Early Literacy for the Visually Impaired

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When you have two parents who were English majors, it’s inevitable that you’re going to live a life surrounded by far too many books than are probably necessary!

I guess it almost goes without saying that some of Eleanor’s first gifts from us (before she was even born!) were books. Brian and I both shared in our vision of sitting, with a little head nestled in our arms, sharing stories. And I was, as embarrassing as it is to admit, one of those moms who read to her in the womb, and almost immediately after she came out. I just couldn’t wait to spend those moments with her.

When we found out that Eleanor couldn’t see like most of us, realizing that those dreams weren’t going to be exactly as we had envisioned was heartbreaking … but nothing could stop us. We just held her close to us with a book in-hand and read.

From the beginning, we read to Ellie just as we would have had she been born with typical sight — we read to her throughout the day, and made it our routine to read three books to her after her dinner and bath, just before we sang her songs and laid her down for bed. Around the time we learned that she wasn’t seeing the same things as us, we began noticing how entertained Eleanor was with sounds, songs, and rhymes (Disclaimer: I have no control over YouTube’s chosen “suggested videos” at the end of each clip):

Sometime around 6-8 months, Eleanor fell in absolute LOVE with the silly sounds of Dr. Seuss. Her first favorites were: Hop on Pop, Oh the Thinks You Will Think, and Dr. Seuss’s ABCs.  We read Hop on Pop so many times, that at 8-months, she had made up a little dance to some of the words:

By this point, we had recognized just how very important sound is in Eleanor’s experience with reading, acquiring language, and in turn, her understanding and appreciation of the world. We continued to fill her ears with silly sounds and music, we searched far-and-wide for books with rhymes and repetitious phrasing (Like Brown Bear, Brown Bear)

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And a short time later we learned the importance of books with tactile things to touch and trail (The Black Book of Colors)

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and touch-and-feel books (such as DK’s Touch and Feel Farm)(and Peek-a-Zoo)

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We also tried our best to transform the visual world into a more accessible tactile world for her by DIY modifying her books and toys (added animal fur and feathers and black puff paint to Melissa & Doug’s Farm Maze) (and Dr. Seuss’s ABCs with added foam letters for letter-tracing and touch recognition). Additionally, we found this fantastic toy that was designed to help little ones get practice with tactile differentiation (Ruff’s House).

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Because Eleanor needs to maintain sensitive hands and fingertips to distinguish Braille and the objects she’ll be using throughout her life, we’ve made “touch” a part of our everyday (click on each photo for larger version):

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To help Eleanor begin making a connection from her books to the actual objects the images and words represent, her TVI (teacher of the visually impaired) Jo began bringing us “story boxes” from the Delta Gamma Center for Children with Visual Impairments. These are simply old shoe boxes that include a book and collected objects that go along with the book, so that the child can feel what she/he is reading about. (Here’s the Brown Bear, Brown Bear story box compiled by Jo. Notice the purple cat and blue horse!? That lady does some amazing things! 😉

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Although Eleanor is still quite young (20 months), she has been exposed to Braille for quite some time. As with any other thing we must learn, especially when it comes to language acquisition, repetition and continuous exposure are key to mastery. We started by simply adding Braille books to Eleanor’s library. Many were gifted to us by friends and family for birthdays and holidays.

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We were also given these neat Uncle Goose Braille blocks, and hope to soon have Braille Magnetic Letters, and Braille Flash Cards.

