The roll out of a new braille code known as the Unified English Braille code has caused a welcome resurgence in interest and training in braille for educators. There is a lot of excitement as we master the new rules and learn about these changes. This has been a very energized time for those interested in braille instruction.
The field of visual impairments is a small one. In my home state of Texas there are just 10,000 students with a visual impairment from birth to age 22, out of a total school population of over 5 million. Within this group, a significant number of students are too young for reading, use vision for access to literacy, or have additional disabilities that include cognitive delays and they are (currently) non-readers. This leaves a core of braille readers that currently numbers 374. (Annual Registration of Students with Visual Impairments in Texas, 2016) I imagine that the numbers in other states are similar. Adult braille readers are also making the transition to UEB. There are some estimates on how many adults in the US read braille and again, the numbers are not large; typically fewer than 10% of the adult blind population read braille. (NFB: The Braille Literacy Crisis in America, 2009)
What is disconcerting is that within this tiny population of braille readers and educators, there is disagreement about how to braille science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) materials. This lack of agreement is creating a regrettably chaotic situation across the US. In some states, the use of Nemeth Code will continue for STEM materials and UEB for other media. In others, students will be taught only UEB for all subject areas, including STEM and STEM topics. In some states, educational teams are making individual decisions about whether each student will use UEB or UEB and Nemeth.
At the individual level, this may not be a concern - after all, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires individualized instructional plans, including learning media. However, from even a slightly broader perspective, the confusion that will result from this patchwork of literacy modes is quickly evident:
The level of mobility in our country practically assures that we will have students who have to move between different systems as they go through their schooling. Imagine that a student begins schooling in a Nemeth state, and then moves across state lines or even into another county and the math books are suddenly in UEB only. A few years later, the family moves again and the student finds STEM materials in a different code. How will this impact that student's academic progress?
Ensuring that all braille instructors at all levels have competency in braille is an ongoing problem. Without a consistent method for writing STEM materials, every teacher will need to be taught and to master both codes. This is in addition to foreign language codes, music code, computer code, tactile graphics, etc. University programs have extremely limited time for teaching even the most basic skills needed by teachers of students with visual impairments. The current STEM solutions only add to the challenge of providing quality personnel preparation.
Finding skilled transcribers is even now a difficult task, and becomes harder with each added layer of braille code expertise required.
Preparing textbooks, instructional materials and statewide assessments in braille is a costly endeavor, and will be even more expensive as producers are required to prepare several versions of the same material in multiple braille modes.
Students with visual impairments who reach higher education and want to pursue STEM topics will find that accessing graphic and online materials remains a challenge. How will it impact their success and the university's ability to support their learning when instructors in STEM fields are also asked to produce materials for students coming with a variety of STEM braille skills?
Those who propose using UEB only state that it is more consistent to stick with one code and less confusing; Nemeth proponents point to the complexity and length of UEB symbols versus clarity and economy of space in Nemeth. In fact, it's even more complicated than this, as there are other codes used for math such as NUBS, LaTex and mathML.
I do not have the expertise to make the case for either UEB only or for UEB and Nemeth; what I do wonder at is our small and usually collegial field's inability to find a middle ground where we can agree on a common solution and then develop a consistent standard for learning. The current situation is essentially a stalemate. This is not going to serve our students who want to pursue higher education or STEM vocations, will increase training costs, could impact recruitment and retention of professionals to our field, and likely cause more confusion for adult readers.
The challenge: Are there leaders in our field who can work together to find common solutions? The blindness field needs to settle this issue in a way that helps the US make the leap into UEB as successful as predicted and ensures access to valid, consistent STEM braille materials for all ages and ability levels.
Cyral Miller is a TVI and the Director of Outreach at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired