Serving Blind and Low-Vision Children Well Benefits All Students. Here Are Suggestions.

Librarians should be attuned to alternative reading options so that blind and low-vision students have the same access to books as their sighted peers.

a young woman in sunglasses holding a cane stands in front of a poster with her image
M. Leona Godin
Portrait by Roy Nachum/Photo by Alabaster Rhumb

As a kid growing up with a degenerative retinal eye disease, the first thing I lost was my central vision. This meant I couldn’t read standard-size ink print by the time I was 16. Back in the 1980s, there were no ebooks allowing me to easily change the magnification. There were also very few good books published in large print (they were mostly for older adults).

I did not learn about books on tape until I entered San Francisco City College. These came by mail in plastic boxes of cassettes from the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled (NLS) by way of a network of cooperating libraries. For textbooks, I relied on Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (now Learning Alley). These free services were vital to my graduating college and then graduate school, but they were limited. There were relatively few titles, and they took a long time to produce. I felt frustrated that I couldn’t access the books my friends were reading.

Nobody suggested I learn Braille, even though it was clear my vision was deteriorating. Adults seemed afraid of it, afraid of blindness itself. I know now that this is how ableism is passed from one generation to the next. But I didn’t have that word back then, so it’s not surprising that I accepted the stigma of blindness and refused to do or learn anything that might make me “look blind.”

This is why so much of my work today circles the idea of Blind Pride. Blind people can figure out different ways of doing things on their own and with the help of sighted allies, but we also need to feel good about those different ways of doing things. School librarians can help with both aspects of becoming a capable and confident blind student.

First, it’s important to recognize that sight and blindness exist on a spectrum and that the vast majority of blind people have some sight. Many of us go blind over the course of years, and our reading needs will change accordingly. Yet, thinking ahead to the student’s future needs is also useful. As a 2019 New York Times article on LEGO-making Braille bricks suggests, many low-vision kids are encouraged to use their remaining sight for as long as possible, losing precious Braille-learning years.

No matter how we read, if we can access books and are introduced to the joys of reading at an early age, we can (and likely will) become voracious readers.

In his memoir Blind Man’s Bluff, James Tate Hill describes how—before becoming legally blind as a teenager—his afterschool activities mostly involved comic books, TV, and video games. But after losing central vision and getting hooked up with recorded books for the blind, his interests shifted.

“In an unexpected development, perhaps the first pleasant alteration to my lifestyle in the wake of my first failed eye exam, I became a reader.”

Now that many books come out as audiobooks and most as ebooks as soon as they’re published, blind and low-vision readers can access them as soon as our sighted peers. This was not the case when audiobooks were read by volunteers and Braille books were scarce and expensive.

“[My] K–12 libraries lacked any books I could read,” Haben Girma, author of Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law, told me in an email, “and for the most part their computers lacked accessibility software. By contrast, I had wonderful relationships with librarians in college and law school. They took time to understand the basics of digital accessibility and had a sense of how to direct me toward useful material. They helped me improve my searching skills, sharing not just answers but the process for reaching those answers.”

Ebooks have been a game-changer for blind readers. A digital book means we can read it with whatever sense/tech we find most useful: screen settings can enlarge the text and/or change the contrast to be most suitable for our remaining vision; Braille displays make the text legible to fingers; and text-to-speech software brings the words to our ears.

While book accessibility has expanded tremendously, what has remained constant is how every young reader can benefit from an adult who takes an interest in their reading.

“In the eighth grade, I was a library aide at my school,” says Emeline Lakrout, a blind marketing professional in New York City. “Every day, I'd spend an hour hanging out in the library, talking with the librarian and shelving my books.” (At that time, Emeline could still see enough to read the large print of titles.)

“I enjoyed it so much that I'd sometimes shelve other people's books too. The librarian recommended treasures to me, like The Penderwicks, and let me know as soon as Catching Fire had been returned to the library so I could check it out.”

That year Lakrout shifted from occasionally reading books in print to “fully relying on digital books through Bookshare,” an accessible online library for people with print disabilities.

There are a lot of ways your blind and low-vision students can engage with books, and recognizing that they need to feel comfortable in a book space that’s not generally built for them is paramount. As Lakrout puts it, “librarians should be attuned to the alternative reading options that exist, so that all students always have access to reading.” She also points out the importance of the human connection: “Even if I already had essentially unlimited access to reading material, it was still great to have the librarian to talk to about books, genres, and the like. Just because a student isn't traditionally perusing the hardcover shelves doesn't mean they can't benefit from a friendly suggestion or just company in the world of childhood book nerdom.”

There are techy things that can be done as well. Setting up at least one computer with magnification and text-to-speech software and headphones is a good start. There are programs that are built into both Mac (VoiceOver) and PCs (Narrator), and NVDA is an open-source text-to-speech and digital Braille app. Of course, this is just one side of the equation. The library’s website and catalogue must be designed with accessibility in mind, as this SLJ article about tech compliance requirements details.

Caitlin Hernandez, a writer and special ed teacher in San Francisco, was born blind and learned Braille at an early age. “Our school librarian, of her own volition, contacted Seedlings [which produces Braille titles for children] and ordered enough Braille books to serve me throughout my K–5 years,” she says. “There were two delicious shelves of hardcopy Braille books of all sizes, and I used to relish the feeling that, just as my sighted classmates did, I was able to walk along the shelf, drink in the titles, read the synopses at the back, and pick a book.”

Hernandez adds that her favorite librarians “strove to find representation the best they could. … Besides biographies of Louis Braille and Helen Keller, we had several books about blind and other disabled characters.”

Hernandez also has fond memories of her favorite librarians reading out loud, and now she is a marvelous reader in her own right. She points out that ““many sighted children enjoy reading aloud, describing pictures, and sharing books with a partner.”

Speaking of image description, having sighted students describe the pictures within a book or the covers themselves can be a fun exercise that develops connections between words and things. Blind students would also love to do a little judging books by their covers now and again. And please include alt text (embedded image descriptions that can be read by text-to-speech apps) on websites. Alt Text as Poetry is a fantastic resource for getting you and your students excited about alt text and image description.

Blind and sighted students alike benefit from being introduced to blind and low-vision readers and writers both on the shelf and in person. Consider reaching out to a local blind organization or library to have a Braille demonstration. As a volunteer Braille instructor at the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library in New York City, I teach blind adults as well as sighted ones. Literacy levels are shockingly low among blind children and adults, and I’ve found that Braille-learning not only expands literacy, but, just as important, it kindles Blind Pride.

So teach all students some Braille. I can pretty much guarantee they’ll find it cool!

M. Leona Godin is the author of  There Plant Eyes: A Personal and Cultural History of Blindness. 

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