2010 Conference: Transition to Unified English Braille (UEB) in the ICEVI Pacific Region by Josie Howse, Frances Gentle, Karen Stobbs & Janet Reynolds
This paper was presented at the 2010 conference of the Round Table on Information Access for People with Print Disabilities. You can read the full paper below, download the Word version or listen to an audio recording of the presentation.
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Janet Reynolds, Manager Braille and Electronic Text (RNZFB) is Secretary of the Braille Authority of New Zealand and NZ Representative on the ICEB Rules Committee.
Karen Stobbs, Manager Assessment & Teaching Services (BLENNZ) is Representative on the Braille Authority of New Zealand and Deputy Regional Chair ICEVI Pacific.
Between them they have more than forty years connection with Braille in New Zealand.
Unified English Braille (UEB) was launched as a new international braille code by the General Assembly of the International Council on English Braille (ICEB) in 2004. Work on UEB had commenced in 1993 in response to the recognised need for a single braille code that integrated and harmonised the literary and technical codes of the United Kingdom and the United States, and the need to simplify the complexities and ambiguities of braille rule structure. Australia and New Zealand adopted UEB in 2005 and 2007 respectively, and ICEVI Pacific Region, in partnership with other regional organisations has supported the adoption of UEB by English-speaking Pacific island countries.
This presentation explores the transition to UEB in Australia, New Zealand and selected Pacific Island nations. The presentation highlights the diversity of philosophies, views and perspectives held by the braille community within the region. The UEB implementation process in schools, braille production centres, and professional education programs is reviewed and discussed, in terms of the key success elements, and areas for future development.
Full paper: Transition to Unified English Braille (UEB) in the ICEVI Pacific Region
Josie Howse, Department of Education New South Wales
Frances Gentle, RIDBC Renwick Centre & University of Newcastle
Karen Stobbs, Manager of Assessment and Teaching Services, BLENNZ
Janet Reynolds, Manager Braille and Electronic Text, RNZFB
Round Table Conference on Information Access for People with Print Disabilities
23-25 May 2010, Auckland, New Zealand
Unified English Braille (UEB) was launched as a new international braille code by the General Assembly of the International Council on English Braille (ICEB) in 2004. Work on UEB had commenced in 1993 in response to the recognised need for a single braille code that integrated and harmonised the literary, mathematical and technical codes of the United Kingdom and the United States, and simplified the complexities and ambiguities of the braille rule structure. In the Pacific Region, Australia and New Zealand adopted UEB in 2005, followed by Papua New Guinea in 2008 and Solomon Islands in 2009. The Pacific Disability Forum, the peak body representing organisations of people with disabilities in the Pacific region passed a resolution supporting the adoption of UEB by English-speaking Pacific Island countries in 2008. As a result, there is greater awareness of braille usage across the Pacific region, and the importance of braille as the primary literacy medium of children and adults who are blind.
This paper presents an overview of the adoption and implementation of UEB by Australia, New Zealand, and Pacific Island countries. The paper describes the issues associated with the transition to UEB within Australia and New Zealand, and the efforts undertaken to develop braille training programs and manuals for educators, transcribers and braille consumers.
UEB implementation in Australia
The British braille system was inherited by Australia as a consequence of British colonial rule. Between the mid-19th Century and mid-1980, segregated education of children with disabilities was the accepted norm in Australia. British braille was the official Australian code and was taught in all special schools for students who were blind. A primary driving force for divergence from the British braille system was the shift to integration in mainstream schools of students who were blind during the 1980’s. Blind children enrolled in regular classrooms needed to know more about the “look and feel” of print than could easily be conveyed using British codes, and itinerant teachers needed to be able to produce braille quickly and without the specialist knowledge that was required to use the British codes for subjects such as mathematics and science. Other driving forces for the move away from British braille codes were the development of computer braille translation software in the US, and the emergence of a group of articulate braille-using blind professionals in Australia who were using braille in ways that were difficult to accommodate with the existing code structures. As a result, a hybrid system of braille codes was adopted in Australia, consisting of British Braille with American capitalisation rules for literary material, American braille code for computer-related material, and an Australian braille code for mathematics and chemistry material. The inefficiencies and complexities of using multiple braille codes, together with the need for code updating in the 1990’s, resulted in Australia becoming an active and enthusiastic member of an international project to develop a unified braille code. Since the project’s commencement in the early 1990’s, under the auspices of the International Council on English Braille (ICEB), Australia has been represented on the seven UEB project committees.
