Being seen: Braille books for children to appear in stores, classrooms

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Mikail Liakos, 12, has loved to read ever since starting primary school. The Percy Jackson series and Jackie French’s Hitler’s Daughter are among his favourites.

But while a trip to a bookstore would usually be a dream for a book-loving kid, it is something Mikail has never really been able to experience.

Mikail Liakos, 12, lives with low vision due to congenital glaucoma and reads with Braille.Credit: Luis Ascui

Living with low vision due to congenital glaucoma, the year 7 student from Parkdale in Melbourne’s south-east, started learning to read large-print books at age five, but they left him fatigued, so he switched to Braille.

He usually downloads available books onto his Braille-reader machine or listens to an audiobook.

“I like Jackie French’s books because they are about history, and I find history fascinating,” he said.

When he grows up, he would like to do something that involves history, ideally researching and investigating historical events.

Mikail with Kala Petronijevic, 12, reading Australia’s first Braille books for children to be sold in bookstores. Credit: Luis Enrique Ascui

By the end of year 1, he could read full books like his sighted classmates. However, there were few books available in Braille, with prices up to four times that of other children’s books, and no local children’s titles.

A new series of children’s books, funded by Vision Australia, are the first children’s Braille books to be sold in Australian mainstream bookstores and taught in primary schools.

Featuring Braille and text, each book in the Big Visions series tells the life story of a high-profile Australian who has low vision or blindness.

The third book in the series, profiling fashion designer Nikki Hind from Albury, will be released next month. Hind became legally blind 18 years ago following a stroke during the birth of her son.

“I feel so incredibly honoured,” said Hind, who has been inspired to learn Braille herself after becoming involved.

Fashion designer Nikki Hind is featured in the latest braille children’s book on vision-impaired Australians. Credit: Luis Ascui

“I feel super passionately about equal access to dreams and aspirations for all kids. One of the first things we ask a child is what do you want to be when you grow up, which is a very powerful thing.”

Vildana Praljak, head of Vision Australia’s library department, said while audio technology was frequently used by children who are blind or have low vision, learning Braille continued to play an important role in a child’s development.

“We are big on Braille for pretty much every reason a teacher would say to a sighted child: well, grab a pen and paper and write,” she said.

“It is a great literacy tool. It helps with grammar, spatial orientation and mapping.”

Braille education can start before age one, with books that teach a child’s fingers to look for textures and shapes on a page, said Praljak. Children can learn Braille at the same pace their sighted peers learn to read.

The Big Visions books will also be taught in schools, with the Primary English Teaching Association Australia having developed lesson plans for the Big Visions book Matt Formston – Surfing in the Dark, which tells the life story of the Australian Paralympian and current para surfing champion.

The association’s literacy leader, Karen Rogers, said the books provided an opportunity for inclusiveness in the classroom.

“The Braille embossing allows blind and vision-impaired students the chance to read the same book as their peers, as well as allowing all students to challenge themselves to create meaning from the Braille text,” she said in notes to teachers who will teach the text.

Praljak was hopeful further Australian children’s Braille titles would be funded.

“At the end of the day, it’s not just about demonstrating blindness and low vision, it’s about teaching kids that it is OK to be engaging and experiencing the world in a different way,” she said.

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