Volume 7, Issue 3

Winter 2006




The purpose of Wisconsin Braille Inc. is to advance communication and coordinate the efforts of all persons concerned with the availability, quality, and distribution of brailled materials in the state of Wisconsin thereby encouraging braille literacy.



Braille Literacy — the past twenty years

Where have we been, where are we going?


Adapted, with permission, from: Beyond Textbooks on Time: Is the Battle for Braille Literacy Over? by Mark Riccobono. Future Reflections, Winter/Spring 2005.


In 1987 Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, a preeminent leader of the blind and advocate for braille literacy, wrote:


". . . we stand at a crossroads. Braille can either slide into oblivion, or it can become more usable and flexible than ever before in history. The decision is ours, and the time is now. . . . I think it will be a tragedy if we permit braille to become an anachronism. I say this knowing that many of the sighted educators (not being able to use braille themselves, being too lazy to learn it, and having all kinds of psychological hangups about it) of blind children want to see it disappear — or, at the very least, diminish very greatly in use and importance."


Those sentiments may seem harsh if measured against the feelings toward braille in the field of blindness today. However, they are an accurate reflection of the frustration the blind and many parents of blind children of the 1980s felt about the lack of quality braille instruction available to blind youth.


In the late 1980s and early 1990s the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) waged what can only be described as an all-out assault on braille illiteracy. The Federation's war for braille literacy had four major components:


(1) The Right to Braille Instruction: In 1989 NFB proposed a unified effort within the field of blindness to affirm the value of braille and the right of blind children to have it. They created a model braille bill and urged its adoption in each state. Thirty-two states eventually adopted braille legislation.


Through the 90s work continued on the push for braille literacy. Finally, in 1997, amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) were added that ensure that braille is the default learning-medium for any student who is blind or visually impaired, unless an IEP evaluation determines that it is not appropriate.  Implementation was and continues to be another matter. However, in the final analysis one thing is clear: braille is firmly planted in IDEA '97. It is the law, it is the right thing to do, and there are few excuses for not providing braille instruction.


(2) Teacher Competency: Central to the discussion about braille literacy was a growing concern about the level of braille competency among educators of blind children. While a national braille competency test has not yet been developed, many states have developed their own test (including Wisconsin). In addition, many universities that prepare individuals to be VI teachers have increased their focus on braille and have taken steps to promote more positive attitudes about braille.


(3) Public Education: NFB, NAPUB (National Association to Promote the Use of Braille), and NOPBC (National Organization of Parents of Blind Children) all took aggressive and creative approaches toward educating the public about the critical role of braille and the great barrier that illiteracy places on the blind.

        The strongest evidence of this attitudinal shift is the braille enthusiasm that is presently prevalent in the field of blindness. The greater availability of free or affordable braille storybooks (including Wisconsin Braille's Special Book Project that provides free storybooks to teachers and parents), and innovative programs like AFB's "Braille Bug" are examples that braille is more fervently supported than any time in its rocky history.


(4) Timely textbooks: Finally, with the 2004 reauthorization of IDEA, the long fought-for provisions to ensure that textbooks are delivered on time have been put into the law. The excuse that it is too hard, too expensive, and takes too long to produce braille books will soon be a thing of the past.


* * *


Mr. Riccobono suggests that the toughest battles still lie ahead. There is a significant gap between policy and practice related to the education of blind children. Many problems and circumstances—a lack of qualified teachers, over-dependence on computer-translation braille programs, and an inappropriate pay scale for highly trained transcribers, among other things—make the effort to receive appropriate braille literacy instruction a constant balancing act.


How can we increase braille instruction in schools? One way, says Wisconsin Braille, Inc., is to license those transcribers who work in schools. 


The value of licensure, as well as the political and legal challenges facing it, will be the subject of an article in the next issue of the Wisconsin Braille newsletter.                                     v




Did You Know?


Time comparisons, based on a survey of national braille producers, show that braille produced using publisher's disks is:


·        58% faster than using a braillewriter

·        41% faster than using direct input on a computer

·        30% faster than typing and translating

·        18% faster than scanning and translating




Making a difference in a blind child's life


by Cheryl Orgas


I am a Board member of Wisconsin Braille, Inc., and the coordinator of the Braille Mentoring Program. This program matches blind adult braille readers with children who are learning to read braille — a pairing that can have a strong, positive effect on a blind child.


I say this with deep belief and honesty because as a blind adult I vividly remember the impact blind people had on my life when I was growing up as a blind child in a sighted world. I learned braille in first grade in Sister Mel Marie's Resource Room for the Blind at Holy Assumption School in West Allis, Wisconsin. As my friends and I got older, we became friends  with sister's middle and high school blind students. Not only did these older mentors encourage the use of braille, but they also taught us about living full lives as blind people. We all became avid readers and compared book lists. We formed a singing group, and our brailled lyrics were crucial for our success.


