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Creating 21st Century Tools to Support Braille Learners
Creating 21st Century Tools to Support Braille Learners

For most sighted people, braille is a curious bumpy code encountered on elevators, at street crossings, and outside hotel rooms. For many of the visually impaired, however, braille opens a unique doorway to a world they would otherwise be much less able to navigate. In the early 1990s, five English-speaking countries adopted a major simplification, referred to as the Unified English Braille (UEB) system, as their national standard. In 2016, the U.S. will join this group, requiring many people to essentially learn a new language. The transition will occur on January 6, the birthday of Louis Braille, French inventor of the system.

The National Federation of the Blind estimated in 2012 that there were over 6.2 million visually-impaired, working-aged adults in the U.S., including 83,500 in Oregon (Blind, 2014). Whether or not these individuals already use the outgoing code, learning UEB will be important if they want to compete in the job market, succeed in higher education, apply for a passport, or cast a vote in an election. UEB literacy will also be critical for professionals and service providers like pre- and in-service teachers, and family members of the visually impaired, all of whom play essential support roles in increasing the use of braille. With the transition date just over the horizon, researchers at Portland State University are building infrastructure to support efforts to make adult readers and educators proficient in UEB.

Professor Holly Lawson, Coordinator of the Visually Impaired Learner Program in the Department of Special Education, leads the team developing a web-based platform, educational materials, instructional games, and a social network that will aid adult braille users, parents of children who are visually impaired, as well as the professionals who serve them. To accomplish these tasks, Lawson and co-P.Is. Assistant Professor Samuel Sennott (Special Education) and Associate Professor Christof Teuscher (Electrical and Computer Engineering) have partnered with community members, local and national organizations, and experts in the field on a five-year “Unified English Braille through a Powerful and Responsive eLearning Platform” project, or UEB PREP.

UEB PREP will go beyond current braille instructional tools and infrastructure such as transcription manuals, webcasts, and textbooks. While Lawson acknowledges the important role these standard materials continue to play in instruction, she and the rest of the team are eager to explore new approaches. These include interactive, responsive eLearning, gamification, and social networking, all of which are accessible in classrooms, at home, or anywhere, anytime using mobile devices. At the center of UEB PREP is an online platform where users from Oregon and beyond will be able learn at their own pace through study and play and share their progress with others, while a community of educators create, assess, and share content, and researchers gather data to continually improve the user experience.

                       Dr. Holly Lawson

“This is going to be a big transition and it’s going to affect a lot of people,” Dr. Lawson said. “Our goal is to help adult learners make that transition and increase braille literacy. To do that we want to create something engaging, a place where users can learn interactively in an adaptive environment, reinforce and develop skills through play, get immediate feedback on their progress, support one another in an online community, and gain the ability to succeed in education and employment.”

Statistics show that less than ten percent of persons considered legally blind are braille readers (Jernigan Institute, 2009). Meanwhile, a mere 38 percent of visually impaired adults aged 21-64 are employed, 19 percent have attained a Bachelor’s degree or higher, and 32 percent live below the poverty line (Blind, 2014).  Research has connected braille literacy to higher employment rates, income and education (Ryles, 1996). There is thus an urgent need for evidence-based, 21st century educational materials, tools, and support systems to increase braille literacy among adults and extend the reach and capacity of educators and service providers now and after the implementation of UEB in the U.S. Lawson and her UEB PREP collaborators are working to fill that gap.

The project, supported by a five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education, aims to initially serve 500 blind and visually impaired adults, current and future educators, and service providers by the end of 2015,. This will ramp up to 10,000 users by the end of year five, Lawson noted. The hope is that it will eventually become a thriving, self-sustaining platform capable of meeting the needs of English-speaking UEB teachers and learners

wherever an Internet connection exists.

The ultimate goals of the program are to increase the usage of UEB and promote the development of skills that will help visually impaired adults succeed in education and employment. If successful, UEB PREP has the potential to improve the overall quality of life for millions in the U.S. and abroad, while expanding PSU’s portfolio of online learning tools already reaching people throughout the world.