to better help each young person progress in his or her learning. It is important that the team includes visually impaired teachers who use braille on a daily basis: this allows the team to find a very fruitful balance for the students between the purely pedagogical (and often theoretical) approach of the sighted teachers and that of their colleagues who are raille users, whose approach is much more personalized.
    One of the first roles of the Pôle Braille is of course to give tudents an efficient reading and writing tool. Students can thus continue their studies and find or rediscover a taste for reading and writing independently.
    Beyond this essential task, it is capital to make professionals more aware of the importance of braille. It is important to be very demanding about the quality of the documents which is transcribed and offered to Braille users; in return, there are also quality criteria to be met in the writing provided by students.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need to give back to independent reading and writing all its dimensions: learning to read silently, to write, to reread what we have written and to correct it, to master the space of reading and writing on paper in order to better master all that the computer tool offers. Ultimately, the goal is to give Braille students the tools they need to read, analyze, write and communicate the results of their thinking independently.

  1. Feedback from students or former students
    Some students who learned braille at INJA while having apparently stable vision became blind during their higher education. Because they knew Braille, they were able to carry on with their studies once the psychological shock was over. They had acquired a dual reading and writing tool and therefore did not have to learn new techniques. There are many testimonies from former students to whom Braille was imposed, who recognize that they were able to continue their studies and finally find a job, thanks to its acquisition. It is a very effective work and communication tool that allows one to integrate into a group for school or professional activities. The easy rereading of writings, notes, exercises, presentations, reports, etc. has allowed students and employees using Braille to express their real skills.
    Students who had learned Braille at INJA were able to rest their eyes for all academic matters. Being less tired, they increased their academic performance and were able to better use their eyesight for leisure activities (reading comics, watching movies, etc.). Some even found that their visual potential improved for these leisure activities because of the use of Braille during school time, thus providing much eye rest.
    Some students who read and write with very high magnification (ZoomText on computer or remote magnifier) are currently failing at school: difficulty in finding documents, in understanding the overall meaning of a text; impossibility for some to work at home because they do not have the necessary equipment.

 

Conclusion

Far from being detrimental to visual acuity, early learning of Braille for very visually impaired students, or those suffering from a progressive disease that could lead to blindness, helps them both in the pursuit of their studies and in the prevention of a double shock if their sight deteriorates further. It allows them to rest their eyesight, which is constantly in demand during the school day, to gain in location and precision, and thus to feel less cerebral, nervous and physical fatigue.

Braille then becomes a daily reading and writing tool. Print is still a complement for “image” documents and the preferred tool for everything related to daily life and leisure.

Finally, it is much easier to learn Braille at a young age (especially at school or college) than as an adult, and it is also much easier to learn it in a well-organized context rather than through more or less organized and more or less efficient networks of associations, while pursuing university studies or once engaged in professional life.

More generally, it seems essential to give every student the maximum opportunity to develop all his visual, tactile and auditory memorization faculties, in order to allow him to adjust his daily learning to all the means at his disposal, without any exclusion.

Finally, let’s not forget a very important dimension of Braille, well beyond the purely academic context: Braille is a major tool for autonomy in daily life: making lists, especially for shopping, quickly taking note of information, safely writing down various confidential codes that must be kept close to one’s person without leaving them on the computer, playing cards or other board games, taking medication: the range is wide, regardless of age and family and professional situation. This is also the purpose of teaching Braille to children and teenagers in schools from first grade to high school: to help them become independent young adults in all aspects of their lives.

Let’s not forget that it is more pleasant and more attractive when braille is taught with games, legos or a braille device connected to a smartphone. Braille is constantly adapting to modern technology.

 

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