Monumental Impact

Braille unlocked opportunities for Paul Parravano

Paul Parravano standing next to a large column, holding his cane

As co-director of government and community relations at the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Paul Parravano is always on the move. If he’s not in Washington, D.C., meeting with top legislators on Capitol Hill, he’s out and about on MIT’s sprawling campus, welcoming international dignitaries, local government officials and Nobel Prize winners.

Yet back in the quiet of his office, tucked away in the darkness of his top desk drawer, sits a small block of wood with six holes in it: the catalyst that led to his earliest, most critical connection to literacy. Those six holes, he explained, correspond to the six dots of a braille cell. His father crafted the tactile learning tool for Parravano, who is blind, and presented it to him with marbles to represent the raised dots.

“My parents figured out that braille was a very important thing for me to learn, so they made sure it happened,” said Parravano. “Braille has made a huge difference in my life, and it has allowed me to do a number of things to get to where I am.”

Parravano is an example of how braille can unlock opportunities and open the door to higher education, future employment and independence for people who are blind, deafblind or visually impaired. Research suggests that braille readers are significantly more likely to be employed. But troubling statistics also reveal that only a small percentage of children who are legally blind in the U.S. and around the world are learning braille today. Perkins’ domestic and international programs are continuously working to expand braille education and bring literacy to people’s fingertips.

“For a person who is blind, the best way to access literacy, really learn a language, and read independently and write independently is through braille,” said Ellen Hall, braille literacy manager at Perkins. “It is the foundation for acquiring basic and advanced literacy skills.”

Parravano was just a toddler when he was diagnosed with bilateral retinoblastoma, a rare form of cancer that left him blind by the time he was 3 years old. His parents made the decision to teach him braille shortly following his fourth birthday.

Parravano learned the tactile code and quickly became an avid reader and star pupil. He excelled in his Ann Arbor, Michigan, public school system, and earned an undergraduate degree from Harvard University and a law degree from Northeastern University. He went on to practice law as an attorney at a civil rights consulting firm. During his years of study, he learned three languages with the help of braille textbooks in Latin, German and French.

“Braille has really shaped the different ways that I was able to become educated,” said Parravano. “It also shaped the options that I had later on to be successful professionally, as well as more independent in my daily life.”

Braille has proven to be an indispensible tool in Parravano’s career. He embosses many key documents into braille, which allows him to carefully proofread and edit. More importantly, braille plays a key supporting role when he is at the podium for MIT or reviewing reports as the board chair at National Braille Press. He is also a member of the Perkins Library Consumer Advisory Board.

“I have a whole drawer here full of speeches,” said Parravano, who disappeared behind his desk to pull out a large stack of braille embossed index cards. “Braille is the only way that I have found effective to deliver talks.”

Braille offers the opportunity to record thoughts on paper and not rely on memory alone. Without braille, people who are visually impaired must memorize each presentation or follow a pre-recorded version of the speech using an audio earpiece – a method Parravano said he would find very distracting. “You wouldn’t be able to ad lib or stop and take a question,” he added.

Despite the profoundly positive impact that braille has had on Parravano’s education and career, there are indications that many fewer students are learning braille today than in previous decades. One statistic from the 1960s estimated that 50 percent of children who were legally blind at that time were braille readers. Today, however, very few children who are legally blind request their learning materials in braille. In addition, 70 percent of people in the U.S. who are blind or visually impaired are unemployed or underemployed.

Hall is one advocate in the field searching for answers. “We’re hoping to apply for grants that will fill in the research gap so that we can have some scientific evidence to give policymakers and parents. We need solid data to show that if you have your child learning braille now, that child is far more likely to transition from high school and go on to employment,” she said. Most of the existing studies are out of date and use sample sizes too small to qualify as evidence-based research, she added.

Although additional research is needed, experts believe there are multiple factors contributing to a decline in braille usage. Among them is the growing reliance on adaptive technology. With today’s ever expanding range of audio-output programs available, more people are accessing information using screen readers, text-to-speech programs, scanners and smart phones than ever before.

Although technology has advanced information access by leaps and bounds, braille advocates say that voice synthesizers and recorders cannot replace the ability to read and write. Instead, many believe that these advances in technology can be used to complement braille usage.

“For bits of information that I need to memorize, sift carefully, or write down, there’s no substitute for having it in braille,” said Parravano. “Having a braille device, like a notetaker, allows me to write things down, look things up, and store all kinds of information.”

