Liam runs his fingers over a wooden board punctured with holes which his great-uncle had specially made for him. He inserts steel pegs into the board, trying to form the Braille alphabet.
But the 11-year-old, visually impaired boy cannot read what he has formed – at school, he is only taught on computers.
“I cannot understand why there are no qualified Braille instructors in Malta who teach traditional Braille,” his mother, Natasha Stafrace, said.
“He is taught everything through the computer. He is taught touch-typing and he has a special audio programme which reads the text aloud. He also makes use of magnification software which enlarges the viewing area of the monitor.
“But ultimately, if you give Liam a paper with raised dots, he is unable to read it.”
Liam’s case baffled many eye specialists. At just three months old, he was diagnosed as being totally blind.
“I immediately noticed that something was wrong with my son. While my elder daughter would eagerly reach out for the bottle, Liam used to turn his face away,” the 37-year-old said.
“They diagnosed him as totally blind. I was distraught but I was determined to push him and help him lead an independent life.
“You have to be accepting. I told myself that God had sent us Liam, and we will take care of him.”
When Liam turned five, something curious happened.
“My daughter was scribbling on the wall. Liam suddenly walked up to her and starting scribbling too. While I would normally stop a child scribbling on my walls, I urged him to continue – I couldn’t believe it.”
The eye specialists were as surprised as she was. Liam had regained some of his vision, allowing him to see a little from the sides of his retina.
She travels with her son to Great Ormond Street Hospital in London every six months for the specialists to examine his condition. “I am thankful for all the help I received. The Child Development Assessment Unit was very instrumental in helping Liam to walk properly and to recognise different textures.”
Liam now attends St Therese College boys’ secondary school in Sta Venera, where he has a Learning Support Assistant.
“But she does not know Braille. A teacher from the Special Education and Resources Centre within the Ministry of Education visits Liam once a week, but she also does not teach him Braille, opting to teach him touch-typing instead.
“Teachers seem to fear Braille. I’ve made myself sick asking them to teach it to him. But I’ve always been met with the reply that he has no need for Braille since everything is computerised now.
“Braille is very important. It’s more immediate, simple and practical. What if, God forbid, his eyesight declines again?”
“I want to become a lawyer,” Liam put in.
“And you, Mummy, will be my personal secretary and make my coffee,” he added cheekily.
Why is Braille being discontinued?
According to Malta Society of the Blind president Frans Tirchett, the Government does not have any qualified Braille instructors.
“The visually impaired class at the Helen Keller School in Qrendi was disbanded and all the students were transferred to mainstream schools,” he said.
“The class used to make use of a number of Braillers, which are special typewriters for Braille. No one knows what happened to those Braillers. They are quite expensive.”
Natalino Cristiano, 62, could find no qualified Braille instructor to teach him Braille and resorted to taking lessons from a fellow blind person, Bridget Micallef.
“Braille is very important. You can use it in a lift, to label CDs and to identify medicine. Computers haven’t replaced the need to write by hand. Braille is likewise useful.”
When the Special Education and Resources Centre was contacted, a spokeswoman said: “At present, no visually impaired student referred for our service requires the need to be taught Braille.”
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