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Tips for Teaching Reading from Teachers of Students with Visual Impairments

A teacher and her student, who is practicing reading braille

We asked, you answered. Here are a collection of teacher comments made on the AFB Press Facebook page in response to the question, "What is your best advice or success about teaching reading skills to children who are blind or visually impaired?"

“When I first became a TVI [teacher of students with visual impairments] I had a group of teens who were not very motivated to read or write. This was many moons ago and they wanted computer games for the brand new classroom computer (I won't tell you what kind but it had a "2" in the name!). The staff at the school had made a cookbook several years before and I wanted one. They were long gone. So, I got my students to go to staff and ask them to contribute recipes to a cookbook, they then typed them up and printed them out. They used Print Shop (see told you this was eons ago) to make a cover and divider pages. They assembled the cookbooks and sold them. They got the money for the computer games and to this day I still have my cookbook. This activity incorporated other skills such as O&M to find staff, social skills to ask for recipes, money skills etc. I was doing the ECC [Expanded Core Curriculum] before we even had the ECC in so many words!”
- Penny Rosenblum

“I liked using Legos to learn braille. And, turning print into braille, and then back again. A complex process, best used with short paragraphs.”
- April Brown

“I use the echo reading strategy with my braille students. We read and re-read the story together with the student reading just behind me until the story "sounds like talking." Fluency is very important in moving from decoding to comprehension.”
- Natalie Stewart

“I love finding books that my students will love! I love seeing their passion for reading come through a good book and their reading speeds increase, because they just can't put the book down. I love using parts of different curriculums and putting their theories in the classroom materials. I love using technology, especially the refreshabraille. Technology always grabs my students especially when I can link it to an iPad or laptop!"
- Jennifer Sexton

“I’m a teacher and during my study children’s literature I discovered a missing link in books for the youngest blind children. Adapted picture books are hardly available, and if available, the content is by far not comparable to the regular picture books. Therefore, I designed a method to adapt a picture book with tactile pictures and braille for visually impaired children.

Additionally I added a reading manual on how to use the picture book when reading aloud to blind children. This way the young child can be made familiar with a wide range of stories and their figurative language. Teachers, parents, but most important children are very exited about the first edition! See ?”
- Collete Pelt

“I work with students with a vision impairment and other activities. I like to use real life experiences so I use project based learning and I-M-Able (Wormsley). I have created a make a sentence activity so that my student can make her sentence then braille it on her Mountbatten. I am working on a make a word activity currently for my student's key words.”
- Gillian Pilcher

“It is important to me to apply any skill I teach to real life. If I can connect my students to the skill in an authentic way that applies to their life now, then I feel like I have done my job and helped that student be more successful. They also "own" the skill and use it without me, instead of only using it when they are in my class.”
- Denise Robinson

For tips on teaching reading to students with visual impairments, including classroom activities, check out the AFB Press book Reading Connections: Strategies for Teaching Students with Visual Impairments by Cheryl Kamei-Hannan and Leila Ansari Ricci, available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, iTunes, and the AFB Store.

What tips would you add? Share your ideas in the comments.


Helen Keller: An Artificial Eye

Receipt for artificial eye for Helen KellerHelen Keller at the Perkins School for the Blind

Hello to all those Helen Keller aficionados out there! For this week’s look Inside the Helen Keller Digitization project, I am posting a newly photographed item (left hand image above) — it’s the receipt for an artificial eye for Helen Keller. On the right hand side is a photograph of Helen taken at the Perkins School for the Blind, circa 1888.

The receipt is a wonderfully quirky piece of ephemera that made me stop and think – how did Helen wish to be perceived by an adoring public? In photographs, such as the one posted here when Helen was about 8 years of age, the viewer sees an oddly-shaped left eye. Unlike this photograph, many early photographs avoid clear viewing of her eyes—and her left eye in particular. On a similar note, I have never seen a photograph of Helen Keller's teacher Anne Sullivan Macy wearing glasses, please let me know if you’ve seen one! Anne was legally blind until the age of 14 and had to wear glasses her entire life. Social convention may have deterred Helen and Anne from being viewed with either an oddly shaped eye or glasses. And as much as Anne instilled confidence in her pupil, teaching Helen that her physical disability did not define her, both she and her young student were perhaps still very much shaped by public perceptions of beauty in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Would Helen and Anne’s actions have been any different today? Thoughts please!