“The irony of this whole discussion is that just as we’re talking about a decrease in the use of braille, we’re entering a time when braille is more accessible than ever,” said Hall. “Braille is very compatible with the use of technology. The workplace is a more level playing field than ever before, but you need to have those basic literacy skills to get an education and eventually employment.”

A Changing Population

Reading is critical to learning, regardless of whether a person is sighted or blind. That’s why many experts say the fact that fewer students who are legally blind are braille readers is particularly worrisome. Many believe that changes in the education system and student population have contributed to today’s low braille literacy rates.

During the 1950s, most children who were legally blind attended specialized schools for people who had visual impairments. In 1975, Congress passed Public Law 94-142 which required free and appropriate public education for all. Known today as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the law led to integration of these students into mainstream public schools. Researchers reported declining literacy rates during the decades following the passing of the law.

Today, roughly 80 percent of schoolchildren who are legally blind attend public schools. Unfortunately, many mainstream schools lack qualified instructors, resources and time needed to teach braille in the classroom. Some schools favor less expensive and time-intensive literacy forms, relying solely on audio recordings or screen magnifiers for students with partial vision. While this may serve the child short-term, some experts worry that if the child loses that partial vision later in life, he or she will be at a disadvantage by having never learned braille to help fill that sensory gap.

That’s not to say that children and their parents are always in favor of learning braille, said Perkins Superintendent of Educational Programs Dorinda Rife. Some decline the opportunity to learn braille, believing it is outdated and cumbersome. For others, taking the time out of the school day to learn braille – and away from other core academics – can be a low priority for a child who has some usable vision. And then there’s the difficulty of swallowing the hard truth that a child’s pending blindness is inevitable. “Parents aren’t always ready to face that,” Rife said.

It’s important to note that braille may not always be the most effective option for literacy, given an individual’s particular disability. The population of students who are blind or visually impaired has changed dramatically since the 1960s. Neonatal care has significantly improved over the past 60 years, saving the lives of many premature babies who have a wide range of disabilities. Today’s children who are blind, deafblind or visually impaired often have additional cognitive, developmental and sensory disabilities. Although braille has proven to be effective with students who have multiple disabilities, it may not always be the best choice for each individual’s learning style.

An International Issue

The U.S. is not the only nation to wrestle with access to literacy for people who are blind. Although most languages around the world have a braille code, including Zulu and Cantonese, the majority of people who are blind or visually impaired do not have access to education or materials necessary to learn braille.

According to the World Health Organization, almost 90 percent of the 314 million people worldwide who are blind or visually impaired live in low and middle income countries. In many cases, children who have a disability are excluded from receiving an education. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimates that only 2 percent of children with disabilities in developing countries are able to attend school. Perkins International is determined to change those statistics by improving access to education and braille resources around the world.

“We believe that everyone has the right to information,” said Dr. W. Aubrey Webson, director of Perkins International. “Braille is your engine towards literacy. It is the proven best method of information communication for a person who is blind.”

With partners in 67 countries, Perkins International is tackling the challenge head-on. Perkins collaborates with local schools, organizations, governments and international agencies to establish sustainable education services for people around the world who are blind or deafblind with multiple disabilities. These programs currently provide direct services to more than 12,000 children around the world. Perkins’ strong advocacy work has also contributed to changes in government policies in many developing countries, including Ghana and India.

Through direct training, online resources and educational materials, Perkins empowers teachers to become world-class educators in the field. Perkins also works closely with universities and certification programs around the world to develop transformative curriculum. Many of these trained educators go on to teach braille in their classrooms.

Braille is especially important in developing countries. With limited access to high-tech devices and text-to-speech programs, braille is often the only means for people who are blind to become literate. That’s why Perkins International supports schools and agencies in need of braille devices, and advocates for reducing the cost of these essential tools.

“If you are going to be literate and employable in developing countries, you have to know braille,” says Webson. “It’s often the only medium towards communication and access to information.”

Back at MIT, Parravano recalled his early days of braille. He still remembers his parents coming home with a mechanical Perkins Brailler for him to complete his first-grade homework assignments – a basic tool that seemed nothing less than a “technological marvel.”

“There’s a magic to braille,” he said, taking the wooden block out of the drawer and feeling the smooth, worn edges. “This is the tool that helped get me there.”