Happy Braille Day
This piece was originally published on another site a few years back.
I decided to publish it here in a modified/updated format in order to honor Braille day.
I have touched on many topics, but there is one that I have found quite daunting to approach, since it’s so dear to me, yet has become somewhat controversial… braille.
It should be easy for me to write about braille and how amazing it is to me. I could write about how it’s opened doors and how it is part of my everyday life in everything I do. There is an everlasting stigma that braille is too expensive to produce, too bulky and antiquated. I’d love to take braille for granted, but I can’t. Why have braille when you have audio… this is the common belief anyway.
I was recently having a conversation with someone totally removed from the accessibility field. This particular individual had a computer background, so I showed him the braille display that I use with my iPhone. The first thing he said was: “Why are you using braille anyway? Isn’t it more convenient to use audio? I shouldn’t have to expand upon the benefits of braille, but here I am doing exactly that. Over a century ago, Louis Braille revolutionized the world by introducing the braille code; a series of dots, which now enable me to be as productive as anyone else within my chosen field of work. His vision was simple: enable the Blind to read. Braille day is a yearly event held to commemorate Louis’s contribution to blind literacy. It falls on his birthday, which just so happens to be today; January 4th.
How I learned to read braille
Despite popular myths, braille is not difficult to learn. It does take time, but so does learning how to read. First things first, I needed to acclimatize myself to tactile sensations felt through my fingers. My teacher’s assistant in kindergarten produced many tactile shapes, pictures, letters and numbers for me to figure out. I remember getting really tired touching these furry/bumpy shapes made out of yarn, sand paper and other various materials.
When reading was introduced in later grades, I too joined in the process of learning how to read; only I used braille instead of print; for obvious reasons. Through a series of flashcards and a lot of patience, I managed to learn both French and English braille contractions. I make it sound easy, but it was just as challenging as learning to read print. Odd things happened to my fingers. I wanted so much to learn how to read quickly, that the skin at the tip of my fingers would peel off periodically. I guess I was creating reading calluses. At any rate, here’s what finally took my reading to the next level.
During my braille learning phase, my father and 12 other brave local souls had taken upon themselves to take the braille transcription course, in order to be able to create the books that I would need for my educational pursuits. I remember my father banging off braille sheets on the old manual brailler and reading the results with his eyes. He never did manage reading braille with his fingers. His first complete book transcription was a French children’s book called “Oui-Oui
Part En Voyage”. Oui-Oui, the main character of the book, was a toy with a bobble head which always nodded; hence his name. This character and his environment called toy land is pretty much the French version of Toy Story. Anyway, here’s what my dad did. He read the first two chapters to me and then said that I would have to finish the book on my own. I remember being so angry, sighting the unfairness of it all. What I didn’t realize is the gift he was giving me: independent reading. I took my flashcards and embarked on the arduous task of figuring out the sentences and various French contractions.
Once I finished this book, I wanted more. Since this was part of a series and the braille transcribers were working on other books from it, I was able to continue my reading journey and the rest, as they say, is history.
Braille Is Bulky
If you would have met me in high school walking home on a typical day, I would have screamed: “yes, yes braille is bulky and heavy. Carry my bag for me, will you?” I typically carried 30 to 40 pounds of the stuff every day. Good thing I was stubborn. A typical braille book is divided in 4 to 5 volumes.
Having to deal with five or six different subjects in school and then the accompanying braille notes I took, you can imagine how quickly my book bag filled itself up. I still cringe at the thought of exam time where I needed everything in order to review. Good thing I was walking distance from school.
Meanwhile, a new concept was emerging. Electronic braille. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a display which would be able to show letters in braille representation? Research on such a device was started as early as 1951. My first note taker was the VersaBraille; a tape-based note-taking device with a 20 braille cell display. It weighed more than 20 pounds, but it was a step in the right direction.
But now, we have electronic braille note takers for students that can hold over 1000 books and can fit in your pocket.
Nowadays, I use a smartphone with a pocket sized braille display. I’m all for portability and miniaturization. So is my back. Presently, there are different organizations looking into making braille displays more affordable; under the 500 dollar mark. Once that happens, you can throw out the old “braille is too expensive” argument.
Braille over Audio?
Now, why even have that argument. I use both methods concurrently. For instance, I am using a braille display in order to proofread this entry and use the speech for review. And sometimes, when I’m lazy, I will listen to an audiobook. They do put me to sleep though. Both reading methods are viable, but I still think that braille is needed for acquiring true literacy.
Finally, let’s get to the crux of the matter. For me, braille does indeed rule. It’s part of my everyday experience. I use it at work, at home, even at play. Just as a sighted person would read and write, I can do the same and feel as an equal participant within society. Is using audio only, a bad thing? No, of course not. Many of my friends do not use braille and that’s fine for them. I was given the opportunity, the choice in my life to be able to use braille and I’m glad my parents were able to fight for, what I deem for myself, an essential tool.
Thanks Louis for fighting adversity and making your braille code a reality.
To learn more about Louis Braille and his system, visit: Who is Louis Braille?
Happy Braille Day!