January is Braille Literacy Awareness Month, in honor of Louis Braille who originally developed the braille code. Braille has been a major contributor to the independence of people who are blind and visually impaired and we are honoring the month with personal stories about its importance.
Bumps On A Page
By Mary Hiland
How do you make sense of all those bumps on the page? Do blind people have extra sensitive fingertips? How people who are blind can read and write braille is a mystery to most folks. In this post, I will explain how it works, talk about the dying skill, and dispel some myths.
Let’s start with the myths. It is commonly believed that people who are blind have better hearing and a better sense of touch than those who can see. While this may be true in individual cases, the reality is that we who use our senses of touch and hearing to replace our lost sense of sight simply focus more keenly on those senses that do work.
Anyone can learn to read braille. It is not a language, such as American Sign Language. It is simply a method of embossing letters and numbers so people who use the sense of touch can read. Braille is not raised letters but a combination of raised dots within a six-dot cell. Imagine a domino. Now, imagine that all the dots are missing except the top left hand dot. That’s the letter A. Now imagine all the dots are missing except the two on the top. That’s the letter C. There is a pattern used to form all the letters of the alphabet, using only six dots. There are also certain combinations that represent such words as “this,” “and,” and “the,” in addition to alphabet words. The letter b, when standing alone, represents the word “but,” and the letter t, when standing alone, represents the word “that.”
Using Braille in School
I learned to read braille when I was 18, as my vision loss became more severe through retinitis pigmentosa(RP), a progressive eye disease. Learning that skill really changed my life. When I went to college, I took braille notes, both from lectures and from text books. I labeled my records and tapes in braille. Later, when I was a homemaker, I used braille for shopping lists and labeling food items.
How I Use Braille Today
Now, as a Toastmaster, I use braille notes for my speeches, and as a member of my church choir, I braille the words to the songs, so I don’t have to memorize them. When life was simpler, before I went to work full time, I took piano lessons and taught myself to read braille music. While I have never used braille to read for pleasure, it has allowed me to participate in situations that require having words at my fingertips.
As technology improves for people who are blind, braille literacy seems to be on the decline. Some restaurants have braille menus, and it is possible to get brailled utility bills and documentation from government entities. But, a surprising number of people who are blind are not braille readers. What is more disturbing to me is that blind children are using their high tech note-takers and cell phones instead of braille. High tech gismos are great. I have a few of them myself, but sometimes you just need a pencil and paper. For me, that’s the same as having bumps on a page.
A Grip on Communications
Braille, Answer To Losing Sight and Communication
I found braille to be the all wonderful answer to my problem of losing sight and communication. When I originally learned I had RP, I was concerned with communication most of all because I knew how difficult this can be with sight and my dependency on lip reading. Even with hearing aids, I still relied on lip reading and my experiences of trying to talk in the dark, not being able to see ones lips proved to be exceptionally difficult understanding what the other person was saying to me. It didn’t matter how loud a person spoke, I needed clarity. As a matter of fact, it’s been my experience that as a person’s voice rose to try and compensate for my hearing loss, so did the frustration levels for both the individual and for me.
I learned Braille grades 1 and 2 fairly quickly and found refreshable Braille displays to be the answer, should I lose complete sight. I’m not comfortable with cochlear implants and braille is the perfect tool for me to use while at the same time, making it fun for others using my iPad and refreshable Braille displays.
Eliminated My Fears
By learning Braille and refreshable bluetooth Braille displays, I’ve completely eliminated my fears of that worst case scenario. I feel as though I have a grip on communication even without hearing and sight.
I can still surf the internet, check emails and send text messages to friends and family. For me, braille is a must have handy tool for communication.
My First Love Is Braille
I learned to read at age three, spelling out the big words in my great grandfather’s huge family bible as he moved his finger along the lines. By the time I was six and should have started school, glaucoma had made colors fade and everything blurred. I had already had one unsuccessful operation and underwent two more in the next two years. After losing all vision I finally started school at age eight. I learned braille and the world stopped shrinking and began expanding rapidly.
Braille Enabled Me to Write and Record My Stories
Starting school after losing all vision was the beginning of a whole new world of possibility. Writing was also a component of my joy in braille. I could now put my thoughts down and share them with others. I wrote stories and poetry I could read to my little brothers in the dark after we were sent to bed. Story-telling was a big part of the oral tradition I grew up with and now I could keep those stories and share them with others. I won my first writing contest in fourth grade. I was first published in a local paper in the sixth grade.
No Batteries Required
Yes I enjoy audio reading, but my first love will always be braille. It is quiet, doesn’t require batteries or electricity or expensive equipment. Of course it is cumbersome but BARD, Braille and Audio Reading Download, has recently added digital braille to its offerings. I can read it on a braille note-taker or refreshable braille device and can multitask by reading braille on the go and even keep tuned in to what else is going on around me at the same time.(smile)
Nothing Stays the Same
When I was fifteen, the onset of a mysterious loss of sight prompted my parents to seek a medical diagnosis. After visiting fifteen ophthalmologists and being persuaded to undergo tedious tests during a prolonged stay in hospital, my family was eventually dealt the unexpected news – I had a degenerative eye condition, Retinitis Pigmentosa.
As I aspired to become a visual artist, all my dreams seemed to vanish. It was not the time for drawing but a time for resourcing. I had to adapt to learning new skills in order to function in a sighted classroom. I began to use hand-held magnifiers to read books and a tape recorder accompanied me to all my lessons. At home, I used a CCTV (electronic magnifier) to magnify the pages of my exercise books and did my best to write up the lessons of that day in bold black pen. Sometimes, my mother sat by my side and colored in those parts of my work I couldn’t see, adding her artistic flair to brighten up the pages of my homework as well as lighten our hearts.
Then came the question…do you want to learn braille?
My Mother Creates a Surprise
I remember coming home from secondary school one day when mum presented me with a huge sketch pad. “Look inside,” she smiled, “I’ve been creating a surprise for you.”
As I turned the pages as cautiously as if opening a precious archive, a series of rectangular boxes with purple circles in different spacings, caught my eye.
“It’s the braille alphabet,” said my mother proudly. “I’ve copied out all the letters in large format so you can see to learn them.”
I was more taken by the beautiful symmetry of her work, the precise lines, the exact gaps between the boxes, the fullness of the circles in their correct formations, more than I could accept the concept of having to learn braille.
I Wasn’t Ready For Braille
As a shy teenager not wanting to stand out from the crowd, learning the braille alphabet was rejected and instead, I took a course in touch-typing with my peers. I wasn’t ready to accept how different my needs were. I couldn’t embrace this reality, even with my mother’s support to hold my hand and walk the path of change with me.
Decades later, I am grateful for all the digital technology that makes it possible for me to be a writer and admire those people who can speak the language of braille.