200 Years Old – Let’s Keep It Going Strong

2009 is the bicentenary of Louis Braille’s birth and people the world over will be marking it in some way. Here in the UK the RNIB is organising events, publicity and research around celebrating and promoting braille.

In these days of powerful computers and speech synthesis braille often gets overlooked or rejected as being old fashioned, too difficult to learn, and various other criticisms. But braille has unique, powerful qualities which are invaluable to a blind person who masters it, and I think it’s crucial we give it a much needed boost and put pressure wherever it’s needed for people to have the chance of learning it. It is difficult to learn, but boy is it worth it! And whoever said worthwhile things were easy to come by?

Here are some personal reflections of why braille has been so important to me.

When, aged eleven, I first dipped my finger into the world of braille I had no inkling it would ever be more than a curious hobby for me. It really was a “dipping”, my eyes were more involved than my fingers, along with a BBC computer and very determined teacher. Whenever I did touch the page I could barely tell that there were individual dots, let alone distinguish patterns they made. So I carried on with the graphics accompanied by monotonous beeps from the BBC and avoided the cold frustration I felt whenever touching the dots. But one day a year or two later I did manage to crack that bumpy code.

The time I became able to start reading braille, rather than deciphering hostile bumps, was when I discovered it was a vehicle for something I definitely wanted to do: the school play. I was using print as my method of reading and writing. But lighting in our school’s drama studio was not conducive to my reading and anyway I felt hampered straining at a script through a magnifier in dull light whilst simultaneously trying to move around and respond to other people. Reading my braille script I found I was able to stop worrying about how to read and start worrying about how to act!

After that, using braille became a real option for me. The difficulties gradually eased and because I found advantages to reading braille rather than print I didn’t mind the frustrations. I could catch up on unfinished homework (unfinished because my classmates and I had spent most of “prep time” discussing music, rearranging the furniture in our classroom or just generally messing around) by reading in bed without disturbing room mates. I chose to use braille hymn books in assembly purely because I’d heard that people sometimes changed the meanings of the words by scratching out some dots. I provided some amusement when, responding to a teacher’s apparent surprise that I was using braille on that occasion, I said that I wanted braille because every time I leaned forward to read print my nose started running (I had hayfever at the time).

So braille became an important tool for me. The ability to use it helped enormously in my school/college work and, just as importantly, allowed me to join in a certain kind of culture among braille users.

By the time I started university my vision had deteriorated to a point where print was not a viable option. I used a mixture of braille, audio and electronic material instead. I preferred braille but couldn’t always use it because of its large space requirements and the lack of available material. Whenever possible I used braille though. There is nothing more distracting when discussing a piece of text in class than hearing a screen reader’s electronic voice babbling, say, Plato’s “Republic” in one ear whilst trying to concentrate on what a tutor is saying with the other. When I did use speech instead of braille in seminars I had to decide whether to understand what was being discussed or to join in the discussion, I didn’t have the capacity to do both. When giving presentations I felt much more confident when I could use braille, the ideas I’d put on paper could flow straight from my fingers to my mouth without the awkward computerised interpreter in between. This was important for me not just for academic work but also for other parts of my life as I was involved in various societies and often facilitated meetings supported by notes I’d made.

However I was forced to stop using braille because of worsening sensation in my fingers. Reading it became slow and difficult so I stopped and got used to relying on speech synthesis. I was able to work in this way but it was tiring and presentations became an embarrassing necessity.

It’s only been in the last year or so that I’ve regained my connection with braille and the qualities it brings. I discovered a few years ago that I could read braille if it was written on plastic type labels or on braille displays because the dots are sharper and firmer. I used labels to identify CDs etc but it was only recently that I acquired a braille display and so truly brought braille literacy back into my life.

I’ve now discovered new benefits to using braille. The difficulties during the school play were nothing compared to listening to synthetic speech, to the director, keeping the laptop on my lap and driving my powerchair, oh and putting effort into the actual acting too, all at the same time. My Braillenote (a braille-based PDA) sits easily on my lap and makes no noise if I don’t want it to.

I can read on noisy trains.

I can understand bank statements more easily by feeling the figures rather than hearing them.

But braille literacy’s gifts are more profound than its tangible uses. It keeps my mind alive and connected with the world around me. My spelling -something I had always been quite good at – became awful when I stopped reading braille. I couldn’t visualise words like I used to. Now that I’m reading again I’m able to visualise in a pattern that’s a kind of fusion between print and braille. I make few spelling mistakes but more importantly this visualisation and imagination that braille stimulates is part of who I am. Spelling is part of language and language is something fundamental to our being; it’s culture and identity. Braille literacy keeps me connected with culture in its widest possible sense.

For me there’s also something unique about the physicality of reading braille. Being a wheelchair user means I don’t experience much direct physical contact with the world and people around me. When using braille I feel more connected with them – it’s almost as if, by feeling the words underneath my fingers, I’m getting a sense of the rough feeling of gravel under my feet, the cramped intimacy of a crowded pub corner or the grimy satisfaction of cleaning a dirty floor. Listening to descriptions – whether by speech synthesis or a human reader – is a pale imitation because it comes through something or someone else first before it reaches my mind.

I’m glad I can experience these sensations and benefit from the fuel braille provides to my imagination. I look forward to the doors it might open for me in the future (I hope to learn braille music). Most of all I deeply appreciate the dull beeps of the BBC computer and determined energy of my teacher all those years ago.

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