During the first 11 years of my life, my mom stayed home with my sister and me. My dad worked full-time in family medicine, but was home by dinnertime most evenings, most weekends, and holidays. In my hazy recollections of my preschool years, I recall Mom as the primary minder of my basic physical and emotional needs. Dad, meanwhile, was my first window into the mental and the spiritual.
Dad was a math major in college. He went to MIT and studied in an artificial intelligence lab, before he realized that he wanted to devote his scientific mind to work with people, not machines. He swerved to a medical degree at Stanford, but never lost his love of numbers or patterns. And he passed it on to me.
When I was three years old, I started going to preschool at the local center for blind children in downtown Phoenix, Mondays through Thursdays. I spent Friday mornings at the local Jewish preschool. Because I was nearly totally blind, with only a small bit of light perception, everyone agreed that I would learn braille. But my parents didn’t wait for the teachers there to start teaching me.
My parents obtained some basic braille alphabet sheets. They knew nothing of the code, but Dad soon mastered its simplicity and repetitive pattern. Each braille character is written in a six-dot grid, three dots high and two dots wide. The shapes of the characters are generated by the combination of dots present in each cell, with the first ten letters made up of different combinations of the upper four dots. Letters K-T are simply made by adding the lower-left dot to letters A-J, respectively. U-Z are formed by adding the lower-right dot to earlier letters, although there is a twist, because the letter W defies the pattern. Finally, the numbers 1-9 are simply written as the letters A-I, respectively, with a “number sign” immediately preceding.
Dad figured out the code and, he claims, taught it to me in a matter of days. As I mastered the alphabet, I quickly memorized the order of the alphabet and each letter’s number within that sequence, with 1 for A, and 26 for Z.
One night, Dad quizzed me on the alphabetic numbers. After a few easy ones, he asked, “This is a tough one. What letter is number 27?”
I was momentarily stumped. I had never considered the alphabet going past 26. It took a few minutes of mental struggle, but eventually I hazarded a guess.
“A?” I asked tentatively.
“You are correct!” Dad replied, one of his trademark phrases, with exaggerated gusto.
At preschool, I kept working on reading and writing braille. I practiced writing my name, recognizing first letters, then words, and then decoding sentences. I learned the “contractions,” non-alphabetic symbols that save space by representing common pairs of letters, like en or sh. The process of learning to read was a bumpy, twisty ride. I memorized many contractions before I could reliably distinguish the “box letters”: d, f, h, and j, which are made by removing one of the corner dots out of the box that makes g. The letters consisting of two-dot diagonals, e and I, stumped me too. Sometimes letters felt interchangeable. I might know all the letters in a word, but the word itself was foreign, incomprehensible. I often had to ask my parents for help.
On another evening, when I was about 4, I struggled through a basic book. I came upon a word in the middle of a sentence that left me completely flabbergasted. Mom was out that night. I found Dad in the family room.
“What’s that word?” I asked Dad, showing him the page.
He took a long look at the page, then went and got his braille alphabet “cheat sheet,” a printed card showing images of all the braille symbols. He looked at the page several times, tried to decipher the symbols under my fingers, turned back to the cheat sheet. This continued for several minutes, but Dad was as confused as I was. He saw a symbol that wasn’t on his cheat sheet, because it was a contraction.
But then, Dad had an epiphany. “Can you spell it for me?” he asked.
“Yeah! It’s L, A, U, GH contraction,” I said immediately. The problem was soon solved.
“I realized that I didn’t have to learn braille to help you,” Dad told me a quarter-century later, over the phone a few months before I received my doctorate. “Like most kids, you just needed a little help learning how to spell.”
Another night, as I sat on Dad’s lap, he told me about a thing called multiplication. His explanation made no sense. I memorized a few facts from the conversation. Apparently, you could multiply 3 by 3, and you’d get 9. If you multiplied any number by 0, it turned into 0. And if you multiplied anything by 1, it stayed the same. But the rest was a jumble of strange new jargon and gibberish. I jumped down from Dad’s lap feeling thoroughly confused, but it wasn’t necessarily a bad feeling. And in the process, seeds had been planted inside my mind.