Image: Receipt for an artificial eye for Helen Keller, September 1911

Image: Helen Keller making the shape of a letter with her right hand, while reading a book with her left. At the Perkins School for the Blind, circa 1888-1889

Transcription of receipt for an artificial eye:



DATE September 1911
SOLD TO Miss Helen Keller
Wrentham Mass
% Mrs Macey (sic.)

1 87180
1 Artificial Eye $10 00

OCT 13 1911
[annotation: M. S.
with thanks]

Arts and Leisure
Helen Keller
Readers Want to Know

25 Years After the ADA: Blind Still Missing from the Workforce

Struggles to achieve equality are never completely won.

Allegations of bias and the tragic stain of racist violence dominate headlines decades after the Civil Rights Act was signed. American women strive—still—for equal pay in the workplace. And even as LGBT Americans celebrate the U.S. Supreme Court’s affirmation of same-sex marriage, the response in some sectors of the country signals that their fight for acceptance is far from over.

The lesson, always, is that no law or court decision promising equality can deliver as intended without a sustained, collective effort to follow through on its protections.

At a moment when “equality” is very much on the minds of Americans, it’s fitting that we’ve arrived at the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

By any measure, the ADA stands as a watershed for the advancement of disabled persons into the mainstream of American life. Signed into law by President George H. W. Bush, the law expanded civil rights protections to a broad spectrum of Americans, from individuals with vision loss to injured veterans to those living with HIV.

In addition to barring discrimination in employment, the ADA for the first time required that private employers provide “reasonable accommodations” for workers with disabilities. In addition, the law established accessibility requirements for public transportation, businesses that cater to the public, and even websites. As a result, we have more braille and large-print signage and better-designed retail websites, which have given us access to the mainstream.

One of the key goals of the law was to open doors to viable employment for people with disabilities. In doing so, it would encourage greater recognition of the disabled community as a talent resource. And that evolution in perception is critical, because true equality comes when individuals who have lost sight or hearing or mobility are nonetheless viewed as equally capable – by employers, by the larger community, by disabled people themselves.

Twenty-five years later, those of us who advocated for ADA are proud of the progress that’s been made. It’s headline news when a person with vision loss becomes a CEO or rises to public office. Those are high-profile victories and they are all too rare. But perhaps even more significant are the everyday jobs being done by data processors, administrative assistants, medical technicians, service industry workers, sales professionals, and teachers. Each day, the list of jobs that are considered beyond the capabilities of visually impaired people grows exponentially shorter.

Has the ADA made a difference? Absolutely. Today there more and more employers who are setting aside bias and negative assumptions and saying “yes” to a qualified applicants. Unfortunately, these successes make the pace of progress all the more frustrating.

Sadly, the workforce participation rate among people who are blind or visually impaired is only 36 percent, just half that of the general population.

In real terms, it means that the vast majority of working-age people who are visually impaired are still missing from the workforce. Without work, they cannot be independent. Without independence, social equality remains an abstraction — a goal forever out of reach — and our employers are deprived of our talents, skills, and valuable insights.

We can do better.

For starters, employers and human resources directors need more and better information about how employees with vision loss do their jobs. Recent surveys show that employers are critically underinformed about accommodations that can help their disabled employees to adapt and succeed. Many fear the financial cost and perceived inconvenience of accommodating visually impaired workers.

The American Foundation for the Blind works nationally to bring vision loss practitioners and researchers together with employers to share the latest developments in accessible technology. Modest workplace modifications, from improved lighting to computer software that “speaks” the content displayed on the screen, are often all that is needed to ensure productive employment for a person with vision loss. In most cases, the cost to employers is not prohibitive and adaptations can be implemented with few transition pains.

Yet with each step forward, the clearer one sees the great distance our nation needs to travel in order to achieve full compliance with the law and adequately accommodate the blind and visually impaired community.

It isn’t a question of whether we can do this. The technologies are here and advancing by the day. People with vision loss are eager for greater independence and the opportunity to contribute to their communities and the economic health of their country.

We can do it, but only if we have the will. On this 25th anniversary of ADA, our government, the private sector, vision loss professionals — all of us — must recommit to implementing its protections. We must if the U.S. is to meet its sworn obligations to people with visual impairments and to all Americans with disabilities. We too are entitled to equality.

