Reflections on Successfully Homeschooling a Braille Reader

“What would you think about homeschooling?” 

This was my question to my 10-year-old, Campbell, as we drove home from school one spring afternoon. This particular day had involved many difficult conversations in which I learned that her itinerant TVI had gotten a promotion requiring her to move four hours away from us and the 28 other districts she served. Consequently, the district was at a loss as to where to find a replacement or how to properly educate a braille reader without one until a qualified teacher was hired. 

Fast-forward a bit, and this question is also the opening line that my daughter used in her personal statement college application essay last fall. She goes on to describe how homeschooling changed all of our lives for the better, and I couldn’t agree more! Homeschooling her and her sister, though we didn’t originally plan for it, was the best decision ever for our family. The last nine years of her fleeting childhood were full of great books, field trips, board games, science projects, and all of the fun stuff we missed out on during the flurry of packed schedules, homework, and commitments of public school. But even with the slower pace of our homeschool days, before we knew it, Campbell was a senior, and we were in the midst of an arduous college application season full of essays, interviews, and campus visits. Thankfully, Campbell was accepted to nine schools and is currently a first-year student at Harvard, loving life in the dorm, enjoying her classes, building friendships, and planning a concentration in Applied Mathematics.

So, how did we do it? 

How did we successfully homeschool a braille reader for grades 5-12? Each state has different requirements for homeschoolers. Ours only requires a letter of intent to homeschool, proof of the parents’ high school graduation or GED, and a report of the student’s grades and attendance twice a year. As I mentioned before, we did not have access to any service providers for braille, technology, or orientation and mobility starting out for a long while. Thankfully, Campbell was already proficient in braille and could read Nemeth up to 4th grade level math. However, I will say that I was very involved with teaching her braille in preschool since she only had an itinerant TVI one hour a week, and it is not difficult for a parent to learn it alongside the child. We used the Building on Patterns curriculum, and once I knew the basics (armed with a cheat sheet and the trusty Perkins Brailler), I typed up basic early readers for Campbell, adding in contractions here and there as she learned them. She loved learning alongside (and usually quite a bit faster than) me and always loved to find and giggle at my frequent typos in the braille that I produced for her. I want to encourage parents who might want to homeschool a braille reader from preschool that it is possible, and braille is nothing to be afraid of.

For 5th grade, we were under the impression that homeschooling would be temporary, so to ensure that she could easily transition back into public school later, we followed the scope and sequence that our public schools used. That information is state-specific and can be found on your state’s Department of Education website. We borrowed braille textbooks from the state resource library and acquired print copies and teacher editions for me either from local teachers or online. We quickly discovered that textbooks for social studies, language arts, and science are often quite dry, so we supplemented them with biographies, historical fiction, classics, and documentaries. Of course, I couldn’t just run to the local public library and check out the braille version of “Little House on the Prairie,” so most of her reading was done using Bookshare and the Voice Dream Reader app or with BARD books. For math, we continued using public school textbooks through high school, later having to sometimes ship them in from other states as our local schools moved away from using actual paper books. 

Federal Quota Funds available to homeschoolers

As homeschoolers, we could still use Federal Quota Funds to order supplies like braille paper, tactile graphic kits, and finally… Campbell’s first braille display! She was so excited to receive her Refreshabraille 18 that she immediately read the instruction manual and watched some YouTube videos on pairing it with her iPad. From then on, she could type in braille and read what she typed on the braille display while hearing VoiceOver speak it aloud. I could also see what she typed in print on her iPad/iPhone screen, and she could email it to me or print it off onto paper. This is how she later completed assignments and exams for sighted teachers in homeschooling co-ops. This little Refreshabraille 18 lasted for years as her main braille display and then as her “purse display” paired with her phone for texting, social media, and emails until she replaced it with the Chameleon in 2021. 

Navigating state-mandated exams

In our state, homeschoolers must take state-mandated exams after grades 5, 7, and 9. She took the 5th grade exams in braille with accommodations and scored well. However, sometime in 7th grade, our state or district decided to transition to digital exams. During our yearly service plan meeting, I expressed a concern that the test likely wouldn’t be accessible to Campbell if she couldn’t complete it on an iPad, because there was no one local qualified to teach her to use a PC with JAWS. This initiated our first year of homeschooling under an umbrella school. An umbrella school is a private school or organization that supports homeschoolers by handling the paperwork, keeping records, creating transcripts, and reporting to the state on our behalf. With this umbrella school, testing was optional, so we dodged that bullet for 7th grade. However, it started the ball rolling toward finding an assistive technology instructor so that Campbell could learn to use a PC fluently in time for college classes.

What about travel skills?

Going into 8th grade, Campbell was doing great academically, but not only was she delayed in assistive technology training, she had also gone four years without orientation and mobility training other than a little bit that she got at summer camps. Though she used her white cane daily, she was incredibly afraid of cars and had hardly ever walked alone anywhere outside of our home and had never crossed a street independently. She had always expressed an interest in getting a guide dog when she was old enough, so I started researching what skills she would need to qualify for one. There was a checklist about six print pages long of necessary travel skills, and she could only check off about three of the boxes. I took this info into our next service plan meeting, and the team decided to search outside of our area for a certified orientation and mobility instructor. Thankfully, we found an incredible teacher in a neighboring state who was willing to contract with our district as long as I could guarantee transportation to his urban location for lessons. She trained with him for two-hour sessions twice a month for five years in urban settings and on college campuses, and it was totally worth every penny spent on gas (and the one speeding ticket I got) to drive her there! She is such a confident cane user now and flies wherever she needs to go on her new campus in Cambridge. Unfortunately, I don’t think she would have ever had the opportunity to acquire those skills while stuck doing lessons in our little rural, basically sidewalk-free town.

Networking

Along with the wonderful training he provided, this instructor had a large network of assistive technology instructors, adults in the workforce, other students, and parents of students who are blind and have low vision.  He was always eager and willing to connect us. I cannot express enough how important this type of connection is! Campbell met lifelong friends and mentors and became a mentor to others. Those connections led us to the assistive technology instructors who would ultimately teach us that learning JAWS and other assistive tech is much more efficient with the blind teaching the blind. After much convincing and utilizing every free source available, Campbell convinced the district to contract JAWS and Desmos lessons with TechVision so that she could present her math assignments to sighted teachers. She was confident in her humanities subjects, but her methods had met their limit for STEM work somewhere in the precalculus curriculum. She knew she would need stronger skills to finish her advanced math and science high school track and pursue a STEM field in college. She absolutely thrives under their instruction and completes all of her schoolwork digitally now, she has become unpaid tech support for our entire extended family and even works for TechVision as a student intern!

What about academics?

This covers the blindness-specific side of how we networked and partnered with others to make homeschooling happen, but what about academics? How did we know what Campbell needed to learn and when, since neither of us is a trained teacher and homeschool curricula are not available in braille? How did we know if she was progressing on time? What curriculum did we choose and why? How did homeschool co-ops work? What about preparing for the ACT, and how did she take AP and dual enrollment classes in high school? How did we ensure she would be a good candidate for the competitive college application process? Oh… and my favorite, most commonly asked question: What about socialization? Are there any other questions that you have about our journey? I’ll do my best to answer them in Part 2 of “Homeschooling a Blind Child.”

This site is registered on wpml.org as a development site. Switch to a production site key to remove this banner.