We learned about life skills. I remember being very excited when one of our mentors rented her first apartment. Wow, I thought, Some day I'll be able to have my own apartment.


Blind adult mentors are crucial to a blind child's development.


Make a difference today. Refer a blind child to us for mentoring or become a blind adult braille mentor. We'd love to hear from you!




Thank you, for paying your dues now!


Membership renewal notices will be sent out next month, but you can help Wisconsin Braille, Inc. save money by paying your dues now. Simply use the renewal application on the back of this newsletter. Your support and continued interest in the goals of this organization are greatly appreciated.




Annual General

Membership Meeting of

Wisconsin Braille Inc.


The annual general membership meeting of Wisconsin Braille Inc. will be held on March 11, 2006 at 1:00 p.m. at the Wisconsin School for the Visually Handicapped in Janesville.


New officers and members of the board of directors will be elected. 



Nominations for 2006-2008

Officers: Vice-President—David Hines

        Treasurer—Pat Foltz

Directors: David Ballmann

        Vonna Johnson-Porter

        Kevin Jones

        Julie Stroh



Directors: Constance Risjord

        Sandra Adams


Continuing (05-07)

Officers: President—Mary Ann Damm

        Secretary—Jennifer Wenzel

Directors: Cheryl Orgas

        Gail Yu

        Barbara Althoen

        Beverly Helland

        Dawn Soto


At 10 a.m., preceding the general membership meeting, the Board of Directors will meet. Both meetings are open to all. If you would like to attend please contact Vonna Johnson-Porter at vjohnsonport@ madison.k12.wi.us.


There is one position open on the board of directors. If you would like to serve, or if you would like to nominate someone, please notify Vonna Johnson-Porter by February 1.



Book Review


The Imprisoned Guest: Samuel Howe and Laura Bridgman, the Original Deaf-Blind Girl. By Elisabeth Gitter. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001). Pp. xi, 341.


            Historians of late have become rather critical of the social reform movement of the early nineteenth century which built penitentiaries for criminals and asylums for the mentally ill, the deaf, and the blind. In the previous century criminals were hanged, maimed, or (in England) sent to Australia. It never occurred to political leaders—even those, like Thomas Jefferson, with a reform bent—that criminals might be fed, clothed, and housed at public expense. Similarly, in the eighteenth century the mentally or physically handicapped were considered family responsibilities, not public charges.


            By the 1820s and 30s, however, Americans began to argue that criminals ought to be punished, not out of revenge for their deeds, but in order to reform them and return them to society. With this philosophy in mind, American states built penitentiaries aimed at reforming criminals through moral instruction and useful employment, and asylum-like residential schools for the deaf and the blind.


            While this social reform movement was long viewed as humanitarian in inspiration and socially useful, historians in recent years have suggested instead that, what passed for reform in the nineteenth century, was in fact an effort by middle-class Americans to preserve social order by incarcerating criminals and shunting out of sight and mind the mentally and physically handicapped. Legislators voted funds for jailhouses and asylums out of a blend of pity, dread, anxiety, and paternalistic solicitude. Elisabeth Gitter's biography of Laura Bridgman and her relationship with the Boston reformer, Samuel Gridley Howe,  provides an instructive insight into the mind-set of nineteenth-century social reformers and into the validity of historians' critique of their motives and accomplishments.


            Dr. Gitter, a professor of English at the City University of New York's John Jay College, intended her book title, The Imprisoned Guest, as a double entendre. Laura Bridgman, born on a Vermont farm, had been rendered deaf, dumb, and blind in a bout with scarlet fever at the age of four. When Howe, the director of the newly created New England Asylum for the Education of the Blind, discovered her, he regarded her as "a human soul shut up in a dark and silent cell," imprisoned by the lack of any sensory contact with the world except that of touch. Brought to Boston to be educated, Laura became a lifetime resident—52 years—of the Perkins Institution for the Blind, and the asylum itself became a form of prison for her.


            Although initially financed by the legislature, the Institute was expected to subsist on charitable donations. In 1833 Boston shipping tycoon Thomas H. Perkins donated a mansion on Pearl Street to house the institute, and it was renamed in his honor. Howe realized that, in order to obtain the support of both the state legislature and private donors, he had to demonstrate the capacity of the blind to receive instruction. Although Howe disliked the idea of putting his students, especially the younger girls, on public display, he bowed to the necessity. Laura Bridgman, deaf and dumb as well as blind, was the perfect exhibit.


