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The Braille Literacy Crisis in America

The Braille Literacy Crisis in America

Facing the Truth, Reversing the Trend, Empowering the Blind


A Report to the Nation by the National Federation of the Blind

Jernigan Institute


March 26, 2009


The Braille Literacy Crisis in America

Facing the Truth, Reversing the Trend, Empowering the Blind


Executive Summary


A good education is the key to success, and every American deserves an equal opportunity to receive a good education. Inherent to being educated is being literate. The ability to read and write means access to information that, in turn, leads to understanding and knowledge. And knowledge is power—the power to achieve, function in the family, thrive in the community, succeed in a job, and contribute to society.

Nearly 90 percent of America’s blind children are not learning to read and write because they are not being taught Braille or given access to it. There is a Braille literacy crisis in America.

The National Federation of the Blind (NFB), the largest and most influential membership organization of blind people in the United States, is taking swift action to reverse this trend. This year, 2009, marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Louis Braille, inventor of the system that allows blind people to read and write independently. Coinciding with this anniversary, the NFB has announced specific action to address the education of America’s blind children so that every blind child who has a need for Braille will have the opportunity to learn it.

In this report to the nation on the state of Braille literacy in America, the NFB examines the history and decline of Braille education, addresses the crisis facing the blind today and key factors driving it, and proposes a number of action steps to double the Braille literacy rate by 2015 and eventually reverse it altogether.

Key Report Findings:

I. Facing the Truth

·         Fewer than 10 percent of the 1.3 million people who are legally blind in the United States are Braille readers. Further, a mere 10 percent of blind children are learning it.

·         Each year as many as 75,000 people lose all or part of their vision. As the baby-boom generation moves into retirement age and as diabetes (the nation's leading cause of blindness) approaches epidemic proportions, the NFB expects this number to increase dramatically and, if nothing is done, the Braille illiteracy rate as well.

·         The current effects of this crisis are dire. Over 70 percent of blind adults are unemployed, and as many as 50 percent of blind high school students drop out of high school.

·         Factors contributing to this low literacy among the blind include:

  • The Teacher Crisis. There is a shortage of teachers who are qualified to teach Braille. In 2003 there were approximately 6,700 fulltime teachers of blind students serving about 93,600 students. In that same year the number of new professionals graduating from university programs to work with blind or low-vision students fluctuated between 375 and 416 per year. In addition there is no national consensus on what it means to be certified to teach Braille, and states have a patchwork of requirements for certification.
  • The Spiral of Misunderstanding. There are many misconceptions about the Braille system. For example, “Braille isolates and stigmatizes students from peers who read print,” or “Braille is always slower than reading print and difficult to learn.” Yet studies have found that Braille is an efficient and effective reading medium with students demonstrating a reading speed exceeding 200 words per minute.
  • Blind Children with Low Vision Are Deprived of Braille Instruction. Parents often find themselves battling with school administrators to get Braille instruction for their children with low vision because of the historical emphasis on teaching these children to read print. Many students with residual vision cannot read print efficiently even with magnification. Children with some residual vision account for around 85 percent of the total population of blind children.
  • The Paradox of Technology. Eighty-nine percent of teachers of blind students agree that technology should be used as a supplement to Braille rather than as a replacement. Advances in technology have made Braille more available than ever before. Computer software can translate any document into literary, contracted Braille quickly and accurately. Further, hundreds of thousands of Braille books are available from Internet-based services.

II. Reversing the Trend

Undoubtedly the ability to read and write Braille competently and efficiently is the key to success for the blind. The National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute is committed to reversing this downward trend in Braille literacy in order to ensure that equal opportunities in education and employment are available to all of the nation's blind.


Braille literacy can be accomplished by:


·         Increasing access to Braille instruction and reading materials in every community nationwide.

·         Expanding Braille mentoring, reading-readiness, and outreach programs.

·         Requiring national certification in literary Braille among all special education teachers. By 2015 all fifty states must enact legislation requiring special education teachers of blind children to obtain and maintain the National Certification in Literary Braille.

·         Requiring all Braille teachers to pass the National Certification in Literary Braille (NCLB) in order to assure their competency and fluency in the literary code.

·         Advancing the use of Braille in current and emerging technologies.

·         Researching new methods of teaching and learning Braille.

·         Making Braille resources more available through online sharing of materials, enhanced production methods, and improved distribution.

·         Educating the American public that blind people have a right to Braille literacy so they can compete and assume a productive role in society.

III. Empowering the Blind

Blind people who know Braille and use it find success, independence, and productivity. A recent survey of 500 respondents by the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute revealed a correlation between the ability to read Braille and a higher educational level, a higher likelihood of employment, and a higher income.


Hundreds of thousands of blind people have found Braille to be an indispensable tool in their education, their work, and their daily lives. In the hearts and minds of blind people, no alternative system or new technology has ever replaced Braille. For this reason the National Federation of the Blind is launching a national Braille literacy campaign to enhance the future prospects for blind children and adults in this country and to help make Braille literacy a reality for the 90 percent of blind children for whom reading is a struggle, if not an impossibility.

The future of sighted children depends on a proper education; the future of America’s blind children is no different.


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