The Australian Braille Authority hosted a series of workshops across Australia in the 1990’s, with funding from the Australian Government, to familiarise braille users with the basics of UEB, and to obtain feedback that helped shape Australia’s position on various code-related issues. At the Annual Meeting of the Australian Braille Authority (ABA) in May 2005, the ABA member organisations and ABA state and territory subcommittees voted 26 to 1 to adopt UEB as Australia’s national braille code. The decision to adopt UEB was based upon recognition that with less braille code ambiguity, production of braille would be cheaper and more efficient, and learning of braille would be easier for school-age students. A five-year transition period was agreed upon to enable braille teachers, producers, and adult and student braille consumers to learn UEB.
Josie Howse, as a staff member of the NSW Department of Education and Training (DET NSW), has served as an Australian representative on a number of the ICEB committees associated with the UEB Project. As a result of her participation and the insights she gained into the importance of UEB pedagogy and learning, DET NSW took a leading role in the UEB implementation process in Australia. This has included the development of professional learning programs and training materials in UEB for braille teachers and braille production staff.
UEB in NSW
The education sector of NSW consists of government, independent and faith-based school systems. The multicultural nature of Australia is reflected in the diversity of cultural, linguistic, and education backgrounds of preschool and school-age students, including students who are blind. In 2005, following the formal adoption of UEB by the Australian Braille Authority, DET NSW established a Facilitators group to formally plan UEB implementation in NSW government schools. The Facilitators group consisted of two representatives from each of the ten education regions of NSW and one representative from both the TAFE and university sectors. Representatives were selected on the basis of their competence in the various braille codes used in Australia in 2005.
The Facilitators group determined the following five core components of UEB implementation in NSW government schools, commencing in 2006:
i. UEB transcription of all new literary material for students in Kindergarten to Year 11;
ii. UEB transcription of all existing literary material for students in Kindergarten to Year 2;
iii. UEB transcription of all new and existing mathematics material for students in Kindergarten to Year 6;
iv. No change in the braille texts used by students in Year 12, the final year of secondary school; and
v. Student choice of braille code for external school assessments and examinations during the five-year UEB transition period.
The reproduction of existing literary material in UEB for students in Kindergarten to Year 2 (item ii above) was prioritised as a means of preventing young braille learners from being potentially exposed to materials in old and new braille codes. Mathematics was produced in UEB for students in Kindergarten to Year 6 with the knowledge that this cohort would gradually move to UEB technical material as they progressed through their schooling. No change was made to the braille codes used by students in Year 12, in order to prevent any negative impact on their studies and final school examinations.
One of the surprising outcomes of UEB implementation was the selection of the UEB code by Year 3 and Year 5 braille-using students completing the state-wide literacy and numeracy examinations. The decision of students to use UEB for the examination materials and their written responses was an unexpected outcome, as these students had been learning UEB and receiving UEB materials for less than four months prior to the examination period. The students for example, used the UEB sign for a “bullet” to list their “thinking” or “planning” points before commencing the examination writing task. The bullet sign had not been specifically available before in braille. It is important to recognise here that these were young students whose knowledge of braille was still developing. Now in 2010, all literary and technical material is produced in UEB and UEB is fully operational throughout the school system.
Professional Learning Materials
The early development of professional learning materials has been a crucial factor in the success of UEB implementation in Australia. In 2006, the Australian Braille Authority produced the UEB Primer: Australian Edition, edited by J. Howse. The Primer has become an important learning resource for braille teachers, transcribers and braille consumers in Australia and overseas. Professional learning of UEB for technical material has been supported by the development of primary and secondary mathematics UEB training documents (NSW Department of Education and Training, 2006), which are used extensively throughout Australia by braille teachers and transcribers.