            When Laura entered the Institute in 1837 she had only a few primitive hand gestures to convey her wants. She mimed, for example, buttering a slice of bread when she was hungry. Howe taught her to learn through finger sensitivity. He placed raised-letter labels on common objects--knife and fork, bed, chair. Once she had learned to associate words with objects he taught her the raised-letter alphabet. (Although the Frenchman Louis Braille had invented his raised-dot system of reading in 1829, it did not come into use in America until much later in the century.) Laura proved to be an apt pupil with a voracious curiosity about the world. She also quickly learned finger spelling from her female teachers (an alphabet of taps and finger-numbers from one person's hand to another), which enabled her to carry on extensive conversations.


            Howe sent the legislature an Annual Report of the Trustees of the Perkins Institution, and copies to his well-connected friends. In his Report for the year 1840 he described Laura's educational progress in glowing terms. The publicity excited a growing public curiosity. In 1842 Charles Dickens visited Boston, as part of his American tour, and he published an account of the deaf-dumb-blind female genius in his widely read American Notes. Visitors began lining up by the hundreds at the Perkins Institute to get a glimpse of Laura. She was a curiosity, like P. T. Barnum's General Tom Thumb and Fiji Mermaid, but she was also a monument to enlightened reform and an object of Christian sympathy. Like Dickens' Oliver Twist and David Copperfield, or, a decade later, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Eliza, she was the Suffering Child, the lovable little victim romanticized in the popular literary works of the day.


            Unfortunately, Laura spoiled the romantic story-line by growing up. She reached the height of her fame in the mid-1840s, and within five years she was all but forgotten. Spoiled perhaps by excessive attention in her adolescence, she became a temperamental, sometimes violent, teenager. When she turned 23, Howe gave up all further efforts at educating her and reassigned her teachers to other students. She remained a resident of the asylum, a lonely, prematurely aging spinster.


            The one bright spot in her last years was Anne Sullivan, who had come to Perkins a fourteen-year-old charity case, partially blinded by chronic eye disease. After her vision was restored she graduated from the school at the top of her class. Seeing her potential as a teacher, Howe's son-in-law and successor as director placed Sullivan and Laura Bridgman in the same cottage, so that Sullivan might learn the manual alphabet. The two spent hours in finger conversation, and Sullivan became intrigued with the intellectual potential of the deaf-blind.


            In 1888, when the Perkins director learned of another possible Suffering Child heroine in eight-year-old Helen Keller, he sent Anne Sullivan to her Alabama home. Sullivan brought Keller to Boston and introduced the deaf-dumb-blind child to sixty-year-old Laura Bridgman. The meeting did not go well. Laura, afraid of disease, refused the child's hand, and young Helen, awkward and embarrassed, accidentally stepped on Laura's foot in taking her departure. Laura's fear of disease was well taken, for she died of a virus a year later. Keller went on to lasting fame as author and feminist, but, tellingly, she admitted late in life that if Laura Bridgman had had Anne Sullivan as a teacher and perhaps had an opportunity to learn Braille, "she would have outshone me."



The Braille Corner


Dear Readers,

In the last issue of the Wisconsin Braille Newsletter a question was asked about the differences between EBAE and FORMATS. That issue dealt with the first four; this and future issues will, as space permits, continue to list the differences.

            Reminder: it is page numbering that determines which set of rules to follow. If you are including the print page numbers in your transcription, follow Formats rules. If not, follow EBAE rules.


Emphasized portions of words


Poetry and Plays: All footnotes should be placed at the end of the volume in which they occur.

Foreign punctuation

Inclusive numbers

Mathematical signs of operation

Numbers, plural


NOTE: Because of space limitations, I have quoted only parts of each rule in EBAE and FORMATS. Please read the entire rule in order to understand fully the differences that exist between the two formats.



               Ms. Perkins



Dear Mr. #s,

          I've noticed in the Nemeth volume I've been working with that there are times when a word is brailled uncontracted, but other times the same word is contracted. Why is this?




Dear Wondering,

          Because many of the Nemeth symbols have the same configurations as contractions, the use or nonuse of contractions depends on their placement in relation to the Nemeth symbols.


Therefore, when a one-cell whole-word contraction (but, can, ..., you, as), a whole-word lower-sign contraction (be, enough, were, his, in, was, to, into, by), or the whole- or part-word contractions for and, for, of, the, with, come in contact with a Nemeth grouping symbol (parentheses, brackets, braces, transcriber's note symbol, etc.) the contractions are not used—even if composition signs or punctuation intervene. Example: ("Can you find it?")


(_8,can y f9d it80)


When a word is in contact with or next to a sign of operation, comparison, or other mathematical sign (e.g., fraction indicator) no contractions can be used in the word. Example: four – one = three.


four-one .k three


Note that, even though there is an intervening space, contractions are not used in words that precede or follow a sign of comparison.


