NY State braille instructors prepare their students for new code

Oct 6, 2015

The leading braille authority in the country has voted to adopt a new braille code, the first change to braille in the US in decades, but the New York State Education department has yet to develop a plan to implement it. As a result, instructors are bearing the brunt of the responsibility to teach their blind students. 

(Video after the jump.)

Each braille cell has six dots.

Here’s a quick refresher on braille: It's a code used by people who are blind and visually impaired to read. It's based on cell with six dots, three on the left and three on the right, and depending on which of those dots is raised, it indicates a letter or a symbol.

Because braille takes up so much physical space on a page, over time people have developed a system of shortcuts. Common prefixes, suffixes, articles and other letter combinations have their own codes. This is called contracted braille.

In the US we've been using the same contracted braille code for decades, until now.

Diane LaClair is a teacher for the visually impaired at the New York School for the Blind in Batavia. A few years ago, her colleagues in Australia and New Zealand started talking about a new, updated braille code, called Unified English Braille.

"The Unified English Braille, it's actually in some ways made braille easier, in that it's much more like regular printed materials now."

Unified English Braille drops a lot of shortcuts, which LaClair says is good news, because some of them cause unnecessary confusion. For instance, in the old standard braille code, running across an email address ending in .com or .gov is complicated, because that dot is essentially a period:

“And in braille, the period rule is there needs to be a space afterward; otherwise it was a 'dd,' so that’s been eliminated.”

All other English speaking countries have already adopted this Unified English Braille code, but it wasn't until recently that the powers that be here, the Braille Authority of North America, voted to make the transition as well.

It’s been in the works for almost two years, and starting January of 2016, all new braille materials will be printed in the new code.

This decision initially caused a lot of pushback by some local braille organizations. There were complaints that the Braille Authority was acting too hastily and overreaching their authority. In the time since the decision was made, however, most local organizations charged with printing braille or transcribing braille have come around and begun to change over.

SharyAnn reads back a poem she has written in braille.
Credit SASHA-ANN SIMONS/WXXI NEWS

LaClair has been teaching her students both codes for a few years now, to give them as much of an advantage as she can. Some of her students have other disabilities, like learning impediments, so the earlier the better.

Shary Ann is one of LaClair’s students. She’s been studying braille for ten years and she’s just recently been exposed to the new code.

“At first I kind of had a hard time with it a little bit, because some of the contractions are going to be gone and the punctuation is going to be different.”

Like any change, there are some growing pains, but LaClair says she sees an obvious benefit to changing over, even though she and her colleagues are not receiving support on the state level.

For example, no one is quite sure how state tests will be formatted after January. Until now, they have been coded in the standard American braille code. Other states have taken steps to train instructors and prepare students for new formatting, but the New York State Education Department hasn't been clear about what code the regents exams will be in. A spokesperson writes: "SED is reviewing the situation and will be issuing guidance in the near future."

At the School for the Blind, instructors are trying to prepare their students for anything. LaClair says their biggest obstacle is a lack of education materials available in Unified English Braille, sometimes called UEB.

"The biggest thing is probably going to be the incredible amount of braille materials that are currently brailled already, that will have to be re-brailled and changed over to the UEB."

To compensate, LaClair and her colleagues are making their own learning materials -- books, worksheets, and curriculums -- all on these big braille printers.

"I think that's the final goal for us is having our students UEB ready."

Not all instructors are concerned about making the switch. Ann Parsons is a private tutor, and she teaches adult students that are losing their vision. Some of them are deaf blind, which has its own set of challenges, so Parson says introducing them to a different code right now would do more harm than good.

“I felt that to worry them with the differences between the UEB and the standard braille would just confuse them, so I’m teaching standard code at the moment.”

Parsons is a braille reader herself, who has been using the same familiar feeling code her entire life. She says she personally has no intention of switching. Parsons also does not have to prepare her students for a state exam.

At the School for the Blind, LaClair says it is about more than just a test. She wants her students to be competent and competitive when the leave school. 

An instructor and students at the New York State School for the Blind review math word problems.
Credit SASHA-ANN SIMONS/WXXI NEWS

A study from the Nation Federation for the Blind from 2010 showed less than 10 percent of people who were visually impaired use braille. In a world where your technology can talk to you, how important is it to know this sometimes cumbersome code, that is expensive to teach?

LaClair says, for her at least, very important.

"Those students who have become employable and have maintained their employability, have been the high-functioning braille using students. And I think they realize braille is a necessity. It's literacy.”

LaClair says she hopes Unified English Braille will lead to an uptick in braille literacy.

Despite some of the pushback, she says it’s easier to learn initially, and easier to interact with digital devices. But perhaps most important, she says UEB keeps braille relevant, and could help keep braille literacy alive.