Personal Reflections
Public Policy

Helen Keller: An Important Voice

Inside page from Helen Keller's passport

Image: Inside pages from Helen Keller's passport issued December 1950, including headshot of Keller wearing a hat.

This week on Inside the Helen Keller Digitization Project, University of California, Berkeley, English professor and author of Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller Georgina Kleege, describes her excitement at the prospect of gaining access to previously unavailable materials including transcripts of Keller's performances on the Vaudeville circuit, travel itineraries from her work around the globe and audio recordings of Keller's voice, newly digitized and embedded in Kleege's blog below. Read, listen and enjoy!

Recently, I asked my students to survey their friends to find out what they knew about Helen Keller. The majority of them had heard the name, and most knew that she was deaf-blind, or at least that she was blind. Many were familiar with some version of The Miracle Worker, and so knew the story of how she came to learn language from her teacher, Anne Sullivan. But few seem to know much about Keller's life as an adult, her career as a writer, lecturer, performer, and fundraiser for the AFB. And sadly, my students' survey revealed a good deal of misinformation; for example, several respondents thought that Helen Keller invented braille.

This is why I am so excited that the Helen Keller Archive is being digitized. It will give everyone easy access to materials that will convey the diverse range of activities and accomplishments over the course of her long life. In addition to her published writing and her vast private correspondence, the archive includes a wealth of other information that may surprise people today. For example, few people today remember that Keller performed in Vaudeville for a couple of seasons. The archive includes scripts of these performances where Keller and Sullivan described Keller's education and demonstrated how she communicated using the manual alphabet. The archive also includes some itineraries of some of Keller's national and international trips. These convey a sense of Keller's worldwide celebrity as well as her boundless energy. Many of her trips took her around the world, and she was in such demand that she frequently made multiple appearances in a single day.

The items that I am most excited to access from the archive are the audio recordings of Keller's voice. For example, there is a recording of Helen Keller reciting the Twenty-Third Psalm. Although finger-spelling was Keller's primary mode of communication, she did learn to speak orally. She felt it was an important way to reach a wider audience. She regretted that she did not receive speech training earlier in her life because she knew that her speech was not readily comprehensible. Audio recordings reveal that while Keller's enunciation is not always clear, she made the most of nonverbal elements—intonation and pitch—to make herself understandable. In my book Blind Rage, I recall hearing Helen Keller on the radio when I was a child. At the time, her atypical voice seemed at odds with what I knew about Keller from school, and I found it uncanny, even disturbing. Now, having researched Keller's life and written a book about her, I have a different understanding of her speech. As a blind person, people's voices are fundamental to my feelings about them. So it will be great to have this digital connection to someone I never met personally, but nevertheless played a big role in my life.

Helen Keller
Readers Want to Know

Helen Keller and Talking Books: A 'Priceless Boon'

Helen Keller and Robert Irwin: Helen is touching a phonograph and smiling

Image: Helen Keller with Robert Irwin, feeling the vibrations from the speaker of a Talking Book playback machine in the library of the American Foundation for the Blind, no date.

Welcome back to Inside the Helen Keller Digitization Project. Did you know that the American Foundation for the Blind was instrumental in creating the first Talking Book audio recordings? Mara Mills, Assistant Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University has written this fascinating piece on the history of Talking Books and Helen Keller’s central role in the project. Enjoy!

In 1930, Helen Keller stood before a Congressional committee to support the Pratt-Smoot Act, which established the Library of Congress program for circulating Braille materials. The director of the American Foundation for the Blind, Robert Irwin, was already concocting a plan to publish a new form of aural literature—Talking Books—as an adjunct to braille. He remarked in his memoir, "I have always dreamed of books on phonograph records ever since my first hearing of a squeaky Edison cylinder." By 1932, he had launched a Talking Book research program at the AFB, which resulted in the development of a gramophone record with closely-spaced microgrooves that could play eighteen minutes per side—about the maximum length of time a narrator could continuously read aloud without error. By comparison, commercial audiobooks and musical LPs would not become available to mainstream audiences until after World War II.

