Combating Neglected Illiteracy – Blind Teacher Makes Strides for Sight-Impaired Children
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Bowling Green State University professor Sheri Wells-Jensen and 8 year-old Alex Mitov have two things in common – they are both blind and they are both teaching sighted people to read.
On Monday nights at Wood County Library in Bowling Green, OH, Ms. Wells-Jensen teaches a group of six seeing adults to read Braille. Alex attended the class with his mother who wanted to improve her ability to read Braille by touch. Since Alex has mastered Braille, he helped Ms. Wells-Jensen teach his mother this special skill.
While Sheri Wells-Jensen and Alex Mitov have been reading by touch most of their lives, that is not true to most blind or sight impaired children. According to the National Federation for the Blind, fewer than 10 percent of sight-impaired youngsters learn to read Braille. This means that a large majority of blind children are effectively illiterate.
These statistics are alarming. Illiteracy is not acceptable for any child; regardless of if they are blind or visually impaired. “If those were sighted kids, people would be marching in the streets. People would be appalled,” Ms. Wells-Jensen said.
Illiteracy in blind children leads to higher unemployment in adults. There is a 74 percent unemployment rate among the blind, and these statistics have not changed much in years. Americans are up in arms about a 10 percent unemployment rate among the sighted right now, so why is a higher rate more acceptable for the blind?
Adjustments need to be made to schools’ instructional methods in order to alleviate these distressing statistics. Dr. Denise Robinson, the coordinator of programming for blind students in the Yakima Valley School Districts, spoke at a convention of the National Federation for the Blind in July. She expressed the immediate need to change the thought pattern of blind children at the youngest age possible.
Many schools promote the idea that blind children need help with everything. This must be replaced with the idea that when given the right instruction and tools they can do things by themselves.
While the Braille system was developed in the early 1800s, new technology makes it easier than ever to translate text into Braille. For example, Ms. Wells-Jensen has a paperless device that translates text into Braille on a screen. She uses this to check her e-mail.
“It really needs to begin somewhat with the person that is blind, they need to advocate on their own behalf,” said Dawn Christensen, executive Director of the Sight Center of Northwest Ohio. Whether it is through taking steps to promote literacy like Ms. Wells-Jensen, or through reminding businesses of the population they may be leaving out by not having information in Braille, both blind and sighted people must act.
This is part of what Ms. Wells-Jensen was hoping to get across in her class. While she didn’t expect her newest students to master reading Braille, she hoped to urge them to “rethink what blind people can do.” Further, by teaching others, children like Alex will gain confidence in their own abilities.
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By Fiona O'Sullivan