January 4 marks the birth of Louis Braille (1809-52), perhaps the greatest benefactor of the sightless. Through his creation of the Braille system of writing and reading, this humble, blind Frenchman has given countless blind people around the world the opportunity to experience many rich textures of life sighted people often take for granted. In honor of Monsieur Braille, we encourage educators across the country to dedicate the month of January to exploring the works and teachings of this remarkable man and to engendering a greater understanding of what it means to be visually impaired.
Introducing the topic of blindness to units of study or discussion in the classroom requires prudence and sensitivity. In the following essay, "Through Different Eyes," reading teacher Diane Charash shares the teaching tools and techniques she uses with her 2nd grade class at Austin Road Elementary School in Mahopac, NY., as they investigate the subject of visual impairment together. Along with a selection of replicable classroom activities, Charash's essay provides an interesting approach to the study of the blind and gives fitting recognition to the life of Louis Braille.
"Through Different Eyes" originally appeared in the Fall 1997 issue of Teaching Tolerance magazine.
Through different eyes
"How did she do that?" my 2nd graders wanted to know as Cheryl, a blind educator visiting our classroom, read them a story with her eyes closed. "She cheated! I saw her eyes open!" one of them protested. For the first time, the students fully realized that Cheryl, who seemed to make eye contact as they spoke with her, was really blind and that, amazingly, she was able to read a book with her fingertips!
This activity was part of a program my colleagues and I used to teach about visual impairment. Entitled "Developing an Awareness of the Five Senses," the project combined children's literature, class discussions and a visit from a blind educator to break down stereotypes and fears about people with sensory disabilities.
We made arrangements for a blind teaching consultant to visit our seven 2nd grade classes for two 45-minute sessions over two days. Cheryl Tomaino of Greater Vision Programs in Yorktown Heights makes presentations in schools in the New York metropolitan area on the senses, blindness, disability awareness and community service. In the days before her visit, teachers engaged the children in activities that made them more aware of the importance of the five senses and the challenges of sensory impairment.
The art teacher read Lucy's Picture, by Nicola Moon (Dial Books), to all the 2nd grade classes. This charming story tells of a young girl who creates a texture collage for her blind grandfather so that he can "see" his guide dog, his garden, the pond and surrounding hills through his sense of touch. Our young artists made their own texture puppets using materials such as felt, burlap, rope and buttons. This craft activity helped them explore and refine their tactile awareness.
Each classroom teacher read and discussed several children's books dealing with visual impairment. Patricia MacLachlan's vivid narrative Through Grandpa's Eyes (HarperCollins) shows how John learns to "see" the world as his blind Grandpa does: realizing it's morning by the warm feel of the sun; knowing that Grandma is preparing breakfast by the sound of clanging pots; recognizing flowers by their smell.
Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault's Knots on a Counting Rope (Henry Holt) recounts the birth of a blind Native American boy and his relationship with his grandfather. Each time the elder tells his grandson the story of the boy's birth, he ties a knot, representing strength, in a counting rope. When the rope is filled with knots, the boy will know the story and be strong enough to "cross the dark mountains" that he might face because of his disability.
Mom's Best Friend, by Sally Alexander (Macmillan), uses compelling photographs to tell the true story of the author's experiences in training with a new guide dog. The bittersweet and candid narrative, told from the point of view of Sally's young daughter, Leslie, follows Sally at the training center as she develops trust with her new dog and gets to know her blind peers.
These and other books on visual impairment provided excellent opportunities for young children to explore a sensitive topic. Some had difficulty understanding how people who are blind can see things in a figurative sense as the characters in the books were able to do. They expressed their fears about meeting a blind person and asked questions such as: "Will her eyes be open or closed?" "Can she talk?" "How will she get to our room?"
Next, the classes viewed the Reading Rainbow video Best Friends (available from Great Plains National,  228-4630), which contains a segment on the training of guide dogs. Afterwards, we talked about the special mobility challenges that confront the visually impaired. By the time Cheryl, the blind teaching consultant, arrived, the children were eager to meet her. After describing to the class how she lost her sight, she fascinated them by exploring and demonstrating how she uses her other senses to read, write, "navigate" and accomplish everyday activities.