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We also started “trailing” practice, wherein Eleanor practices moving her hands across a simple raised-line from left-to-right as she would while reading:

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And were gifted Humpty Dumpty and Other Touching Rhymes, which is a book full of raised-line illustrations of (Brailled) nursery rhymes:

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When Eleanor turned a year old, Jo signed us up for the NBP’s (National Braille Press) ReadBooks! program which sent to our home a red tote with lots of literature and strategies for us to learn Braille so that we can “know our stuff” as Eleanor’s first teachers. When we received it last winter, I immediately began studying and dedicated myself to learning Braille over holiday break. I ended up memorizing alphabetic Braille using this included nifty device in our hour and 1/2 drive to my parents’ house for Christmas. (I attribute my super-quick learning to that same universal super-human parental strength used by mothers who save their children by lifting entire automobiles from their bodies) I am THAT excited to know what my little darling will depend on in her life:

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My next task is to master contracted Braille (which is a sort of short-hand, syllabic-combined writing), which is taking a bit longer as there are 189 symbols, but I’m determined. I study every day. 😉 :

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Fortunately for us, Eleanor has already been exposed to many of her “words” thanks to her early intervention program Delta Gamma Center for Children with Visual Impairments which has an extensive on-sight library and Braillers, and the following early literacy Braille programs: NBP Seedlings (dozens of Braille books at store-price) Braille Institute’s “Dots” program, (which includes up to 12 free Braille books per year) and Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library (which includes a free Braille book every-other-month)!

We actually JUST received our first book from Dolly Parton’s program the other day!
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The most recent challenge we faced came as a culmination of all of this exposure. We wondered how we could help Eleanor make sense of it all — these objects she touches, the words she hears, the Braille she trails and the textures she feels as we read — without the visual element that naturally brings it all together?

Well, with the help of Jo … we simply brought it all together. 🙂

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Since Eleanor’s favorite word is “what?” and she has taken a liking to moving around the house asking what everything is all day long, Jo suggested we Braille everything in the house so that we are combining oral language, written language, and object “representation” all in one!

Now each time Eleanor reaches for an object, she will feel the Braille words (just like she has been in her books) and will begin to develop an understanding that those words connect with spoken words which actually mean something … things in the real world!

We’ve also recently made it a point to find Braille on signs, elevator buttons, and even products when we’re out and about, so that Eleanor’s awareness is heightened to the fact that her surroundings outside the home are marked with her words, too.

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Although we aren’t yet sure what Eleanor is able to see or comprehend visually from her books, she already loves to read, with others and independently.

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This is how her room looks every single day:

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As avid readers, it fills us with so much joy to know that with some work, collaboration, creativity, and a bit of learning ourselves — our daughter will learn to read with proficiency, purpose, and pleasure. ❤

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Resources:
Sarah’s Pinterest Literacy + Braille Board
(Dozens and dozens of ideas related to Braille collected from all over the internet)

Braille Resource Packet for Young Children
(A must-have comprehensive guide with lots of ideas + tips + resources)

9 comments

  1. Beth Lovin

    I so enjoy your articles. Eleanor is a lucky girl to have such parents that go the extra mile. Being born with a vision issue is a disadvantage, but having you as parents will help her to excel – vision or no vision! You’re doing a great job!

  2. Laura Carder

    Being a book lover, too (and raising book lovers), I could really connect with your story. I agree with Beth, you are doing a WONDERFUL job and you are an inspiration! Thanks for sharing!!

  3. Karen

    I am such a book reader, I love that you are so excited to teach Eli. Books are so vivid one can so understand and see different things. Sarah, you make me wanna be able to read braille. You are amazing and so are your articles!

  4. I just pinned your blog to our shared Early Literacy Board so it will get lots of views. You have done an amazing job of showing other parents the importance of early exposure both to books and to braille. I love Brown Bear too!

  5. Shirley Hand

    I’ve been teaching children with visual impairments and their families since 1974. Yes, that makes me OLD! But I so love reading blogs like yours. Literacy is one of the major ways we learn to connect with our children; sighted or visually impaired. My thirty year old, typically sighted daughter texted me about a month ago that she had come across “Ride a Purple Pelican” in the school library where she works. She said, “Mom, I sat down on the floor and cried, remembering how you’d read me that book until I memorized the rhymes.” So it will be for you and your Eleanor. The sound of your voice reading to her with love will be one of her earliest, most treasured memories. Good for you and good for her.

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