Addison Graham and Nicole Martin have always known that they wanted to pursue special education. When they enrolled in Illinois State’s low vision and blindness (LVB) program, they wanted to deepen their understandings of the community that they hope to serve.

“Braille Birds is an educational advocacy group for all majors to learn about low vision and blindness in all aspects of educational and personal work,” said Graham, a junior special education LVB major from Sullivan. “It’s about how to help others, how to advocate for others, but it’s also more. You learn about a world that many don’t know about.”

Since its formation in 2010, Braille Birds has served as a registered student organization (RSO) that fosters education and spreads awareness about the blind and visually impaired community. Martin, a junior from Lake Zurich double majoring in special education’s LVB and learning and behavior specialist programs, is Graham’s co-president and the public relations chair for the organization. She joined Braille Birds as a freshman.

“I wanted to find a club that was part of my major. When I found this, it was perfect because I can learn, not only from my classes, but also from other colleagues and peers,” Martin said.

The organization meets in Fairchild Hall on the first Tuesday of every month. During meetings the group’s 16 members use braillers—devices used to write braille—provided by the Department of Special Education to learn basic braille. These activities include decoding problems in which a word or phrase is given in braille and members must figure out what is being said.

Close up shot of Martin's hands as she practices her braille with a brailler.
The organization practices with Perkins braillers, courtesy of the Department of Special Education.

Following the brailling practice, the group discusses topics pertaining to the blind and visually impaired community. At the group’s second meeting of the semester, the co-presidents shared the history and meaning behind White Cane Day, which was celebrated on October 15. The holiday—one of many celebrated during October for Blind Awareness Month—marks a day of observance and celebration for the white cane, a tool of independence that serves as a symbol of blindness.

In addition to monthly meetings, Braille Birds hosts “Study Sundays,” at which members of the RSO and other students on the LVB track meet to work on their brailling.

“It’s for anyone in our club or anyone who just wants to come, and we teach them Braille,” Martin said. “We learn new braille every single week, so it’s just a time where we can all come together and study with each other and work on our brailing.”

Because learning braille is a primarily hands-on study, the organization went through what Graham referred to as a vacancy phase last year during the pandemic.

“We were adjusting to all our classes being online, and then we were adjusting to ‘How do we change all of our in-person programs to be online?’ So, just like a lot of other RSOs, the organization took a drastic change,” he said. “But we kept the same formula, just because we’re such a small cohort: teach braille, teach advocacy, spread awareness, spread etiquette.”

Martin noted that though it took time to adjust to the online format, virtual meetings allowed the group to invite speakers from other states to share their experiences as teachers for the blind and visually impaired. The organization hopes to invite other speakers in the future and is also working with other RSOs, including Students Supporting Individuals with Disabilities (SSID) and Deaf Redbirds, to plan a “Disability Night,” during which there will be a panel discussion to educate others on disabilities and accommodations. This topic sums up the mission of the RSO.

“This is a club where we raise awareness for individuals who are blind or with low vision. We educate and we also have events that are open to everyone that you can learn a lot from,” Martin said.

“I take away a sense of purpose from what we do,” Graham said. “It’s one thing to say that you advocate for individuals, but it’s another to try to actually do it.”

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