The word “literacy” used to mean the ability to read and write. These days, the world has begun to pay attention to other abilities and challenges. As part of this, the meaning of literacy is growing.

Charlotte Cushman, e-learning project manager at the Perkins School for the Blind and manager of the Paths to Literacy website says, “Speaking, listening, object communication, sign language, concept development, and an understanding of one’s environment and experiences are all part of a more inclusive view of literacy.”

She goes on to say that “literacy is crucial to independence” because it helps people live fully and be part of society. For instance, people who are blind or have low vision have a harder time finding work than sighted people. Those who do not have strong literacy skills have an even harder time.

Mark A. Riccobono, president of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) goes one step further, calling literacy a “critical component to freedom.” Equal access to written information both educates and opens doors to people who are blind or have low vision. He continues, “Previously blind people have only had access to a small fraction of the world’s published works, but thanks to the NFB, the circumstances are dramatically changing.”

Applied Development understands that full access to information is important. Our Reader Services gives employees with low or limited vision access to written documents. Readers assist with a wide variety of reading-related tasks, including document review, attendance at meetings, and online training.

Technology clearly helps people access information. However, Ms. Cushman reminds us that strong literacy is built on mastering many communication methods. Due to all the advances in technology, fewer people are learning braille, a skill many believe is crucial to strong literacy skills. In fact, learning braille can change the course of people’s lives early on.

Researchers studied a large group of students who were blind or had low vision. Students who studied braille almost every school day got similar high scores on achievement tests to sighted students. Students who did not consistently study braille scored much lower on the same tests.

Learning braille seems to lead to employment success later in life. It is estimated that over 70% of people who are blind or have low vision are unemployed. Of those who are employed, most are braille literate. Though braille is not their only mean of communication, learning it helped them reach this goal.

To develop strong literacy skills, Ms. Cushman advises a multi-pronged approach and offers these recommendations:

  • Use assessments to find which types of communication work best for each learner. Types include braille, print, dual media, auditory strategies, objects, and symbols.
  • Give learners books and literacy tools that work well for them.
  • Reading aloud is only helpful if the information is interesting for the learner. Pick materials with this in mind.
  • We learn to do what we see. Make sure the learner sees and hears others reading and writing as part of everyday life.