Literacy is believed to be a prerequisite to independence and a vital tool for economic success, dignity as well as perceived self-worth. Research on literacy for children with visual impairment indicates that they are at risk of acquiring literacy skills compared to their sighted peers. This may be contributed by limited opportunities of incidental learning from the environment due to reduced visual capacity. To understand literacy development, three levels of literacy have been identified by scholars. These are emergent, basic and functional literacy.
Emergent literacy is described as early experiences in reading and writing and includes the period between birth and the time children read and write conventionally. Emergent literacy is characterized by development of understanding that abstract symbols have a meaning and these symbols are used for communication. For children with normal sight, the process of developing emergent literacy occurs through observing others‟ using literacy tools and then imitating them. They come across written prints and start scribbling without much involvement and intervention of adults. However, children with visual impairments are not able to observe and imitate others without planned involvement and intervention from an adult. Children with visual impairments should be directly exposed to literacy materials in which they will use in their future reading and writing medium, so that emergent literacy is nurtured.
Basic literacy which is also referred to as academic literacy is the reading and writing skills one develops through the education process. It is the skills acquired through school-based curriculum and include reading and writing skills. It is demonstrated when an individual achieves an eighth-grade reading level in the individual’s primary reading medium with commensurate writing skills in the same medium. It can be urged that basic literacy skills allow an individual to develop more practical literacy skills.
Functional literacy refers to successful application of reading and writing skills to accomplish practical real-life tasks that are required at home, school, community, and work environments. For persons with visual impairments to achieve full and equitable assimilation to society which is dominated by print materials, an individual needs additional communication skills to gain access to print independently. The goal of becoming literate is a paramount endeavor for all learners, but the route to literacy differs not only in means of perception(tactile and visual) but on the decision made as to which route is more appropriate and efficient depending on the child needs and situations.
Braille and literacy
Braille was invented by Louis Braille during the twentieth century. It is a tool used by people with visual impairments to gain literacy skills by providing the users to a method of both reading and writing. Since its invention, Braille code has undergone various stages in its evolution and so is the educational implementation of Braille instruction and use by school age children. Several studies have found that the proportion of persons using Braille is remarkably low and Braille literacy has declined over the past decades.
Two factors have been cited to have created a significant impact on changing attitudes toward Braille use; first, the move from “sight saving” to visual utilization; secondly, the increasing use of technology for access to print for both learners with low vision and those who are blind. Further, access to technology is still a big challenge. Therefore these factors may provide a context into which investigation related to literacy medium for learners with visual impairments can be premised.
Print adaptations for learners with low vision
Determining the appropriate method of adaptations to magnify text for learners with low vision is an important issue, to ensure that difficulties in reading do not impede progress in educational, vocational and recreational activities. Such adaptation may include closer working distance (relative distance magnification), use of magnifiers (angular magnification), higher contrast material, large print and use of electronic devices.
Relative distance magnification involves holding the materials closer to the eyes. Learners with visual impairments naturally use this simplest type of magnification to read smaller printed materials. This is a normal adaptation that learners with visual impairments make, and should not be discouraged. However, learners with a working distance of two inches or less need careful monitoring for signs of fatigue and other reading difficulties that may develop over time. These difficulties may indicate the need for an alternate primary literacy medium.
Angular magnification involves the use of a low vision device (such as a hand held magnifier or telescope). Electronic magnification involves the use of video magnification devices; such as a closed-circuit television (CCTV) – a device that enlarges written or printed text; head mounted video-magnification device and computer software that enlarges and enhances the quality of images on a computer. With the continuing advancement of technological options available to individuals with visual impairments, electronic magnification is being used on a more regular basis in a wider variety of settings.
Large print provides relative size magnification by enlarging the print size. This practice has been extensively studied in learners with visual impairments. Learners with visual impairments, utilizing best optical corrections, had equivalent reading speed and comprehension in standard print versus large print. Hence, the use of optical devices, when appropriate, should be viewed as the least restrictive approach to gain access to all regular print materials rather than use of large print. Moreover, many teachers provide large-print books without objective data to support the learners’ needs.
