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Spring 2006 Table of Contents
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A Simple Insight: A Father's Invention Lets Blind and Sighted Read Together More Easily

by Bill Marvel, Dallas Morning News
Photos by Brad Loper, Dallas Morning News
Reprinted with permission from the Dallas Morning News, February 9, 2006

Abstract: A father finds a creative way to promote literacy for his son who is blind. He designed two braille books that keep the original text and pictures intact in order for sighted and blind to enjoy reading together.

Key words: family, blind, visually impaired, literacy, reading, braille, home literacy strategies

Editor's note: Frequently Outreach staff answer phone calls from parents asking why their child is not reading. Long before teaching your child how to read, please consider teaching your child to want to read. There are numerous reading programs and strategies available for educators and families, but extensive research has proven that reading aloud to a child is the single most important factor in raising a reader. These fifteen minutes a day will be the best investment you will ever make towards your child's future. The following links give great ideas, tips, and resources available to promote lifetime reading: The Read-Aloud Handbook <http://www.trelease-on-reading.com/rah—intro—p1.html#pagetop>; and Literacy Connections <http://www.literacyconnections.com/ReadingAloud.html>. The following article describes how a Texas family with a son who is blind incorporates the love of reading into their home.

DENTON — Ethan Ligon, 8, sits on the sofa reading Guess How Much I Love You to his younger brother, Spencer, 7. It's not Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which is Ethan's favorite book these days. Guess How Much I Love You is about Little Nutbrown Hare. It's really aimed at a preschool audience. But Ethan is reading it to show off his dad's invention.

Ethan Ligon (left) reads to brother Spencer. Their father designed a copy of Guess How Much I Love You that lets blind and sighted to read together more easily.

Eric Ligon, a graphic designer who teaches at the University of North Texas, has devised a kind of book that allows a child who's blind — Ethan, for example — and a child who's sighted — Spencer, for example — to read together. Or, for that matter, a sighted parent and a blind child.

"We're a Braille family," says Leslie Ligon, Ethan's mom. Both parents have taught themselves to read and write Braille. She's a jewelry-maker who creates bracelets and rings with Braille in the design. Her husband has set up the nonprofit BrailleInk to spread the word about the new books he's designed.

The moving hand

In most books meant for sharing by sighted parents and their blind children, transparent plastic sheets with raised Braille text are interleaved with pages of printed words and pictures. The trouble is, as the child's hand progresses across the Braille, it covers the print.

"Ethan would get to a word he didn't know and he'd say, `What is this?'" Mr. Ligon says. "And we'd say, `Move your hand.'" Then he'd have to start all over again at the top of the page to find his place. "With this book," Mr. Ligon says, "he doesn't have to lift his finger."

Ethan Ligon , 8, reads a Braille version of `Guess How Much I Love You' to his father, Eric Ligon, who designed the book to help the blind and sighted read together.

"It's a useful and novel approach," says Dr. Karen Wolffe of Austin, director of professional development for the American Foundation for the Blind and expert on special education and rehabilitation. "When a child stumbles, you're not wondering which word he's stumbling on," she says. "It gives more control to parents."

This all began with a visit to the pediatrician when Ethan was 2 months old. "We were laughing," Mr. Ligon recalls. "Then the doctor stood up and said, `Brace yourselves. He can't see.'" Both retinas were detached. An operation failed to correct the problem. "That is how we got in the Braille business."

The Ligons are enthusiastic readers. Well-stocked bookshelves dominate one wall of the living room. Mrs. Ligon read to Ethan almost from birth. It didn't matter what books, she said. "It was just the sound of my voice." Studies show that reading stories together with parents is critical in building a young child's reading skills. But what if that young child is blind?

Learning to read

When Ethan was 4, the family moved from Dallas to Denton and started Braille training. Mom and dad also began learning the system, which translates letters, punctuation and mathematical symbols into rows of raised dots. "Suddenly I started seeing dots everywhere," Mrs. Ligon says.

A bright, cheerful child, Ethan was ready and eager to read by 4 1/2 . "The first time I saw him pick up a book and put down his hand on it, it was clear," she says. In their enthusiasm, they found a 1954 Braille edition of Webster's College Dictionary on eBay. It arrived on their doorstep in a crate, all 38 volumes. Mr. Ligon now admits that perhaps they were a little too enthusiastic.

More useful was an ancient Perkins Braille writer, a kind of typewriter for Braille. When Ethan started kindergarten, "We would write lunch box notes to him," Mr. Ligon says. "The usual thing, `Have a nice day.' "

So that the teacher could help Ethan read them, Mr. Ligon would write a letter-by-letter translation above the Braille cells. "As a graphic designer, I was thinking in early literacy there's always somebody reading with the child," he says, "and it's almost always somebody who's sighted." And the experience is almost never entirely satisfactory, because the moving hand of the Braille reader inevitably gets in the way of the moving eye of the print reader. So he applied to the university for a semester-long sabbatical to work on the problem.

Notes from home

The lunchbox notes offered a solution. "It occurred to me to put the printed text and the pictures above the Braille," he says. "Frankly, it seems so simple now and so dumb that nobody had ever done it before."

As a demonstration of his idea, he selected that favorite Dr. Seuss read-together, Green Eggs and Ham. Mr. Ligon photocopied the illustrations and type, then embossed the Braille text beneath. (Before copyright lawyers start sharpening their swords, the copy was an experiment and wasn't for sale.)

But why have pictures at all, since a blind child can't see them? Because sighted parents love to describe what's going on as they read, he explains. To illustrate his point, he demonstrates to Ethan just how long Nutbrown Hare's very long ears really are: He takes the boy's arms and spreads them as wide as possible. Besides, he adds, "I needed to return to the original sensual experience for the sighted reader."

Surprisingly, few parents of blind children go to the trouble of learning Braille. The sight of a page of Braille dots can be intimidating. "It's like a blizzard," Mr. Ligon says. But when the dots appear on the same page as the type, parents can begin to get a sense for it. "I'd be so frustrated if I couldn't read Braille," Mrs. Ligon says.

Did You Know?

Eric Ligon demonstrates to Ethan how long Nutbrown Hare's ears are.

Not all Braille is created equal. In Grade 1, or "uncontracted" Braille, a combination of up to six raised dots in a cell stands for a single letter, punctuation mark, or numeral. "Contracted," or Grade 2 Braille makes use of standard abbreviations and contractions — almost 200 — to shorten words. For example, "little" is written with the Braille signs "ll." There are special forms of Braille for mathematics, chemistry, computer programming and music.

Labor Of Love

BrailleInk, the nonprofit Mr. Ligon has started with Bruce Curtis, formerly with Perkins School for the Blind, has produced two books in the new format: Guess How Much I Love You (BrailleInk, $19.95) by Sam McBratney and Anita Jeram, and The Dot (BrailleInk, $19.95) by Peter H. Reynolds. The plan is to publish more titles. To order the books or learn more, log on at <http://www.brailleink.org> or call 1-800-324-2919.

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