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Education

World at their fingers

By John Published: June 27, 2010
8-year-old Camryn Gattuso (right) writes a story in braille while working at her home in Massillon. Gattuso, who is blind, will be competing in Los Angeles in the National Braille Challenge. Camryn's grandmother, Sandra Gattuso is on the left. (Ed Suba Jr./Akron Beacon Journal)

By John Higgins
Beacon Journal staff writer

The story flows from the blind girl's fingers banging away at the levers of a machine that looks like a manual typewriter.

Instead of ink on paper, the machine stamps a code of raised dots that enable the blind to read and write.

Camryn Gattuso, who is 8, sits in her Massillon home by a window at an old-fashioned wooden desk with a space for an ink well, working the nine keys of the Perkins Brailler with both hands.

''It was bath time for puppy, and she was waiting until her sister, Poppy, was finished,'' she announces.

Clack. Clack. Clack. The bell dings near the end of one row and she zips the manual carriage to the left to start a new one.

Her dark hair is tied in two tight braids and she squirms a little in her chair, rolling her shoulders and tilting her head while she composes the story in her mind.

''Soon puppy was in the tub. Her toys, called puppy-duppers, were there,'' Camryn continues.

Clack. Clack. Clack. Ding! Zip.

When her tale is done, she removes the heavy paper and runs her finger over the raised dots, reading aloud the sentences from her imagination.

She wrote the puppy story last
week and on Saturday she was one of two local blind children who were in Los Angeles transcribing, typing and reading Braille in a national competition.

She and Griffin Miller, of Medina, who just turned 8, competed in the 10th Annual National Braille Challenge against 10 other children in their age group from around the country who scored the highest on qualifying tests.

The Braille Institute sponsors the competition for children ages 6 through 19 to promote Braille literacy. Sixty finalists were selected from nearly 800 contestants.

Braille enables the blind to read and write.

But researchers have discovered that as far as the brain is concerned, reading is reading, whether by vision or touch a discovery that deepens our understanding of literacy and how we perceive the world and each other. 

 

Mental rewiring

Written languages are relatively recent human inventions that haven't existed long enough to be hard-wired into our brains by evolution.

We have brain circuitry for human speech and separate wiring for vision, but when we learn to read, we physically link these two systems, Bruce McCandliss, a cognitive neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University, said in a presentation he gave in March for the Vanderbilt Brain Institute.

When we see a written word such as ''dog,'' we can almost instantly retrieve the sound and meaning of ''dog'' in our oral language.

''In a sense, we're asking children around 6 years of age, to rewire their brain, so that information coming in from the visual system is now jacked in in a brand-new way to exquisitely activate language representations,'' McCandliss said.

When blind children such as Camryn and Griffin learn to read Braille, the same thing happens they connect their touch sensation of Braille symbols to the sound and meaning of the corresponding words in their spoken language, said Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone.

The information reaches the brain through touch instead of sight, but then it's basically processed with the same circuitry in the same parts of the brain that process vision.

''Reading is reading regardless of what sensory system carries the information,'' said Pascual-Leone, director of the Center for Non-Invasive Brain Stimulation and Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School and the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

He said research has shown that areas of the brain that normally process vision also can be recruited to locate sounds in space or recall a list of memorized words innate abilities that become unmasked and heightened in the absence of vision.

Sound memory

Griffin's mother, Rachel Miller, has observed those talents in her son.

''Instead of having a photographic memory, he has an auditory memory,'' she said. ''He hears something once and you never have to repeat it again.''

He's also able to isolate the sounds around him, even in a busy classroom.

''He's doing his work, but he knows what's going on across the hall and who's over there, who's saying it or who's getting in trouble,'' Miller said.

She started her son early in Braille. Griffin liked playing with the plastic letter magnets on the refrigerator, so she adapted them with a Braille label maker so he could learn the Braille letters, too.

''He knew his Braille alphabet before he even went to preschool,'' she said. ''He had his 'A' and then he had his bumpy 'A.' ''

Louis Braille adapted the system in the early 19th century from a military code devised to read messages in the dark.

Braille uses different combinations of raised dots and flat spaces arranged in six numbered positions within a cell to represent letters, punctuation and numbers.

The letter ''N,'' for example, is a Braille cell with raised dots at positions 1, 3, 4 and 5.

Speed-writer

When Camryn was about 3, her grandmother, Sandra Gattuso, cut egg cartons in half to simulate a Braille cell with six pits. Camryn would then fill the pits with candies to represent the letters.

''She learned by either putting in M&Ms or mini-marshmallows,'' Gattuso said. ''If she got it right, then she could eat the M&Ms and the marshmallows. But that's how we started out.''

Now Camryn bangs away on her Brailler with surprising speed.

''The last time the teacher timed her, it was 65 words a minute,'' Gattuso said. ''I did that in high school on a typewriter.''

A New York Times Magazine story published in January reported that Braille literacy is in decline and visually impaired children often rely on MP3 players, audiobooks and computer-screen-reading software instead of Braille for reading.

''That has a loss with it potentially that goes beyond the simple knowledge of Braille,'' Pascual-Leone said.

Literate people, whether they're blind or not, are able to make connections between arbitrary symbols and meaning, which enables more abstract thoughts and conceptual understanding.

''When we learn to read a language, from that moment on, arguably, we process information from any language differently,'' Pascual-Leone said. ''You're not just listening to my speaking; your brain is seeing it written.''

Camryn said she enjoys hearing stories too, but she knows the difference.

''I like to read puppy books, kitty books, bird books,'' Camryn said. ''I imagine going on a perfect trip into learning world to hear a tale from long ago, exactly. Books take me anywhere. They take me into puppy world, kitty world, bird world.''


John Higgins can be reached at 330-996-3792 or jhiggins@thebeaconjournal.com. Read the education blog at http://education.ohio.com/.
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