Guest blogger DeAnna Quietwater Noriega (at left) is an Independent Living Specialist and facilitator of the Vision Impairment and Blindness Exploration and Support (VIBES) Group at Services for Independent Living (SIL) in Columbia, Missouri. She is half Apache, a quarter Swan Creek Chippewa, and has been blind since age eight. DeAnna is a poet, writer, legislative public policy advocate, and Peace Corps veteran. She has written the following tribute to honor Louis Braille (born January 4, 1809) during National Braille Literacy Month.
My First Exposure to Reading
I was three years old when my great-grandfather taught me to read. He was a steelworker who was self-educated. In his nineties, he had the time to spend with me – his lively, curious, great-grandchild. He took me for walks and enjoyed teaching me the names of wildflowers and to use big words to amaze my young mother.
His gnarled finger moved along a line of print in one of my children’s books or in his huge old family Bible. I read the words out loud – or spelled them if I didn’t recognize them and he said them for me. By age six, I had lost this loving man and print had become too blurred for me to see it clearly. The world around me was a darker, smaller place.
Although she had never finished high school, my mother taught all of her five children to love reading. In fact, if she seemed inattentive at the table, we could be sure that she was lost in the print on the back of the cereal box or the label of the catsup bottle!
Braille Enters My Life
I became totally blind shortly after my eighth birthday. It was then that braille came into my life. Once again, books were doors that opened to the world. My fingers literally did my walking through time, space, and anywhere the human mind could travel. I never felt alone when other children played the games that my blindness kept me from participating in if I had a book to read.
Friends and wonderful adventures were there for me between the pages of a braille book. I didn’t even miss the colorful illustrations because the lines of braille permitted me to imagine the characters and scenes as I wished. I could familiarize myself with objects I would never be able to explore with my own curious little hands. I could meet people and go places I would never know personally.
I taught my sighted friends to use braille so we could pass notes that our teachers couldn’t decipher, even if they intercepted them. Best of all, unlike my sighted siblings, I could read in bed under the covers after the lights were out.
My Life as a Braille Reader
Braille has allowed me to learn foreign languages, mathematics, and even enjoy leisure activities such as macramé, computers, and knitting. These activities would have been much harder to access if I had been limited to using audiobooks, because it can be difficult to locate specific information on a long audio recording. Being a braille user has made me capable of greater independence. I can keep notes and label clothing, canned goods, and spices. I can locate rest rooms and use elevators independently when braille signage is available.
When my children were small, I shared my love of reading with them by using print/braille combination books we could read together. As they grew older, I read some of my childhood favorites to them as they dressed for school and ate breakfast. Since I was a working mother, this reading time was special and replaced the bedtime reading my schedule no longer permitted.
Braille notes helped me through high school, and I was the first member of my large family to attain a college education. Although my textbooks and lectures were recorded, I made voluminous braille notes for study purposes.
Teaching Braille Reading in Western Samoa
As a Peace Corps volunteer, braille helped me improve the lives of blind Western Samoan children, far from the availability of talking computers, watches and calculators. I used blocks of wood drilled with six holes, into which wooden dowels were fitted to form braille letters. Later, the class moved on to forming words and sentences with rounded nail heads placed in rows of smaller holes drilled in the pattern of a braille cell.
Eventually, we did acquire braille paper and braillewriters. I was able to train transcribers and to develop a braille code for the Samoan language. Before I left Western Samoa, transcription of the Samoan Bible had begun, and the first “mainstreamed” blind child was attending high school.
What I Owe to Braille
Because I can read braille, I am not functionally illiterate, lacking access to the written word. Braille books and magazines have filled otherwise empty hours sitting in waiting rooms or riding on buses, trains, and planes. A slate and stylus (no batteries required) have permitted me to write down appointments, shopping lists, phone numbers, and addresses. When technology has failed, old braille files and notes have saved the day.
Braille maps and diagrams have helped me grasp concepts that I would have had trouble learning if limited to verbal descriptions. Braille notations on important printed papers have made it possible to locate them in files. Braille games, such as Scrabble, cards, and Monopoly, have permitted me to participate in family fun.
Although I often listen to audiobooks while performing routine tasks, it is braille that I turn to for relaxed pleasure reading. When I wish to master a new skill, such as using an unfamiliar computer program, I understand and learn more quickly if braille documentation is available.
My Thanks to Louis Braille
All this richness is mine because of six dots arranged two wide and three high. Louis Braille, a young man from France who wanted to learn and know, gave the world a great gift when he invented the braille code. The little girl who first experienced reading at her great-grandfather’s knee regained the miracle of the written word through Louis Braille’s efforts. She will never be able to express her thanks fully or imagine what her life would have been like without his incredible invention. Thank you, Monsieur Braille.
For additional information about Louis Braille and braille reading and writing, you can visit American Foundation for the Blind’s Louis Braille Online Museum and Braille Bug Site. You can also learn about the New Perkins SMART Brailler® at the VisionAware blog.