Braille Education System in Sri Lanka: Adequate in Meeting the Needs of the Visually Impaired?

World Braille Day falls on the 4th of January 2021 and marks the third year since its inception. It was officially established by the United Nations to celebrate the importance of braille as a medium of communication for people who are blind and visually impaired. The day aims to promote awareness of the braille language, which strives to bridge the big divide between ordinary and specially-abled people. But did you know that World Braille Day commemorates the birth anniversary of Louis Braille, who is popularly known for inventing a language used by blind and visually impaired people?

What is braille? 

It is a system of touch reading and writing for persons who are blind, in which raised dots represent the letters of the alphabet. 

Braille is essential in the context of education, freedom of expression, opinion as well as social inclusion, as reflected in Article 21and 24 of the UN the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). 

Braille has been the primary medium of information and instruction from the inception of blind education in Sri Lanka. Visually impaired (VI) children have four options where special education (SE) such as braille is concerned; as stated by Hettiarachi and Das in 2014, they have the options of receiving education from specialised schools, special education units within regular education schools, inclusive regular education schools and special resource centres attached to regular education schools. This paradigm shift in SE from ‘segregated instruction’ to ‘integrated education’ and ‘inclusive education’ has been part of the discourse of professionals in education worldwide in the last three decades. 

As quoted by Helen Keller, an American educator, advocate for the blind and deaf, “the only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision”. 

SE for the blind in this country dates back to 1912 with the founding of the Ceylon School for the Deaf and Blind. A registered charity with three semi-government institutions (two in Ratmalana and one in Jaffna), it provides education free of charge to over 600 students. The heads of these institutions state that the schools have been providing holistic education to the visually impaired, whom they believe have been trained with necessary lifelong learning skills, helping them shed all insecurities that they would otherwise carry with them throughout life. They further mention that enrollments of visually impaired students had dropped in the past few years as parents and guardians preferred to send them to regular schools that provided inclusive education. 

The Nuffield School for the deaf and blind in Jaffna has only 2 blind students at present. Classes are conducted from the nursery up to GCE Ordinary Level (O/L) in Ratmalana and Jaffna in the Sinhalese and Tamil mediums respectively. The Ratmalana School stated that the syllabus for secondary school education is so wide that it would not be possible to cover it within the given time frame even in mainstream schools. Computer-Assisted Classroom Teaching and Multimedia techniques to assist the teacher to present a lesson are also being carried out and classroom teaching also employs Braille for all students, and large print books for low vision students. It was notable that 7 visually impaired students sat for the GCE O/L exam from the Ratmalana School in 2019 and qualified for the Advanced level. The school also holds a record of having 350 of its past pupils graduate from universities and many of them have returned to serve as teachers. 

Transition to a more inclusive education system

With the country having moved forward in providing education for the blind through mainstream schools, the tide has changed over a decade as there is a comparative increase in the number of VI students who go beyond the GCE O/L. While the traditional practice of segregating children requiring special educational needs (SEN) into separate learning environments has been practised for years and has its own benefits such as curriculums formulated specifically for them, it is now widely accepted that students with VI should be included into mainstream schools to maximize their learning experiences. Specifically, “inclusion” aims to benefit kids with visual impairments through improvements in their learning outcomes, including their social skills, academic achievement, and personal development. The ministry of education reveals that there are 104 national schools and 606 Provincial Council schools with Special Education Units dedicated to identifying and/or providing assistance to students with SEN. 

The provision of appropriate braille educational needs for children with VI in mainstream schools has long been a common issue in education, particularly when it comes to integration and inclusion. Therefore the number of passes acquired by the VI at secondary school exams does not necessarily represent the braille literacy rate, nor does it shed light on the existing inadequacies of braille education. According to school census data 2017, the percentage of school enrollments by type of disability; the enrollment of visually impaired at the collegiate grades is fifty per cent. This indicates that the collegiate level is also marked by a skewed composition in enrollments across different types of disabilities and the share of students with visual impairments increases with the level of education and make up half of the collegiate student enrollment. This observation could be attributed to the relatively large population of persons with visual impairments in the country and an indication of the progress of many schools and universities that now have well-developed braille learning facilities. Hence, the teaching-learning process through braille is of paramount importance to children with vision impairment because braille literacy is the key to success in education and employment, ensuring them economic independence. 

How can we move forward?

Besides this, the education system should ensure that teachers of the VI be given the opportunity to acquire special knowledge, skill and training to use braille, assistive devices, special software, etc. and modules on special education in preservice and in-service training programmes should be made more comprehensive so as to help VI students better adapt into mainstream schooling. 

The VI is often excluded from vocational training programmes by employers due to the lack of vocational training materials in accessible formats. This situation should also be rectified to ensure the job security of those who are visually challenged. 

The provision of assistive devices would enable many VI users to have greater control over their own lives. That is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of a person with a disability. However, in many cases, higher-tech assistive technology is more expensive, is harder to find, and has a learning curve, but the results can be extraordinary and life-changing.

This can help individuals with disabilities increase their independence, build their self-confidence and self-esteem, improve their quality of life, and break down barriers to education and employment. The real challenge, of course, is finding the right devices and gadgets, for the right purpose, at the right price.

The unavailability of technological tools to equip the print-impaired towards distance learning is an impediment to the education of the VI in the face of the current pandemic. Mainly due to the lack of internet connectivity, resources or gadgets that parents from low-income families are unable to afford shows the inequities attached to remote learning across sections of the student population. Therefore the system of education for the VI calls for much more beyond braille in the current context. It is important to ensure that pledges made to international organisations, associations and conventions in support of the VI remain protected even during such trying times to prevent the differently-abled from being marginalised.

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