“When the pandemic hit, we knew it was going to be difficult for people to figure out how to virtually teach blind kids to read Braille."
“Parents of blind students faced unique challenges during quarantine. Usually it’s the school teachers and experienced professionals who teach blind children how to perform day-to-day skills, like tying their shoes, folding the laundry, and cooking. Quarantine and school shutdowns meant that the parents were going to need to fill that role.
I grew up with a blind mom and she taught me the skills I needed to learn. So, I was a little bit surprised by how overwhelmed parents were when they didn't have regular support. It turned out to be a silver lining. Many parents were very receptive to connecting with blind adults and learning from them. The parents then realized that they have the ability to be their kid’s first teachers, and it doesn't have to be a professional who teaches their blind child to make a sandwich or cook macaroni and cheese or tie their shoes or do whatever. A parent who can teach a sighted kid to make a sandwich can also teach a blind kid to make a sandwich, especially if they reach out and ask other blind people. So the ability to connect with and learn from blind adults has been really empowering for parents.
The National Federation of the Blind has done a lot throughout 2020, particularly since COVID hit, to reach out and connect people. At the beginning of the pandemic, there were Zoom meetings that blind people could join every day, providing a gathering space and information about how to navigate the new challenges.
One of the biggest challenges has been education. Schools went virtual so suddenly and a lot of the virtual programs aren't coded to be accessible for blind students. And a lot of the videos teachers are using to teach are not accessible. Many of the videos have great, engaging animation, but kids who can’t see what's happening are lost. Videos of Mentos and Diet Coke reactions are a memorable way to show chemistry in action. But if you cannot see it and there is no accessible written description of what the video is showing, children cannot truly understand what is happening.
So the National Federation of the Blind spent a lot of time figuring out how we can teach some of these skills and concepts to blind kids. What we found was because we designed everything to be accessible from the beginning, the kids were engaged. Because it was designed for them, they could understand what was happening. They didn't have to guess, they didn't have to wonder or ask somebody what's going on on the screen, what happened when we put the Mentos into the Diet Coke.
We also changed our model for teaching Braille. When the pandemic hit, we knew it was going to be difficult for people to figure out how to virtually teach blind kids to read Braille. Each summer for the past 12 years, we've had what we call our Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning (“BELL”) Academy, two-week programs across the country that are designed to make learning Braille fun for kids ages four to 12. We figured out that we weren't going to be able to do that in person in 2020, so we started thinking about how we can teach blind kids Braille virtually and still make it fun. So we created a BELL Academy In-Home Edition. This summer, we shipped boxes to 266 participants. Each box contained seven pounds of stuff. We did all kinds of things, Braille egg cartons, Brailed puzzles, and we even grew sunflower seeds. We did it all on Zoom.
And so, I think if 2020 has done anything for me that’s been good, I I think it's pushed me to imagine more of what can be done virtually. I still believe that there are places where teaching blind kids, or any kid really, is easier in person. I think the quality of mentoring and the forming of relationships and things like that are easier in person. But I also realize that there's a lot more that we can do virtually than I would have said we could do if you'd asked me a year ago, and blind kids are better for it. We had blind kids who could participate in BELL Academy In-Home Edition from states that haven’t had an in-person BELL Academy program in the past, you know, places that have a really small population and a really spread-out population, like Wyoming, where it's hard to pull enough students together for a two-week day program. But we had a kid from Montana, participate this time. And so in some ways I think 2020 has given more opportunities to some of those more rural families. And I think that's pretty cool. It's really neat.” - Karen, National Federation of the Blind #Maryland