BlindnessMany people assume that individuals who are blind have no vision and thus live in a world of total darkness. In reality, only about 10 percent of all persons labeled blind are totally without sight. Most who are considered blind respond to some visual stimulation, such as light and dark, shadows or moving objects.
Today, we use the term "severe visual impairment" to describe a range of vision problems. The term takes in a broad range of individuals, based partly on their own perceptions. The term is applied to people who are unable to see to read ordinary newspaper print even when wearing corrective lenses. For children under age 6, it is the care giver"s report that the child lacks useful vision.
Reliable statistics on the numbers of persons with visual impairments are hard to obtain for many reasons, such as the fact that visual impairment need not be reported to any data collection agency. Using 1990 census data, estimates were made based on a state-by-state analysis. With these figures, the American Foundation for the Blind (1994) projected a total of 4,293,360 individuals who are "severely visually impaired."
Visual impairment is a low incidence disability. In the age group "birth through 7," the incidence of severe vision impairment is 1.5 out of every 1,000 persons, or a total of about 95,400 individuals. Vision impairment increases with age, so that 68% of severely visually impaired people are elderly (aged 65 or older).
The Multiply Disabled
Children who are born without vision are referred to as being congenitally blind. The leading causes of congenital blindness may change from time-to-time and are influenced by medical practice. In recent years, an increased number of children with more than one disability have been born. At one time, these youngsters would not have survived. However, through improved medical technology, many more are being sustained. A 1990 analysis of children receiving special education services revealed that only 1.55% of the special populations was blind with multiple disabilities. Because of the low incidence, this is a very unusual group of children who require a highly structured educational program. Such youngsters are served by the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children.
About BrailleMost people assume that every blind person reads and writes braille. In reality, only a small percentage do. Nevertheless, braille is a tremendous resource to some who are visually disabled, especially those who are blind in early life.
Braille was developed by Louis Braille, born in a small town outside of Paris, France, in 1809. Braille was blinded at age three and was educated at the Royal Institute for Blind Youth in Paris. Later, Braille became a teacher at the Institute.
While at the Institute, Braille was exposed to the work of a French Army officer, Charles Barbier, who had devised a written communication system for use during battle. Barbier"s system used dots pressed into paper, and these dots could be read by touch. Braille recognized that Barbier"s system could be used by visually impaired people for reading and writing. Braille perfected the code for literary use.
By 1932, American schools for the blind had adopted the braille system, but they wanted something that would enable them to write braille faster than the original slate and stylus method. A school administrator named Frank Hall altered a typewriter to write braille. Its popularity spread quickly. Today the Perkins Brailler, a 1950 version of Hall"s machine, is the writing instrument of choice for those who are blind. The advent of the computer age has had a tremendous impact on braille. Today several devices produce computer generated braille.
Instruction in braille is provided to some students at the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children. While legal blindness is a criterion for enrollment at the School, many students have additional mild or severe handicaps. These youngsters follow specialized programs geared to their needs and abilities.
The Braille Alphabet
The Braille System is composed of signs formed by the use of all possible combinations of 6 dots numbered and arranged thus:
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V X Y Z W*
* The "W" is not a naturally occurring character in the French alphabet. It is only used in foreign translations, thus it appears as an additional character at the end