At the time of writing, the Round Table on Information Access for People with Print Disabilities Inc. is preparing to launch the long-awaited UEB Rulebook at the annual meeting of the Australian Braille Authority, which will take place in Sydney on June 5, 2010. This is expected to be an exciting event as the UEB Rulebook project has received international funding support and will represent a comprehensive and definitive set of UEB rules.
Concluding comments on the present status of UEB in Australia
In 2005, Australia had to make a significant decision about braille codes that would have many far-reaching implications for braille usage in this country. It had to decide whether to adopt a full set of British braille codes, a full set of American codes, maintain the status quo of a hybrid set of braille codes, or adopt the Unified English Braille code. The Australian Braille Authority sought direction from vision support teachers, braille transcribers and braille readers, and serious consideration was given to the issues associated with making such a change. The case to consider was balancing the disunity and complexity of the existing set of braille codes against the adoption of a new international code that was expected to make braille easier to produce, teach and learn, but which did not as yet have any proven track record in practice. The need to develop UEB training materials had to be considered, while at the same time looking to the future to ensure that braille reading students had the best opportunities to live and work in the digital age.
Recent discussions with educators across Australia regarding implementation of UEB have shown that the state and territory education sectors are experiencing similar positive results to the NSW public education sector. The transition to UEB production has been relatively seamless, due to the availability of appropriate professional learning and comprehensive UEB training materials, supported by UEB translation software (Duxbury Braille Translator DBT). The education sector in Australia has embraced the introduction of UEB with enthusiasm, and braille teachers and students are taking a positive approach to learning the new braille code. One of the unexpected consequences of adopting UEB has been the renewal of interest in braille in the wider community, and greater awareness of the importance of braille as the primary literacy medium for students who are blind. Braille educators and transcribers have seized the opportunity to refresh their braille knowledge and skills through participation in the professional training programs and UEB training materials offered in each state and territory.
UEB implementation in New Zealand
New Zealand is a small country, with a population of approximately four million spread across the North and South Islands. There is a diverse range of ethnicity including Maori, European (Pakeha) and Polynesian. There are two official written languages, English and Maori. One of the benefits of being a small country is the small number of stakeholder groups as compared to other parts of the Pacific. The major stakeholders in the field of vision impairment in New Zealand are the Ministry of Education, Blind and Low Vision Education Network NZ (BLENNZ), Royal NZ Foundation of the Blind (RNZFB), Association of Blind Citizens NZ (ABC), Ngati Kapo, and Parents of Vision Impaired NZ (PVI NZ). All of these groups are represented on the Braille Authority of NZ (BANZ) which was established in 1989.
The usage of braille in New Zealand started with British Braille and later moved to English Braille American Edition, as established by the Braille Authority of North America (BANA).
In 1991, the International Council on English Braille came into being and BANZ worked alongside the braille authorities of other English-speaking countries to develop a unified braille code encompassing literary and technical material. Following extensive consultation with New Zealand braille users, teachers, producers, parents and users of Te Reo Maori during 2005, BANZ voted to adopt UEB in November 2005.
In 2006, BANZ set up a subcommittee to develop a plan for UEB implementation across four areas: Curriculum Support, Teaching of Adults, Production, and Library services. The subcommittee consisted of braille users, producers, educators of children and adults, librarians, teacher trainers and braille examiners. The subcommittee was the key element in achieving the successful implementation of UEB, because its membership was representative of all key stakeholder groups and as a result, was able to build upon the interconnections and co-dependencies of the various sector players.
The subcommittee established a timeline for UEB implementation in order to capture the complexities that would need to be grappled with to achieve a smooth transition. This included setting dates for the development of the first UEB materials for the different braille user groups, and then working backwards to identify timeframes for the following activities:
- UEB training for accessible format text book producers and contractors;
- UEB professional development for Resource Teachers Vision (RTV), including writing curriculum supplements for mainstream teachers;
- Inclusion of volunteers and support staff in professional learning opportunities; and
- Development of a NZ version of the Australian Braille Primer, in consultation with braille course providers such as Auckland University, BLENNZ and RNZFB.