Large print however, has a number of distinct disadvantages versus other learning media. These disadvantages include; firstly, the total head-sweep needed to read large-print is time consuming and tiring. Secondly, there are few large print books in publication. Thirdly, the learners may not be able to independently access regular print materials resulting in functional illiteracy. Fourth, fractions and labels on diagrams are often not enlarged to large print size. Lastly, current choices of books and magazines for pleasure reading are limited. However, despite the disadvantages of large print, there are many reasons why it has been made available to learners. Teachers may provide large print to feel good about doing something for their learners with visual impairments or to continue what has been done for years. Parents, teachers, and eye- health care professionals may have a positive perception of the value of large print based on comments from elderly family members; the general education teacher or parent may request large print materials, while the teacher of learner with visual impairments may not have data to support a more appropriate choice. Nevertheless, there are some advantages of large print in that it may facilitate the learner’s ability to read exponents and other small number notations in math books. It may also be used as a transitional tool for learners who are switching their primary literacy medium from print to Braille.
Assistive technology for learners with visual impairments
The technological developments during the last few decades have significantly increased access to information in all formats for learners with visual impairments. The ability to access information is essential for success in education employment and life. Therefore, much of the development of assistive technology has focused on providing access to information. In particular, devices to read and write Braille and print have significantly improved with the application of new technology. Such devices include audio technology (tapes and tape recorder, auditory text, recorded texts and synthetic speech) as well as computer based technology such as Braille embossers (specialized tactile printer) advanced CCTV, scanners and optical character recognition software (technology that scans printed text and provide the user with speech output), computer screen readers, Compact Discs (CDs) and multiple hardware and software innovations.
Computer and assistive technology are often cited as the means to overcome limited access to print and other environmental barriers for non-print readers (Gerber, 2003). Gerber notes that plethora of researchers and practitioners in the field of visual impairment have acknowledged that the use of computers and assistive technology can change the lives of people with visual impairments to a great extent by improving education and employment opportunities, enhancing social network and facilitating independence.
In essence, assistive technology has potential to be the “great equalizer” for persons with visual impairments. For instance many career opportunities requiring access to visual information are now accessible to those who have visual impairments through the application of appropriate technology. It is generally accepted that assistive technology has positive impact on the lives of the person with visual impairments. However, the advance in technology on the other hand has been cited as a factor for declining Braille use and Braille literacy. In addition, assistive technology omits grammatical structure, spelling and traditional text formats. Therefore, as assistive technology market continues flourishing with devices and software that make the visual world significantly more accessible to person with visual impairment, educators need to evaluate their applicability and effectiveness to literacy related needs.
Selecting appropriate literacy medium
The selection of appropriate literacy medium for learners with visual impairments has been a long standing dilemma. During the past decade, professionals in the field of visual impairments have developed numerous assessment procedures and tools specifically designed to assist in determining the most appropriate learning media for learners with visual impairments. Although it may be presumed that learners with severe visual impairments will need to learn Braille, it is necessary to conduct learning medium assessment before it is decided which literacy medium Braille, print, or combination a learner needs. The degree to which a given learner uses a specific medium will be influenced by many factors; age, general ability, visual and tactual functioning, visual prognosis, motivation, academic and non-academic demands, environmental conditions, personal and interpersonal factors (such as an acceptance of one’s blindness) and reaction to societal attitudes about blindness.
Each learner with visual impairments has a unique personal journey to literacy that should include all the necessary literacy tools and media to meet school and daily living needs. The need to fill a learner’s “tool box” with all the tools necessary to accomplish the demands of the specific tasks and thereby demonstrate functional literacy. Therefore, planning and preparing for a learner’s literacy needs throughout his life is a challenging yet important task. It is apparent that the determination of a leaner’s literacy medium is not an “either and or” decision. Nor is it a final one. Learners change, as do their needs for different types of information. More practitioners are realizing the benefits of having learners use both print and Braille, and supplementing reading with auditory information. Supplementary literacy tools, such as E-books and materials on CD-ROM, are helpful as learners approach tasks requiring increased reading and writing skills in higher education. All learners need access to a variety of literacy tools. However, the central issue is the determination of the most appropriate medium as a literacy tool.
From the above discussion on pertinent issues regarding literacy and literacy medium for learners with visual impairments, it is apparent that the majority of information is generated in response to circumstances in the United States and Britain. Nevertheless, the issues expressed in the literature are equally pertinent to Pakistan. However, there are factors present in Pakistan that have the potential to create different scenarios. For example, majority of learners in Pakistan attend special residential schools for the visually impaired. In addition, while selection of literacy medium is guided by the use of common criteria and documented procedure, mandated by legislation in USA and Britain, in Pakistan, there are no formal guidelines or legislation to guide such a process. In most instances, the teachers of learners with visual impairments take a leadership role in determining the learning media.