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The Blind Children’s Vocational Discovery and Development Program—Braille PenPal Skill Training

Authors: Shirley Franklin, Blind Children’s Program Program Development Consultant; Marshall Burns, Blind Children’s Program Coordinator; and Sarah Karmacharya, Blind Children’s Program Policy and Program Development Manager

Keywords: Blind Children’s Program, penpal, independence, pre-Braille concepts, labeling, environmental Braille access, unique training, Perkins Brailler, Direct Skills Training

Abstract: PenPal Direct Skills Training is a unique training program to foster braille learning provided by the Blind Children’s Program with the Health and Human Services Commission in Texas.

The Health and Human Services Commission Blind Children’s Vocational Discovery and Development Program (or Blind Children’s Program, for short) supports children who are blind or visually impaired from birth through age 21 in attaining independence in the home and community. Learning to read and write braille is an essential skill that allows these individuals access to written language. One of the core services that the Blind Children’s Program (BCP) provides is direct skill training which may include teaching pre-braille concepts, assisting with labeling household items, providing environmental braille access in the child’s home, and providing access to braille books and specialized equipment in the home to increase the child’s independence, lifelong learning, and future employability. 

Learning Braille

Learning braille may seem to be a rather complex task. All children must learn basic reading skills such as blending, segmenting sounds, and letter-sound correspondence. Braille readers must also learn the mechanics of braille. Each braille cell has six raised dots, which are combined in different formations to represent all the letters, symbols, and features of print. Each braille cell is the size of a person’s fingertip. Because of the size of the braille cell, short forms and contractions are used to make braille documents shorter. Individuals who learn to read non-visually must learn both the basic mechanics of reading as well as the braille code. During Summer 2023, the Blind Children’s Program launched a unique training to engage children in using braille outside of school.

Braille Penpal Direct Skills Training

Blind Children’s Program Coordinator Marshall Burns developed the Braille Penpal Direct Skills Training because he understood from personal experience that children can be more motivated to learn and practice braille if they are connected with other children who read and write braille. As a child, Mr. Burns didn’t know any other braille users until he attended Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI) in Austin. Knowing braille has allowed Mr. Burns to be organized in his personal and professional life. He uses braille for labels, note-taking, organization, and for meeting agendas.

Mr. Burns first had the idea of a braille penpal program when the Blind Children’s Program purchased a Perkins brailler for a child on his caseload so the child could practice braille at home. He received a thank you letter in braille from the child a few weeks later. This thank you letter was a pleasant surprise and sparked the idea of a Braille PenPal Direct Skills Training (DST).

In Summer 2023, sixteen children and their families from across Texas met virtually. Each child was paired with another child of similar age and interests. Between June and August that summer, the children exchanged correspondence in braille and got to know another child from across the state with similar interests. One participant affirmed that this training was effective and meaningful: “Before, I only used braille at school. During the Braille Penpal DST, I was able to use braille at home and work on braille contractions. I made a friend that lived far away; we like some of the same things.” The Braille Penpal Training will be held annually for children enrolled in Blind Children’s Program services who use braille.  

To learn more, visit the Blind Children’s Program’s website To apply for our services or answer questions email blindchildrensprogram@hhs.texas.gov.

An adolescent reads Braille from an open three-ring binder.

A happy Braille reader!

Two elementary aged students use a Perkins Brailler together in their classroom. One stands and shows his seated pair Braille strokes.

Writing on the Perkins Brailler together

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