She asked the students to imagine which sounds would be important to a blind person walking on the street. Students were intrigued that a visually impaired person's safety could depend on the sounds of traffic or the clanging of a manhole cover. Following the discussion, Cheryl played a "Familiar Sounds" audio tape and had the children identify sounds such as those made by animals, humans, vehicles, sirens, slamming doors -- even a toilet flushing!
Next, Cheryl demonstrated how she uses her cane to enter a room and locate a chair. She had the students close their eyes and note how the sound of the cane differed when she tapped it on the tile floor and on the carpet. Cheryl also taught us how to be "sighted guides" by showing the proper way for a sighted person to walk with a blind person or direct him or her to a chair.
Later, Cheryl told how the French teacher Louis Braille (1809-52), who was blind, devised the code that uses dots to represent letters and numerals, enabling people who are visually impaired to read with their fingers. She demonstrated her Braille typewriter and displayed other Braille materials, such as her personal phone book, a magazine and a twin-vision book (a picture book with a transparent overlay in Braille that allows both sighted and blind readers to enjoy a story).
The children were fascinated when Cheryl read aloud the twin-vision book A Very Special Critter, by Gina and Mercer Mayer (Western Publishing). The story describes how "Critter," a made-up shaggy animal character who is disabled, helps his classmates with their studies, while they help him by pushing his wheelchair.
We built on the book by discussing how each individual is unique and makes a special contribution to the world. Afterwards, Cheryl distributed Braille alphabet cards and asked students to decode Braille words from a vocabulary list. The children eagerly accepted the challenge.
Then Cheryl led the class in creating simulations that focused on inclusion of the blind. For example, she had the children imagine how they would act if they met a blind child at a birthday party and how they might help a blind classmate who was new at school. Using the puppets they had made earlier, students role-played each situation.
To culminate the unit, the children made lists of all they had learned about visual impairment. In one class, each student chose an item from the list and illustrated it for a big book they titled "Our Friend Cheryl." The children made a cassette recording of the book for her as a token of their appreciation. We also set up a display in the school lobby that included photographs of the program, the children's puppets and Braille materials.
This program is in its fourth year and continues to evolve as we add new literature and materials. It has had a profound effect on the students and faculty at our school. The books, discussions and simulations help the children learn about differences and disabilities. And having a new friend who is blind makes everyone more aware of the special challenges -- and contributions -- of visually impaired persons.
Diane Charash teaches 2nd grade reading at Austin Road Elementary School in Mahopac, NY.
1. Help students research the eye and the sense of sight. Have them read and discuss biographies of Helen Keller, Louis Braille, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder.
2. Obtain vision simulator glasses, which allow student to experience the effects of vision impairment on their routine activities. Blindfold students and have them identify various foods and textured materials. Challenge them to try simple tasks such as pouring a substance from one container to another. Vision simulator glasses can be obtained for $1 each from The Lighthouse Inc.,  453-4923. Another option is to check out the video vision simulator at The Lighthouse Guild.
3. Let students use Elmer's Glue-All or Glucolors to design graphics or write in Braille. When spread heavily, the glue dries with a raised, three-dimensional effect.
4. Make "sound jars" from eight discarded 35mm film canisters. Fill one pair of canisters with salt, a second pair with three buttons each and a third set with dried beans. Leave the fourth pair empty. Mix up the jars and have students match the pairs by sound.
5. Have students create texture puppets or collages using various materials, such as velvet, felt, cotton balls, sandpaper and burlap. Add decorative trimmings, such as braid, yarn and buttons. Blindfold students and have them exchange projects and try to identify the materials used.
6. Ask students to make a list of Braille signs they find in their community (for example, on an ATM machine or an elevator door). Make a composite list and discuss the purpose of each sign and how helpful it would be to a blind person. Brainstorm other places where such signs would be useful to visually impaired persons.