In much of the developed world, disabled children are routed through the medical gatekeepers to a system of “special education” with emphasis on “special.” Their parents are often told that their children need to be educated by experts with fancy titles. Historically, disabled children were often separated from their parents for intensive instruction, and parents were told that they would only interfere with their children’s success.
Underlying much of “special education” is the idea that disabilities affect not just activities like seeing or walking, but that they also change how children learn. It follows, then, that the “special educator” needs to manage the learning process, injecting knowledge into a child who cannot learn by osmosis. This is exemplified in the familiar image of Annie Sullivan taming the young Helen Keller by literally pushing signed words into her hand. It’s quite literally top-down instruction, as the taller teacher injects knowledge into the child below.
Often, this intensive instruction is rigid and linear. Earlier prerequisite skills must be mastered before students are taught more advanced skills. A student doesn’t get braille until they’ve passed “pre-braille” and shown “braille readiness.” Parents may be discouraged from showing kids more advanced skills until they have mastered simpler ones. They are cautioned that introducing skills too quickly could result in the child developing “bad habits” that will cause problems later on.
This emphasis on rigid, sequential instruction can artificially slow the pace of learning. And under this philosophy, a student’s experimentation, trial and error, or problem-solving are discouraged. Such activities deviate from the linear learning sequence, and their products do not always appear as measurable progress. “Readiness” or “mastery” may be defined as measurable fluency and the absence of confusion.
Yet everyday experience shows us that children do not learn in this sequential way. Kids are constantly trying new things, testing cause and effect, solving problems on their own volition. Babies wobble and babble long before they can walk steadily or speak clearly. Some kids will jump from barely speaking at all to speaking in full sentences, seemingly overnight. But it’s not magic. These kids have been quietly listening and building connections under the radar for months or years before we hear the fruits of their mental labors. We expose nondisabled children to complex language and literacy long before they can speak or read, and we encourage experimentation and active learning in the ways we teach nondisabled children. This is a bottom-up process, as children link their experiences to broader mental concepts. We can picture it as a child playing on the floor, showing their discoveries to the adults above them.
Disabled kids do sometimes need instruction to be modified. After all, Helen Keller couldn’t access language through any sense other than touch. But disabled children aren’t just passive receptacles of knowledge. We explore and engage with our environments instinctively, too. In fact, as disabled people, our ability to solve problems can make or break our success. We must figure out how to do things in non-standard ways, sometimes without anyone around who can teach us.
Some might say I shouldn’t have touched a single contraction until I knew my alphabet frontwards and backwards. Others might have criticized Dad for exposing me to multiplication concepts before I could add and subtract. But my early academic experiences support a different story. Learning the braille code in a nonlinear fashion, I had mastered it by the time I started kindergarten. And in second or third grade, when the teacher first presented multiplication to us, something fell into place in my mind. I had heard of that thing called multiplication so long ago on Dad’s lap. I didn’t understand it then, but by the time I was developmentally ready to learn it, the pieces came together much more easily than they would have if I had been introduced to the concept for the first time at age 8 instead of age 4.
Neither of my parents were trained teachers of blind students, but they were still my first teachers. They learned just enough braille to help me if I got stuck, but not so much that they could give me all the answers. I was challenged to build my reading and writing fluency through naturalistic exposure. During our tutorials, my dad did not spoon-feed me information. Instead, he presented it for me to explore and take in as I was able. Gradually, all the pieces fell into place.
This month, many students are embarking on new virtual learning journeys. Students and parents alike are struggling to figure out new technologies and solve new access problems. Parents are trying to figure out the best ways to support their children’s learning. The frustrations are real. But, just remember that sometimes, the struggle and the confusion can lead to new discoveries. As students are learning new ways of doing things, they are developing important problem-solving and coping skills that will last a lifetime. Instead of fighting the confusion, lean into it.