Keller was initially skeptical about Talking Books, believing the cost of the machines and records to be prohibitive. The AFB sold record players for $30-40, and few individuals or charities could afford them. When Irwin asked her to raise funds for the program in 1933, she replied via telegram, "Talking books a luxury the blind can go without for the present. With ten million people out of work am unwilling to solicit money for phonographs." By 1934, however, after the Pratt-Smoot law had been amended to fund Talking Books, Keller began soliciting radio stars like Will Rogers to promote the new technology. More importantly, she met with President Roosevelt in 1935 to lobby for Talking Book manufacture to become a WPA (work relief) project, employing blind workers. WPA support eventually resulted in the production and free loan of over 20,000 machines to blind people in the U.S.

Talking Books were recorded at the AFB and the American Printing House in Kentucky, and distributed via the Library of Congress. In 1938, the AFB produced a Talking Book titled The Story of the American Foundation for the Blind, which described the recording process. "More than a mechanical development," the narrator explained, Talking Books were at once "the most recent form in which an author’s words are reproduced," and reminiscent of "the days of the Middle Ages" when monks treated each of their illuminated texts as an individual work of art. In those early years of the program, before synthetic speech and convenient tools for speed-listening, many Talking Books included incidental music, sound effects, or dramatic ensemble narration.

Click here to listen to a description of the Talking Books program from 1938

Transcript of narration (Digitized with the support of NSF Award #135429):

Woman's voice: I can see that a great deal of work has gone into this new medium for bringing books to the blind.

Man's voice (maybe that of Alexander Scourby): Yes. And the Talking Book is something more than a mechanical development. As the most recent form in which an author’s words are reproduced, it boasts what even the majority of modern ink-print books lack, the individuality of a work of art. We like to think that it harks back to the days of the Middle Ages when monks expended on each volume to be engrossed and illuminated that special care and artistry which it required. Today, in our studios when plans are made to read a book onto the discs the Talking Book department fuses its efforts to send it out as a fresh and stimulating adventure in recording. The best professional readers are employed with a view to each reader’s suitability to the book about to be recorded; the volumes are studied to ascertain if they require special treatment, such as the translating of foreign phrases and the spelling of unfamiliar names, and in some cases incidental music and appropriate sound effects are added to enhance the atmosphere. This is done particularly in the recording of dramatic works acted by complete casts of players so that listening to them one’s armchair becomes a seat in a Broadway theater.

In the case of novels, Irwin invited authors to give oral introductions to their own books, which were then usually narrated by trained transcribers. He felt "the blind listener could gain some hint of the author’s personality through the tones, inflections and even from vocal mannerisms." Often these introductions provided information about the author’s life or writing practice. As a preface to the Talking Book version of Buddenbrooks, Thomas Mann told his blind readers, "An epic is for the ear more than for the eye. In early times it was said and sung, it was listened to—and, as a matter of fact, this book too was listened to before it was looked at, when the young author read it aloud as he wrote it, to relatives and friends." Reviewing the Talking Book program in 1944, journalist Fraser Bond commented, "It isn’t often that blind people have the edge on their seeing neighbors. Here is one instance in which they undoubtedly have. Many seeing book-lovers have often wondered how the author of a certain volume would read his own passages. The blind men and women of America do not need to wonder; they know. For them many famous writing folk read their own books aloud."

Keller, however, remained ambivalent about Talking Books. She could not hear them, and her dedication to Braille was such that she famously read until her fingers bled. In her Journal, 1936-1937, she recalled visiting the Talking Book studio of the American Braille Press in Paris and making a recording of her own:

"A film was made, showing a talking book and a record of what we said. First Mr. Cromwell and Mr. Raverat spoke into the record of the priceless boon those books are to blind persons who have not the sensitive touch required to learn braille, then I said my word of greeting, and Polly repeated for me the paragraph I had written this morning. Afterwards we listened to the record, and I noted how smoothly it ran until a discordant vibration arrested my attention. On inquiry I found it was my own voice, which did not surprise me—my fingers are never pleased with it when it is recorded."

Despite her ambivalence, Keller helped usher the audiobook medium into being. Her commitment to diverse modes of communication—the manual alphabet, lipreading, braille reading, talking gloves, tactile vibrations, and more—remains instructive today. New technologies proliferate, but they are often inaccessible, and support the same old forms of communication.

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Arts and Leisure
Helen Keller