Technical Presentations to Braille Authority of North America

On April 28, 2012 the National Technical Braille Committee made a series of presentations to the Braille Authority of North America in St. Louis, MO. Each of these presentations is reprinted in this blog category. We hope you find them educational and useful.

Maylene Bird April 28, 2012

Good afternoon. My name is Maylene Bird. I am a math teacher at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired with classes ranging from algebra 1 through calculus. Thank you for taking the time to hear our concerns today.

As we consider the adoption of a unified braille code, please remember that we must adopt a braille system that works for all braille readers – that includes braille readers in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics or STEM fields of study. I believe that the code you choose will directly affect the quality of math and science education that braille users receive.

The typical requirements for a general education high school diploma include four years of mathematics and four years of science. In the state of Texas those 4 years of required math include algebra 1, algebra 2, geometry, and a fourth year which could be pre-calculus, math models, statistics, or the like. Science classes typically include biology, physical science, chemistry, physics, or astronomy. Gone are the days where we need not be concerned about the level of math and science achieved in high school – not to mention the new state mandated tests which in Texas are part of the requirements for graduation.

Mathematics is a difficult subject for many students who are blind or visually impaired. Research by Clifford Adelman, (1999) and Richard O Hill, (2006) conclude that the highest level of math achieved in high school is directly linked to the likelihood of completing a college degree in any subject area; the more math a student completes in high school, the more likely he or she is to complete a college degree. Blind students struggle enough to learn math and science concepts in a general education classroom with sighted peers. Nemeth code is intuitive and organic. It represents math and science materials accurately in a way that is logical and makes sense. I find UEB to be more complex, difficult, and cumbersome with its upper cell numbers, numerous new indicators, longer expressions, the insertion of braille grouping symbols where there are none in print, the use of terminology that is not used by mathematics teachers, and the ambiguity of how to write fractions depending upon placement of a variable in the fraction.

Blind students also struggle with math frequently due to missing concepts over the years that were likely presented visually. The braille users frequently do not know Nemeth code very well and sometimes have not been taught braille early enough. These problems are sometimes due to the wide variation in TVI personnel preparation programs and state certification requirements, resulting in TVI’s who may be unprepared to meet the needs of their students according to research by Pogrund and Wibbenmeyer, (2008).

Please consider the following proposals:
1. Development of a new national TVI certification in conjunction with ACVREP, AER, and university preparation programs requiring two semesters of braille – both literary and Nemeth code- with a braille proficiency test in each area. NFB already has a National Professional Certification Board which offers competency tests.
2. Reconsider NUBS, and pursue more research into the viability and efficacy of NUBS, which appears to me to be a better code. The UEB code essentially eliminates our current technical code and starts over with a less efficient code.

Next I review some quotes from BANA sponsored research on the UEB code by Robin Wetzel and Marie Knowlton, (2006) that indicate additional research needs to be done before such an important and permanent decision can be made regarding a unified code.

Quote, “… the [UEB] study lacked input from professional braille users in the fields of mathematics and computer science.”
“To date, no studies have addressed the transcription and comprehension of graphic material in braille. The fields of geometry, trigonometry, and calculus rely heavily on graphics. Maps, charts, graphs, and diagrams also encode information in a manner that requires the use of lines, points, and areas, as well as text for labeling significant parts. A unified code needs to address this kind of information in addition to pure literary text.”
Many concerns from teachers are listed in one part of this research on UEB. Here are two of them:

1. “The teachers expected that the teaching and learning time for the new code would be slower, particularly in mathematics. Mathematics is already a difficult subject for most students who are totally blind to learn. Thus, if the code is adopted, the teachers believed, students would be required to learn a difficult subject and a more difficult code at the same time.”
2. “Given the data available from teachers’ current caseloads, only 10 to 30 percent of the population of students who are visually impaired will ever read braille. To make the system more complex would reduce that number even further. “
And “Perhaps some of the most significant research on any braille code needs to address a vast array of cognitive issues that are related to learning and using braille as a reading and writing system.”
Regarding the Holbrook and MacCuspie article in the September 2010 issue of JVIB, the conclusion was that “the participants believed that UEB could be effectively used by people who are employed in technical fields.” It should be noted that this was based on research of only five people as stated in the article. This calls into question the value of this research.
If we are to consider a unified braille system, please seriously consider the Nemeth Uniform Braille System or NUBS as presented to us as an option at the end of the three-part BANA article, The Evolution of Braille. In my opinion it is a superior code. It appears to make fewer changes to all portions of our current codes than Unified English Braille (UEB).

Filed under: National Technical Braille Committee

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