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for the Blind

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Bridging the Gap: Connecting Professionals to the Realities of Literacy

Allen Harris
Iowa Department for the Blind

Carolyn Wassenaar
Grand View College

Bea Awoniyi
Iowa State University

Commitment to Literacy

Bridging the gap—to connect professionals in the State of Iowa to the realities of literacy for young adults and adults who are blind and visually impaired—requires that we agree on our definition of literacy and the direction of our efforts. Our priority and emphasis as educators must be directed toward teaching our students with visual disabilities to read and write. We must articulate instructional goals and implement best practices for teaching based on current research and experience to achieve grade level competencies in reading and writing, while considering differing levels of ability. We must clearly differentiate between teaching a student the braille code and teaching a student to use braille for reading and writing. In essence, we must strive to make the process of achieving braille literacy less difficult. While literacy specific research should continue to evaluate and develop effective strategies for teaching braille and for teaching reading and writing, we must resist additional review and analysis, get busy, and put into practice the teaching methods we have to optimize our commitment to every student.

Although technology and braille are compatible, common sense should guide us in using an appropriate mix of basic braille literacy skills (i.e., knowing the alphabet in braille and using contracted braille to read for enjoyment, to access information, and to write) in conjunction with technology-based instruction. Technology should not be viewed as a replacement for fundamental skills of braille literacy. We agree that all people should possess the ability to read and write (basic literacy). We also acknowledge that achieving functional literacy skills can be challenging for any person. Consequently, we presume (rightly or wrongly) that achieving functional literacy skills will be more difficult for students who are blind. As technology advances, braille pedagogy must be enhanced to effect maximum increases in student literacy. Technology should be used, but not at the expense of literacy for people who are blind or have visual impairments.

Literacy conferences and symposia such as this one sponsored by the American Foundation for the Blind provide opportunities for constituents and stakeholders to meet, highlight, endorse, and nurture a broad spectrum of talents, resources, and perspectives. The synergism created effectively focuses efforts toward a shared goal of increasing and enhancing the literacy skills of adults and young adults who are blind or visually impaired.

This, in effect, calls for all interested groups and individuals to put aside differences and merge talents and limited resources. New initiatives, nontraditional partnerships (e.g., partnering with consumer groups), and a rededication to adults and young adults who are blind or visually impaired are essential. As the "them versus us" approach is minimized and "thinking outside the box" is maximized, the privileges and rights of literacy can be provided to those who inadvertently have been denied the benefits of collective efforts in the past.

Historically, Iowa is a national leader in educating its citizens, in general, and in providing cutting-edge service, habilitation, and opportunity for people with visual disabilities. It is no secret that Iowa is a literate state. The most recent data support the fact that Iowa high school graduates rank third in the nation on the ACT (college entrance) assessment, with an average score of 221 1. Iowa students also excel on Advanced Placement (AP) exams and other standardized achievement tests, such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. While these statistics are impressive, similar data cannot be found for young adults and adults who are blind or have visual impairments. Reasons for this are multifaceted.

In Iowa, responsibility for young adults with visual disabilities is shared and multilayered. Young adults with visual impairment receive services through the Board of Regents, the Iowa Department of Education, and the Iowa Department for the Blind. The Board of Regents oversees the special schools (Iowa School for the Blind and Iowa School for the Deaf). The Department of Education ensures that special schools comply with federal guidelines, certification requirements, and teacher licensing standards. Area Education Agencies (AEAs), affiliates of the Department of Education, are regional entities that work as educational partners with public and accredited private schools to efficiently and economically provide services on a regional or cooperative basis among local school districts to reduce duplication of services. Itinerant teachers from the Iowa School for the Blind are contracted by the AEAs to teach students in their local K-12 school districts. Also, by fourteen years of age students can access services provided by the Department for the Blind, including the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.

Furthermore, the structure of education is unusual. Iowa's educational system is decentralized and it is one of a handful of noncategorical states. The kindergarten to twelfth grade (K-12) schools operate under a system of local control, in which district responsibility and accountability are valued. There is no statewide curriculum or required achievement tests. In addition, students are not categorized with specific disabilities, a system that complicates the identification of students with visual disabilities. Often, visual impairment or blindness is not the only learning difficulty of the approximately 600 students main-streamed in Iowa's public schools. This tends to make caseload management problematic.

Furthermore, expectations tend to be inconsistent. Few K-12 teachers have dual licensure in vision and general education. This results in varying literacy assessments, methodologies, and expectations. Data are mostly anecdotal and provided by different agencies with varying perspectives and criteria for analysis and evaluation. It is assumed that most students are not reading at grade level or at fluency rates that predict success in postsecondary education or employment. Braille instruction ranges from 40 to 480 minutes a week, and reading literacy instruction is not consistently paired with braille instruction.