The implementation committee identified opportune times for professional learning across the blindness community, taking into account appropriate times of the year for UEB training to be most effective. Dates for teacher and parent conferences in New Zealand were also noted and utilised.
The first UEB training was conducted with the RNZFB Production team in July 2007. Training of the production team was prioritised to ensure that student material would be available in the new code at the beginning of the 2008 school year. In September 2007, introductory UEB training was provided for Resource Teachers Vision (RTV’s) during the NZ National Teachers’ Conference. In addition, the Hitchhikers Guide to UEB, developed by BLENNZ with the support of the Ministry of Education and RNZFB, was launched at the 2007 teachers’ conference. The Guide provides braille teachers and users with quick reference sheets and exemplars of the braille changes that would be countered most frequently in literacy and numeracy materials. During 2008, braille teachers were provided with ongoing professional development in UEB at regional levels.
It was evident from the outset that it would not be possible to produce all school materials in UEB, and as a result, a phased approach to UEB implementation was implemented. Students working at secondary level and undertaking courses in Mathematics and Sciences were of particular concern. Many of the secondary textbooks were already available in the old braille code and the human resource capacity to transcribe them all to UEB was not available. The approach taken was to produce all new mathematics and science material for the secondary students in the old braille code, and to produce new material for all other subjects except music in UEB. Students appeared to oscillate seamlessly between the two codes from subject to subject.
A different approach to UEB implementation was adopted for young students beginning their braille journey. For this group, all material was produced in UEB. For students reaching the end of primary and beginning secondary education, decisions about the transition to UEB for mathematics and science were made on a case-by-case basis in order to best meet their learning outcomes.
The provision of braille material for adults was handled slightly differently. Technical material requested by adult readers is primarily in the area of braille music which is unaffected by the braille code changes. Adult braille readers of literary texts, while possibly having a personal preference for the old braille code could generally read UEB. The existing braille collection in the RNZFB library has been retained, with new library acquisitions in UEB. This will result in a natural attrition of books in the old braille code over time. For adults new to braille, it was recognised that a new teaching scheme would be needed. As a result, the RNZFB Adaptive Communications team developed the Simply Touch and Read (STAR) braille teaching programme, which will be launched at the Round Table Conference on Information Access for People with Print Disabilities Inc. in Auckland in May 2010.
Change is always hard. The process of transition to UEB for both producers and teachers of braille has been painful at times. It needs to be acknowledged that these producers and teachers were involved in developing manuals and resources themselves while grappling with the change. Our young students however seem to have taken it in their stride. There continues to be production, teaching and library administration challenges as both codes continue to be produced until at least 2013. Underlying all of this is the constant need to prioritise within budgetary constraints.
Along with the challenges there are also opportunities which have continued to surprise and delight us. What was not anticipated was the positive impact that the transition to UEB would have on raising the profile of braille. Links between Australia and New Zealand have also been strengthened as the braille authorities of both countries collaborate in the development of UEB training manuals and the instigation of the Trans Tasman Braille Proficiency certificate. There is huge potential for further collaboration, such as a shared approach to the distance learning of braille.
Looking back on the last five years there is much to celebrate. The challenge now is to maintain and further develop the collaborative working relationships that have brought us this far.
UEB implementation in the Pacific region
The Pacific Ocean spans over the 181 million square kilometres (70 million square miles) and covers approximately one third of the earth’s surface. Countries of the region are Australia, New Zealand, and 25 Small Island developing countries, territories and dependencies (UNESCAP, UNDP, & ADB, 2005). The region is characterised by diversity of culture, language, and customs that have evolved through centuries of migration, colonisation, and trading. This has included early migration and settlement of Polynesian, Melanesian, and Micronesian islanders, followed by European traders during the 16th century, and colonisation of approximately 90% of all Pacific island countries by Britain, France and Germany during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries (UNESCO Bangkok, 2008a). During the post-World War Two period, the majority of Pacific Island countries have become independent republics and parliamentary democracies (Central Intelligence Agency, 2009).
