Commitment to Client Group

What’s Early Lit for Kids Who Can’t See?

A father assists his young daughter examine tactile images

Noticing the gap

How do you translate training the eye to training the fingers?

How do you address the different cognitive practices and activities needed by young children with low or no vision as they get ready for a life of independent access to information?

Five inclusive services librarians* have created a new brochure on on how to address the pre- and early literacy needs of young children who are blind or visually impaired. Many libraries understand the importance of early childhood literacy, but not many know how to make it inclusive. We want to help!

Whether they want to become adaptive ice climbers, artists, or computer programmers, kids with low or no vision need to be able to read words and images and that their communication matters. There are easily learnable and shareable ways you can adapt your early literacy campaign to be more inclusive.

Braille for Independence

While audio books and technology are booming and wonderful, they do not eliminate the need for independent reading and writing in braille, or the importance of developing skills in understanding spatial relations and tactile images.

Why Braille literacy is crucial to optimal independence and success:

  • Those who read Braille have a much higher chance of gaining employment (critical in a community that has 70% unemployment rate overall, while the rate of braille literacy among those who are employed is 85%)
  • Braille fluency is needed for certain key skills including: Proofreading, reading aloud, understanding complex material such as mathematics and code, understanding spelling and punctuation, privately taking notes at school or work, independently reading signage, using the internet, email, MS Office etc with a refreshable braille display regardless of whether the content owner has taken on the task of making it accessible to screenreaders.

Adapted activities and tweaked skills

The 5 key practices stay the same, but the details differ.  For instance:

Reading: While a parent of a sighted child might run their finger under words while reading aloud the sounds, the caregiver of a blind child would move the child’s hand to touch braille letters while speaking them aloud. This is important even for very young children, to begin to associate touch with words. Include real objects and tactile in the story while reading to ground the story in real associations and connections. Describe the images out loud.

Talking: Describe things your child hears, feels, smells and tastes. For example, “That loud grinding is the garbage truck picking up the garbage again.”  Use a wide variety of descriptive words.

Playing: Young children with low vision may move around their world less. Encourage them to explore with play. This teaches problem-solving, imagination, new words, and the motor skills needed for reading braille. Provide toys with lots of sounds and tactile interests, and encourage your child to grasp, move toward, or interact with them.

Writing: Provide thick, dark markers for high contrast on white paper, or make textured lines by pressing hard onto paper laid on a semi-soft surface, or with a commercial tactile drawing pad. Encourage tactile art with textured or scented paint, wax sticks, even cooked spaghetti. Provide dots to create play braille. Use sequins, googly eyes or children’s clay.

The brochure offered in this post goes into more details and can be printed for staff and for the public.

Pictures Matter

Images are not based on vision, but can be considered spatial information. Being able to mentally decode two-dimensional images such as tactile maps, art, charts, and diagrams, can help with all kinds of activities, interests, and professions later in life. Also, quite simply, pictures are part of the world around them and so understanding them is part of understanding the world they live in.

Bathmat octopus tentacles (and other things you can do)

Some braille and talking book libraries around the country are providing the public and other libraries with early braille and tactile literacy kits. You might reach out to the one nearest you to see if they have them. Ours include tactile mazes, pattern matching games, nursery rhyme books with braille stickers and embossed images, play braille, braille labellers, and high contrast books with textural elements.

You can also consider creating your own materials. There are resources online for inspiring you or caregivers to create your own tactile books from everyday objects (a particularly inspired one here uses the suction cups of a bath mat to create octopus tentacles).

And you can use everyday materials to make pattern-matching games similar to the one above.

Brochures and further resources

For staff awareness, for public availability and for more information, download the full brochure here. 

You can get free copies of “Because Books Matter” and “Because Pictures Matter” in English and Spanish from the National Braille Press.

And many more more activities and tips can be found at

* The five inclusive services librarians mentioned above are Briana Albright, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh LBPH, Children’s Specialist; Carrie Banks, Brooklyn Public Library, Inclusive Services Librarian; Mark Lee, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh LBPH, Library Services Administrator; Susan Pannebaker, Commonwealth Libraries of Pennsylvania, Youth Services Coordinator; Jill Rothstein, New York Public Library’s Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library, Chief Librarian

(Post edited to offer additional information – 7/2/18)


Today’s guest blogger is Jill Rothstein. Jill is the Chief Librarian of the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library, a member of the accessibility working group, and co-led inclusion and advocacy training for NYPL. She has presented at the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Impaired, Metro Libraries conference, and Harvard’s World Heritage Strategy Forum. Before that she sang and did silly dances for toddlers as a children’s librarian and then did not sing as much as a neighborhood branch manager. Contact her at:

Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC.

If you’d like to write a guest post for the ALSC Blog, please contact Mary Voors, ALSC Blog manager, at


This post addresses the following ALSC Core Competencies: I. Commitment to Client Group, II. Reference and User Services, and V. Outreach and Advocacy.


  1. Dr. James L. Thomas

    Amazing. Thanks so much for detailing this information for the visually impaired. I will be forwarding your address to the children’s librarians in Singapore where I just finished three days with my”Opening Doors to Early Literacy” workshop and demonstration programs. I am sure they will find what you have shared very helpful.

    1. Jill Rothstein

      That’s wonderful to hear! Thank you for sharing this information with them.

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