Iowa, like the nation, has experienced a 30-year trend of decreasing literacy levels for people who are blind or visually impaired. Fewer than 10 percent read braille and fewer than half of the 10 percent are literate in braille. Iowa currently has 8,500 to 9,000 people registered with the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. Approximately 3 percent (250-300) are children of all ages and capacities. Of those, 38 to 40 are K-12 students who receive braille materials. Even so, only 230 of the 4,300 patrons who use the library (5 percent) read braille.

Prevalence of adult visual impairment and blindness is high in the state of Iowa. According to a survey by the National Eye Institute, Iowa is second only to North Dakota in prevalence of adult visual impairments and age-related eye disease. The overall national average for prevalence of visual impairment and blindness is 2.85 percent of the population, with Iowa's rate at 3.73 percent of the population.

On a more positive note, Iowa has excellent resources in place. The Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped sent out 189,849 items (including books, magazines, videotapes, audiotapes, recorded discs, large print materials, and descriptive videos) to 8,664 blind, physically disabled, and visually disabled Iowans in the year 2000. The number of Iowans who receive Iowa Department of the Blind services, are successfully rehabilitated, and competitively employed continues to increase. Records show a growth from as few as 69 people in 1993 to a high of 171 people in 2000. The average hourly wage reached $12.19 in the year 2000, which is well above the hourly minimum wage. Unfortunately, it is a well-know fact nationally that among people with disabilities people who are visually impaired and blind have the highest rate of graduation from high school, but one of the lowest rates of employment, second only to people with multiple disabilities (Wagner, D'Amico, Marder, Newman, & Blackorby, 1992).

The good news is that professionals in the State of Iowa know that action is necessary. We agree the primary issue is not a braille issue, but a literacy issue. We also agree that citizens who are blind or visually impaired need to be independent and productive. Hence, we are ready to act. The challenge is to acknowledge who we are, to identify and address the potential barriers (e.g., decentralization, fragmentation, and other contributors to dependency and inhibited achievement), and to capitalize on our strengths. We are committed to implementing promising or best practices while revisiting our standards. We are ready to put in place workable processes for transition from childhood to adulthood; from people with blindness or visual impairment to productive Iowans who happen to be blind or visually impaired; from a dependent and nonliterate population to an independent and literate citizenry.

One of the major responsibilities of professionals is to more effectively advocate for young adults and adults with visual impairments to develop the literacy skills needed for success in school and on the job. A key ingredient to successful advocacy for any group, but especially for minority groups such as citizens with visual impairments is collaboration. Collaboration demands that external and internal participants come to the table not only to dialogue, but to leave reenergized with a clear task and process to accomplish. The American Foundation for the Blind's (AFB) "train-the-trainer" minigrant has provided that opportunity for the State of Iowa.

Iowa State University initiated the charge and risked identifying what needed to be accomplished. Very soon, the organizers realized that the task was too broad to be accomplished independently. Consequently, Iowa State joined with Grand View College and then, the Iowa Department for the Blind. As representatives of the three entities sat at the table, the potential from this collaboration and the resulting effects were given shape and form. After only one meeting, purpose, interests, and motivations were clearly shared across the board. Friendships were formed, and professional development opportunities were fashioned with constituent agencies and stakeholders from across the state in mind.

Creative funding was arranged by combining AFB's $2,000 minigrant with $6,000 in matching funds from the Iowa Department for the Blind. The result was the establishment of a statewide conference entitled, "Connecting Professionals: Literacy Issues for the Blind and Visually Impaired." It was scheduled for Friday, October 18, 2002, at Iowa State University, with representatives from the Iowa Department for the Blind, Iowa Department of Education, Area Education Agencies, and postsecondary institutions. For the first time, professionals and consumers committed to developing the potential of citizens with visual impairments in the State of Iowa gathered around the table to dialogue, collaborate, and move forward with synergy to attack the issues of literacy for people with low vision.


The authors would like to thank Diane Gonzales, Iowa Board of Regents; Karen Keninger, Program Director, Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped; and Karen Blankenship, State Vision Consultant, Iowa Department of Education.


  1. Comparisons of ACT composite scores among states are valid only for the 25 states where the ACT is the predominant test, defined as those states where at least 50 percent of the graduates take the AT exam. The national composite average for 2002 is 20.8 with 39 percent participation. Iowa students (66 percent participation rate) scored an average composite of 22 behind Wisconsin (22.2) and Minnesota (22.1).



Iowa Department for the Blind. (2000). Legacy. Des Moines, IA: Author.

National Eye Institute. (2002). Vision Problems in the US. Schaumburg, IL: Prevent Blindness America.

Slaughter, K. (2002). Iowa ACT scores remain high. News Release to the Des Moines Register (August 21, 2002) Available: [posted 2002, August 29]

Slaughter, K. (2002). Iowa SAT and AP scores show strong academics. News Release to the Des Moines Register. (August 27, 2002) Available: [posted August 27, 2002]

Wagner, M., D'Amico, R., Marder, C., Newman, L., & Blackorby, J. (1992). What happens next? Trends in postschool outcomes of youth with disabilities. Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.

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