Braille code usage in the Pacific region is closely linked to the history of colonisation and human resource capacity in the area of braille. The choice of braille code used by individual countries has been influenced by such arbitrary factors as the nationality of braille transcribers and braille teachers, and the country of origin of braille book donations (Jolley, 2006; 2009). At the commencement of the 21st Century, the number of Pacific Island countries producing and teaching braille was severely limited. Papua New Guinea, which was a protectorate of Australia until 1975 has followed the braille codes of Australia, while the Fiji Islands and Samoa have followed the braille codes of New Zealand. This contrasts with French-speaking New Caledonia, where children who are blind are sent to France for training in braille. Pacific Island countries do not have braille authorities to oversee national braille code usage and braille production standards.
The transition to UEB in Australia and New Zealand has presented an opportunity to revitalise braille usage in English-speaking countries within the Pacific region (Jolley, 2008). The Australian Braille Authority, the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children, and the Department of Education NSW have produced a range of UEB training manuals and workshop materials that are available to educators, parents, and community-based rehabilitation personnel in Pacific Island countries. ICEVI Pacific has worked collaboratively with the Pacific Disability Forum, the World Blind Union (WBU), the Australian Braille Authority, and other regional organisations to raise awareness of the braille code changes taking place in Australia and New Zealand, and to highlight the implications for Pacific island countries that have traditionally been supported by Australian and New Zealand blindness organisations. The benefits of braille code alignment across countries in the Pacific region include the ability to conduct regional forums on a range of braille-related topics and to share electronic and hard copy braille resources across the region. Regional forums could include training in the UEB code, braille literacy development, braille production methods, standards for braille signage, and braille technology.
At the time of writing, UEB has been adopted in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. In addition, distance education UEB training programs (Gentle, 2008b) are currently being completed by individuals working in organisations of people with disabilities (DPOs), educators and rehabilitation personnel in the Fiji Islands, Kiribati, Samoa and Vanuatu. It is anticipated that these four countries will adopt UEB over the next two years. In January 2011, ICEVI and WBU, in collaboration with RIDBC, Vision Australia, and SPEVI will host the Pacific EFA-VI Forum in Sydney. The Forum will provide the opportunity to share information about braille literacy and UEB across the region, and will provide the opportunity to delivery a workshop on UEB for representatives of the Ministries of Education and DPOs across the Pacific.
The importance of braille as the primary literacy medium of school-age students who are blind is acknowledged in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Article 24 (United Nations, 2006). However, a significant challenge to be addressed in promoting the adoption of UEB across the Pacific region is the marginalisation from education of a large percentage of Pacific Island children who are blind. Leadership is required at national levels to implement policies supporting the rights of children who are blind to participate in education, to be taught braille, and to receive curriculum and examination materials in braille. Through regional partnerships and collaboration, the value of braille as a means of accessing education, employment, and recreation by children and adults who are blind may be realised.
One of the significant benefits of the digital age is the increased ability of national organisations and individuals to share information and electronic resources. In many parts of the world, children who are blind have the ability to have access an almost unlimited quantity of information via the Internet. The adoption of UEB by English-speaking countries would enhance the exchange of braille materials across national borders, bringing benefits to braille-using students and their teachers in both developed and developing countries. Compatibility of braille codes through the adoption of UEB is gradually taking place in the Pacific region, spear-headed by Australia and New Zealand. It heralds the beginning of a new era of regional collaboration and the hope of greater education access and achievement through braille literacy for Pacific Island children who are blind. Bruce Maguire, Chair of the Australian Braille Authority shared the following personal perspective just following the adoption of UEB in 2005: “I believe that UEB provides the best way to pass on the riches, the joy, the fulfilment, and the magic that Braille has brought to my life, to those who will come afterwards” (Maguire, 2005, p. 13).
Authors’ Contact details
Josie Howse, Manager
State Braille & Large Print Service, Department of Education New South Wales (DET NSW)
Frances Gentle, Lecturer in Vision Impairment,
RIDBC Renwick Centre & University of Newcastle
Karen Stobbs, Manager of Assessment and Teaching Services
Blind and Low Vision Education Network NZ (BLENNZ)
Janet Reynolds, Manager Braille and Electronic Text
Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind (RNZFB)
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