There are nine keys on a braillewriter. Teague Niebrugge is nearly an expert on those keys.
Teague is 8 and lost his sight when he was about 5. He remembers colors and animals — especially sharks, his favorite. He wears a piercing shark-tooth necklace. He can tell you about every shark known to man.
He can see a glimmer of light on sunny days and dark shadows of objects. Teague said he knows his mom is pretty but can’t remember her face.
He’s never seen his cane, but he hates it, said his mom, Joey Niebrugge.
He’s broken at least half a dozen canes “by accident” during the past few years, because they’re something that makes him feel different.
However, last summer, at Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning camp, he used his cane every day, just as the other campers did.
BELL camp is a day camp designed for children who are blind or have low vision or other visual impairments. Last year, there were only four kids in the camp.
The camp is scheduled for 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Aug. 8 at the Oklahoma Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, 300 NE 18.
“Do you want to meet more kids in BELL camp this year?” Teague is asked as he sits with his mom at the Library for the Blind.
“Yes, but more boys,” the soon-to-be third-grader at Deer Creek said with a big, toothy smile as he punched away at his braillewriter.
BELL, a program implemented by the National Federation for the Blind, challenges blind campers with projects, games and other activities that help them learn to function better in daily life. Field trips will include visits to the Harn Homestead, the Oklahoma Science Museum and the Oklahoma River Sports Complex, where children and volunteers row in a dragon boat on the Oklahoma River.
“Ooh, ooh, I rode in a dragon boat,” Teague said, bouncing in his seat in front of the braillewriter. “I rode in the back. One person got to be a drummer but not me. I have another word that I can braille. Great. G.R.T.”
Campers will get to explore the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Rolling Thunder Book Bus, which will visit the Library for the Blind. Each student will get a free book as part of the basketball team’s campaign to promote reading and literacy.
Braille is literacy
It’s hard to estimate exactly how many blind children live in Oklahoma. The U.S. Census doesn’t distinguish between blindness and deafness; they’re both in the category of sensory impairments.
According to the state Department of Education, about 575 Oklahoma students from kindergarten through 12th grade have visual impairments, but many more may have visual problems as symptoms of another primary condition.
For blind and visually impaired children, learning braille is imperative to their success.
“There are so many blind adults who can’t get a job,” said Tamala Young, coordinator of the BELL camp program. “It’s just like in the sighted world: If you are illiterate, you’re going to be at the bottom of the totem pole.”
She wants the kids she helps at the camp to become far more literate than she currently is. She became blind a few years ago due to diabetic retinopathy. She lost one eye and wears a prosthesis.
Before she lost her sight, one of her favorite things to do was to read stories in colorful voices to children at the Head Start program where she worked.
“Dr. Seuss was my best friend,” she said.
The day she went blind, which happened within one hour, she became illiterate. Now, she can only listen to audio books.
Learning braille is especially hard for an adult. Many blind adults never learn braille. She hasn’t.
BELL camp aims to increase accuracy and speed for blind children learning braille. Campers time themselves writing on braillewriters, or on portable tablets on which they can make notes in braille.
Living a new normal
Watching Teague lose his sight over a period of six months was almost harder on his family than on him. Doctors reassured Joey Niebrugge that her son’s blindness had come at a good time in his young life. He had rod-cone dystrophy, a condition in which the rods and cones in the retina fail.
At age 5, he was young enough for it to become his new normal, she said.
Joey Niebrugge has become an advocate for the blind. She’s a board member of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children.
Both Teague and Young are frequent patrons of the library for the blind and physically impaired.
From there, they can check out any number of digital audio books, recorded onto special cards with a USB input that connects to a player.
The library is funded by the state through the Department of Rehabilitation Services, but the braille books and audio book cartridges are provided by the federal government, which also provides the digital book players and postage. The library sends out about 1,000 books on USB to Oklahomans every day.
Teague’s favorite audio book is “The Indian in the Cupboard.” Young likes a good romance or mystery.
Free books, postage, learning
The Hadley School for the Blind offers online braille courses free of charge to its blind and visually impaired students and their families, and affordable tuition to blindness professionals. Teague’s “para,” Michelle Mandrino, who attends class with him and makes sure all his materials are in proper format for him to use, learned braille from the Hadley school.
The AIM Center of the Oklahoma Library for the Blind has a section full of braille books. They’re huge volumes, primarily schoolbooks and picture books for kids. An algebra braille book takes dozens of volumes, since the font size is constant in braille, and algebra requires so many graphic representations to teach.
The most popular audio book is the Bible. In a braille book, the Bible consists of 18 volumes and requires 60 inches of shelf space. The library doesn’t own a braille copy. But the Bible fits on one digital cartridge.
Other popular books, including the “Harry Potter” series, “The Alex Cross” series by James Patterson and most any other popular book, are available on digital cartridges.
The library has an archive of audiobooks on cassette but is about to phase to all digital audio books. There aren’t enough people with the right kind of cassette players, and the cassettes take up a lot of space.
The library even has an audio booth set up for volunteers to record readings of books of local interest that may not be available otherwise.
School textbooks also are provided to patrons. The Accessible Instructional Materials (AIM) Center (www.okdrs.org/drupal/students/aim) at the library currently serves 942 Oklahoma children, from birth through 12th grade, said librarian Erin Byrne.
An online catalog is available at www.library.state.ok.us. Every other month, the library sends patrons a catalog in large print or digital format of new selections. Patrons can call and talk to a librarian to choose titles, or there is an auto-select program that selects books based on their preferences.
To learn more or help
To register, volunteer, donate or get more information about the BELL program, contact Tamala Young at firstname.lastname@example.org or 830-9177. To talk to a librarian, call 521-3514. An online application is available at https://nfb.org/bell-summer-program-form.