The Knowledge of Touch: How I Learned Braille

Editor’s Note: Today’s blog is from Jasmyn Polite, an aspiring teacher who is visually impaired. Born with bilateral cataracts and diagnosed with glaucoma as a child, Jasmyn has worked diligently to learn to read braille in order to pursue her goals. To learn more about Jasmyn, read her story, “Jasmyn Polite: Shining a Light on Living with Glaucoma As an Aspiring Teacher.”

empish reading braille sign on bathroom
Empish reading a braille sign for the restroom

Imagine you are a person who is completely blind who is in an unfamiliar restaurant. You just came in, and your bladder is nearing its limit. You ask someone where the bathroom is located, and you follow their directions. After feeling and touching chairs, tables, and possibly people who are enjoying their meals, you’ve reached a wall that has a tactile sign. You do this, so you are aware of your surroundings. You don’t have any sight and cannot clearly understand the location of an object or place when someone points and says, “over there.” All of a sudden, you realize what is on the sign; it’s a dotted six-cell code of letters that you can read. The sign reads, “men’s or women’s restroom.” This code is called braille. You keep feeling your way around and realize that the bathroom door was right next to the useful sign. You turn the doorknob and proceed. Now, you’re very elated because of what you could locate due to this beneficial code. Braille was meant to aid people who are blind or visually impaired with reading, writing, and other tasks for daily living. I’ve had some experience with learning it, and I would like to share it. My sensory journey began in high school.

Making the Decision to Learn Braille

When I got involved with the blind community, I was finally able to make the wise decision of learning braille. Braille is a system of raised dots that people who are blind or visually impaired use to write and read as a form of communication. It’s almost like we have our own culture and language! There were two reasons why I chose to learn braille. The first reason is my goal of becoming a teacher of students with visual impairments. When I become a teacher, I hope to teach children who are blind, visually impaired, and possibly deaf-blind, so I must be able to read braille if that is what I plan to do. Another reason has to do with my eye condition. I have glaucoma, a chronic eye condition that has the potential to take the rest of my sight.

Studying Braille with Remaining Vision

Hands reading braille

The first time that I learned braille was at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind (FSDB). When I arrived at the school as a new student in fourth grade, I thought braille was hard to learn, and that it would not apply to me because I had some vision. That all changed when I was in my late teens; my mom persuaded me to be a teacher at the school. In my 10th and 11th grade year, I was thankfully able to work with the blind first graders as a teacher’s aide. However, there was an obstacle. I could not work effectively with the blind children because I didn’t know braille. As a result, I become interested in learning braille so that I could get past that hurdle. I even felt bad about not being connected to my own community and others who probably shared the same eye condition with me.

Getting Help from Friends, Teachers, and Mentors

I started asking my friends who were blind about braille. I wanted to understand the basics and learn a few letter and simple words. Luckily, one of my friends who has glaucoma kindly gave me a braille writer and supplied me with some sheets of braille paper. I didn’t expect her to do that, but this gift opened some new opportunities for me.

Portrait of Jasmyn Polite in a graduation cap and gown

In my senior year of high school, I took a braille class. My teacher, Mrs. Burger, taught me the alphabet, numbers, punctuation, contractions, and how to write sentences. I’ve always loved learning braille in that class; it helped me become more aware of my eye condition and how it will affect me throughout my life. It also prepared me for my dream job; because of that class, I am inspired to teach this code to my future students.

Once I was in college, I couldn’t study braille as often as I used to due to my increased workload, but I that all changed when I moved to Iowa in June of 2015. One day, my family and I attended a first-time National Federation of the Blind event that we heard about in the newspaper. There, I met my braille mentor, Ted Hart. Ted, who was in his 70s, had been blind since age 10, so he has known braille for a long time. Ted kindly volunteered to teach me more braille, and he advised me to attend the orientation center at the Iowa Department for the Blind.

Attending an Independence Program

In January 2016, I attended their independence program. I learned a lot of braille and other things such as cooking, budgeting, computer skills, orientation and mobility, industrial arts, and job skills. The scariest part about it was that I had to do everything while blindfolded. My teacher would quiz me every day on the braille dots that I’ve learned, and sometimes I would get frustrated when I first learned how to use a slate and stylus. As I got used to the slate and stylus, it was easier for me to slate things in braille.

Now, I’ve learned to write sentences and how to use other devices that produce braille. One device, called a Braille Sense, is a computer-like device that displays braille when anything is typed. During my days at the Iowa Department for the Blind, I had the opportunity of using a braille watch to keep track of time throughout the day. However, the braille watch didn’t work for me because I would always get it wet, and it would break. Although the watch is useful, it isn’t waterproof, so I gave up on using it to avoid buying another one.

Improving Braille Literacy Skills

I am currently working hard on improving my braille skills every day. I recently finished an online Braille Literacy I course, and I am taking the Braille Literacy II class through a school in Winnetka, Illinois, well-known as the Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired. The classes there are free of charge, and a variety of subjects are offered. Along with having Hadley study materials, I have tons of braille paper and books. I also ordered free braille books from the National Federation of the Blind and the Iowa Department for the Blind’s Talking Library as well as a slate and stylus from my mentor.

My sensory journey started when I was in high school, and I will continue down this path. I want to be a spokesperson for people who are blind or visually impaired. I encourage those with vision loss to prepare for the many possibilities that the future will throw at them, and I think braille is a requirement to continue to live independently. I want my story to impact others; my closing message is to stay open to new horizons. Nobody knows how far you’ll go.

Braille Resources for Individuals with Vision Loss

Reading, Writing, and Vision Loss

All About Braille

Braille Technology: What’s New and Emerging?