When you’re born blind, Braille isn’t the only thing you need to learn to be able to read. Children born blind have a harder time comprehending visual words than their sighted peers. So in addition to learning Braille, they also have to memorize the meaning of things they’ll never be able to see.
Take a sentence like this:
The sun peeked out on the horizon through a misty haze over the vast azure and charcoal marbled sea.
Let’s start with “peeked.” Or “horizon.” Try explaining a horizon to someone who has never seen one. Then there is “misty” and “haze” and “azure and charcoal” and even “marbled.” When a person has no point of reference, those words become white noise. The reader loses interest. The story becomes hard to follow.
The work that goes into deciphering sentences like that is just one of many, many topics I discussed a couple of weeks ago during an interview in the studios at Chicago Public Radio with Alan Brint and his father David. Alan was born blind, but other than that he has everything in common with any other 15-year-old boy I’ve ever met: he’s a smart-aleck and a goofball, and he made me laugh. A lot. Unless WBEZ producers decide to edit it out, you’ll be hearing me snort laughing more than once during the interview.
Alan has a sweet side, too. He was tongue-tied when WBEZ project manager Aurora Aguilar told him how handsome he is. “I take that as a compliment,” he finally managed to eek out. You didn’t need to be able to see to know Alan was blushing.
Alan is about to finish his freshman year of high school, and in the interview he credits the itinerant teachers of the visually impaired (or, TVIs) who have been with him since pre-school for helping him build a visual vocabulary that now helps him pass honors physics and Shakespeare at Highland Park High. In addition to teaching spelling, writing, vocabulary and reading skills in Braille, TVIs spend oodles and oodles of time dissecting sentences for students — all in an effort to build up their visual vocabulary and their reading comprehension.
Students can’t always understand the visual concepts described for them, but the TVIs I talked to while researching this story told me they’re pleased to hear their blind students using these visual words anyway. Just like all the other kids, they want to talk about the same things as their peers. In some ways, it’s similar to learning a foreign language, using visual words, and hearing them used, helps with language retention. Family members are extremely important, too, when it comes to helping a child who is born blind build up a visual vocabulary, but God forbid a 15-year-old give his parents and siblings any credit. Especially with his dad and sister Carly sitting right there in the studio with us!
My loyal blog readers might recall a post I wrote here in March after WBEZ let me know they wouldn’t be airing pre-recorded essays like the ones I used to do for them. I met with Sally Eisele, Managing Editor of Public Affairs for WBEZ, after she sent that note, and she encouraged me to pitch story ideas for some of the topics they’d be covering in-depth. This piece about congenital blindness and literacy is the result of an idea I pitched when I heard WBEZ was going to devote a series to literacy issues. I researched the story for weeks, talked to dozens of teachers and parents, and then to both children and adults who were born blind. Two weeks ago we recorded more than an hour’s worth of conversation about all this, and my guess is the finished story will be about three minutes long. I’m eager to see (okay, hear) what makes it past the cutting room floor. WBEZ has hinted the piece will air this week, but I don’t have any more specifics than that. As we say in the biz: stay tuned!