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Braille Education

Should visually-impaired children be taught in special schools or in mainstream education? Judith Furse weighs up the pros and cons and decides that, despite all the disadvantages, when it comes to literacy, special schools had the edge.

I lost nearly all useful eyesight while I was a still very young. I had been registered blind by the age of seven and sent off to board at Linden Lodge School, a special school for the blind. It broke my parents’ hearts to see me go, but they’d been told by those who knew about these things that it was for the best. They cried when they left me there. I cried too.

Linden Lodge took children from the ages of five to eighteen, but a few boys and girls were put forward each year for selection for the “grammar schools” for the visually-impaired. In those days, the boys’ school was at Worcester and the girls went to Chorleywood College. I passed the selection process and at the age of eleven started at Chorleywood.

You’re probably wondering what was it like, being educated in those special schools.

I certainly didn’t want to go to boarding school, but that’s the way things were done in those days. It meant leaving home and having the emotional wrench of saying goodbye to my family at the start of every term. I made wonderful friends among my contemporaries at Chorleywood, but there were still times when I was desperately lonely and unhappy, especially in the early years. After all, I was just a child. The staff at both schools were professional but distant. Discipline was strict and the ethos, especially at Chorleywood, highly academic. Some of the teachers unbent a bit as we got older but we certainly didn’t have the sort of relationship with the staff that I get the impression kids have today. It was a “them and us” situation.

Looking back, were there any advantages in attending a special boarding school?

Yes, there were, and one in particular stands out: I had an education immersed in braille.

I remember how desperate I was to learn to read again after I first became blind. I had just discovered the joy of books only to have it snatched away from me when my sight deteriorated. To make matters worse, I had also missed seven months’ schooling as I waited at home while Essex Local Authority dithered and dawdled over getting me into a special school.

Despite all the emotional upheaval of leaving home, I learnt to read braille at Linden Lodge School and it was a precious thing. We used it for all subjects and were encouraged to use it to read in our leisure time. Thanks to braille, I could enjoy books again. And because I had the ease and fluency that comes with good training and abundant practice, I was able to do well at school and later go on to complete a degree in Law.

Visually-impaired children in mainstream schools do not get this privilege. Compared to ours, their access to braille is limited and their teaching assistants sometimes lack the detailed knowledge of braille that our teachers and instructors had. As a result, their reading speeds often fall short of the speeds we were able to attain.

With stretched resources there is a temptation to use audio more and more, but this is not literacy. Try it for yourself. Listen to a book and then see how many characters’ names you can spell correctly. See how much of the sentence structure and punctuation you can reproduce accurately.

You wouldn’t say to a sighted child, “I’m going to take your books away and from now on you will learn spelling and grammar by ear only,” so why would you do that to a visually-impaired child?

Braille versus Audio

Has modern audio technology made braille redundant? “Very definitely not!” says Judith Furse. In her experience, braille is still essential.

I need to be able to access information quickly, easily and quietly to get safely and effectively through my day. As someone with a severe visual impairment, that means that I rely on braille.

Let’s start with getting up.

The first thing I do is take my medication. I have two different strengths of a strong painkiller. These are colour coded. I used to have to ask someone to identify which was which and then put an elastic band around the stronger one. Since the European Union issued a directive, however, all medicines are now labelled in braille. Because I can read braille, I now don’t have to involve anyone else in administering my medication.

Next, I may need to take food out of the freezer for later. I shop at the Co-op and they label their ready meals and other own-brand products in braille. No more guessing or finding myself eating lasagne when I fancied cottage pie!

I start work. I am a braille transcriber and proofreader. I have speech access software on my computer but I also have a braille display. It is invaluable. Without it, my work would take at least twice as long and I would waste a lot of paper printing out proofs for checking.

If I want to find out what is on TV or radio, I turn to the braille guides. The audio versions available on line take forever to search through! The braille versions are much quicker.

I often chair meetings at church and at the local Amnesty International group. Without braille agendas, minutes and other necessary documents I would not be able to do this.

Braille enables me to participate in poetry and book groups where we read poetry and plays aloud. I can read the lessons in church and sing the hymns thanks to braille bibles and hymn books.

Besides reading for pleasure I also have a diary, recipe books, and address books, all in braille. I label CDs and tapes in braille. And I continually write notes to myself in braille.

Now you might ask, why do I still rely so heavily on braille when there is so much available in audio formats these days? After all, you can get audio labelling devices, you can listen to books on disks or streamed from the Internet, and you can Google information on your smartphone and listen to the results through its speech function.

You can do all those things with audio – and I regularly do too! But I couldn’t chair meetings without having the agenda actually under my fingers. Even if I wear an earplug so that others don’t have to listen to the distracting chatter of an audio source, I can’t read, skim or search minutes or discussion documents nearly as quickly as I can with braille.

Braille enables me not only to access information swiftly and independently, but to actively participate in life. I wouldn’t be without it.