These are just a few of the basics. For a more extensive list of when and when not to use contractions, see The Nemeth Braille Code for Mathematics and Science Notation, 1972 Revision, Rule IX §55.



                             Mr. #'s




[Address your questions to Ms. Perkins or Mr. #s

c/o Wisconsin Braille Inc., P.O. Box 45076, Madison, WI 53744-5076]



Changes at WCB

       — new director

              — new name


The Wisconsin Council of the Blind has undergone some important changes recently. At the beginning of the year, in order to include the large number of visually impaired people we serve, our name was changed to The Wisconsin Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired.


Along with the new name came a new Executive Director. The former Director, Dick Pomo, has retired after nearly eight years of service and plans to enjoy golf and travel. Karen Majkrzak (pronounced Mazak)  was selected to replace Mr. Pomo. Further information about Karen’s background will be presented in the next newsletter.


The Council has also recently secured some significant grants, which will allow expansion of services throughout the state. This includes a grant from SBC, which will provide a mobile computer lab for teaching individuals with vision loss how to use accessible computers. In addition, a grant was received from the Door County Community Foundation, which will allow for provision of rehabilitation services and technology training to residents of Door County who have vision loss. 





check out wisconsin braille's new, improved web page at www.wisbrl.org



Become a Braille Mentor!


Wisconsin Braille Inc. is currently seeking participants and mentors for its Braille Literacy Project. Introduced in the fall of 2000 and patterned on the various tutoring/mentoring literacy programs available to sighted students, this program matches an adult braille-reading mentor with braille-reading students in a school setting. 


Here are some frequently asked questions:


Q.  What do Braille Mentors do?

A.  They help braille-reading students read their own books as well as using materials from Wisconsin Braille Inc., VBTI's (Volunteer Braillists and Tapists, Inc. - Madison) library of children's braille books, and Volunteer Services for the Visually Handicapped and the regional library in Milwaukee.


Q.  Are other activities involved?

A.  Yes. Many mentors and students play games together, write, or just enjoy spending time together.


Q.  Are there “lesson plans?”

A.  Not specifically, different mentors try different approaches. Sometimes the mentor and student each read a page. Sometimes, when help is needed, the mentor reads and the youngster rereads that page. “I usually ask if the youngster wants to start. Sometimes I go first,” says Cheri McGrath, the first braille mentor. “It thrills me when I hear, ‘Cheri, I want to go first.’”


Q.   Is the focus only on learning?

A.  No. Many mentors and students talk about their feelings about blindness, pride when using a cane, wanting to become more independent, and many other things. Mentors try to be honest and realistic, but always positive.


Q.  What does a mentor get from the program? 

A.  The reward of encouraging a love of reading, plus the opportunity to interact with young people. Cheri says, "Last week I served as Grandma. It was Grandparent's Day at school and I substituted for Michael's grandmother. He introduced me to many teachers. He would say, ‘This is my Grandma. She reads braille, too.’ He's proud of it!”


Q.  Do I need any special qualifications?

A.  You must be a proficient braille reader. You will also need transportation to your student’s site. Wisconsin Braille Inc. will reimburse you for the cost of the transportation.


Q.  How do I sign up?

A.  If you want to volunteer, if you know someone who you think would make a good mentor, or if you know of a student who could benefit from this program, please contact

            Cheryl Orgas at 414-964-7995 or meekerorgas@ameritech.net.




The Wisconsin Braille newsletter is published three times a year. Deadlines are: Spring/Summer – May 1, Fall – September 1, Winter – December 15



The purpose of this newsletter is to disperse information. Wisconsin Braille Inc. does not endorse or vouch for the reliability of any of the persons, organizations, or products appearing in this publication.



Wisconsin Braille Inc. welcomes letters from readers on all subjects concerning braille and blindness. Publication of letters will be at the editor’s discretion. Letters must be signed, but names will be withheld upon request.




            Use the following form to join or renew your membership to Wisconsin Braille Inc. Please make checks and money orders payable to: WISCONSIN BRAILLE INC.


Regular membership, annual dues: $10

Sustaining membership, annual dues: $30

Lifetime membership: $200


Please include: your name, address, phone number, and e-mail address. Also advise if you wish printed material to be sent to you in regular type, e-mail or braille.


Please answer the following: What is your affiliation with the braille-reading community? (List all that apply.) Teacher, educational assistant, transcriber, proofreader, administrator, producer, parent, user, other (specify).


Return application and payment to: Wisconsin Braille Inc., P.O. Box 45076, Madison, WI 53744-5076.



This version of the Wisconsin Braille newsletter was prepared by the members of the OSCI Braille Program. It has not been proofread. Readers are encouraged to report noted errors to: Wisconsin Braille Newsletter, Editor,  P.O. Box 45076, Madison, WI 53744-5076.


Back to Past Newsletters