Chapter 4: A Tangent on Braille

Before I continue, perhaps you readers would appreciate a primer. I am so accustomed to being blind, and so familiar with braille and all of the technology I use that it is easy to forget how foreign and “amazing” it is to the general public. You have likely heard the name Louis Braille, an icon in the blind community. In second grade during one of my private braille lessons with Mrs. Reich, I remember reading a braille biography about Louis Braille, but he may not have been part of the mainstream school curriculum. Louis Braille was born in 1809, in a town near Paris, France. When he was three years old, he lost his sight in an accident while playing with tools in his father’s harness shop. But he excelled as an organist, and in 1819, received a scholarship to attend the National Institute for Blind Children in Paris. At this school, he took interest in  a tactile code created by French Army officer Charles Barbier called night writing, which allowed soldiers to communicate with one another in the dark. When Louis Braille was fifteen, he simplified the twelve-dot night writing code, cutting it in half to just six dots. The most basic unit of the braille code is referred to as a cell. A full braille cell is arranged in three rows, two columns. Going down the left-hand column are dots 1, 2 and 3, and down the right-hand column dots 4, 5 and 6. There are 63 possible combinations that can be made using these six dots to indicate letters, numbers, punctuation, and even some shorthand symbols for words called contractions. Over the centuries, the combinations have been modified to meet the linguistic needs of different countries, and modifications are continually being made as language and technology evolves. Louis Braille taught at the Institute starting in 1826. He also adapted the code for musical notation, published a treatise, and produced a three-volume history book in braille before his death from Tuberculosis in 1852.

    For most of my school years, there were two ways braille could be transcribed: grade 1 braille in which every word is spelled out, and grade 2 braille which has all kinds of symbols and abbreviations to allow for more efficient transcription, and to save paper, as braille cells require a lot more space than print characters. In every other subject, my aides wanted me to use grade 2 braille, but for spelling tests, they told me to use grade 1 braille. Normally, there was nothing wrong with using the braille symbol for “the”, but they also recognized the importance of ensuring I understood that “the” was spelled t-h-e.

    My parents bought our first computer in 1995 when I was in kindergarten. At that age, I didn’t understand how revolutionary personal computers were, but I remember how excited my teenage siblings were to join the modern age. They thought we were the last family on Earth to finally cave and get a computer. But even when I was in middle school, computers weren’t as ubiquitous in education as they are today. Maybe once a quarter, a teacher would require us to type the final draft of a paper, but for the most part, my peers still hand-wrote most assignments, and I still did most of my assignments on a Perkins Brailler. The Perkins Brailler is the blind equivalent to the pencil. It is a heavy, manual metal typewriter that you have to roll paper into. You have to press down hard on the keys to produce crisp, readable braille, so hard that when I was really young, I hated when it was time to write because it was physically exhausting. To address this, the school district bought me an electric, Mountbatten braillewriter, but it was prone to glitches, and because it was very expensive, it had to be kept at school, so I would have to do homework on the manual braillewriter, another reason I didn’t always do my homework those early years. There was also no way to fully erase mistakes on the manual braillewriter. If I made a small mistake, I could squash the dots as best I could with my fingernail, but if there was a large amount of text that I wanted to erase, I often found it easier just to start the page over. Despite these drawbacks, I still felt more at ease using the braille writer than the qwerty keyboard (the technical name for the standard computer keyboard) because six keys felt so much more natural to me. So in middle school when I did have to type something, I had gotten kind of slow, not only because I was out of practice with the qwerty keyboard itself, but also because I had to stop and think about how to spell some words, especially less commonly used words like knowledge, which is just the letter k in grade 2 braille.

    These days, my favorite way to type is computer braille on my BrailleNote, a special kind of tablet with a braille display, technology which first became available when I was in high school. My junior year of high school, I started taking Spanish, and I think because some of the grade 2 contractions for English are used to represent other symbols in Spanish, Spanish required me to get used to a slightly different braille code called computer braille. It required typing in grade 1 braille, and many of the key combinations that used to be grade 2 contractions were now used to indicate punctuation. I found this annoying at first, as if my wings had been clipped even on the braille keyboard, but I adjusted relatively quickly, and then as my writing for other subjects became more complex, it occurred to me there were advantages to using computer braille in these subjects as well. For instance, I had to write a paper about Al-qaeda for a current events class. I usually didn’t show my parents my schoolwork as by then I was a conscientious student who made the honor roll every semester and my parents trusted me. But my mom asked if she could read this particular paper because like me, she finds the study of current events interesting. She thought my paper was really well-written, which made me happy, but more importantly, she noticed what would have been a really embarrassing mistake. By using grade 2 braille, when I went to print the paper, Al-qaeda came out Also-qaeda as al is the grade 2 abbreviation for also! I thanked Mom profusely and was able to correct and reprint the paper by putting a letter sign (dots 5-6) in front of the al. But it occurred to me that it would be wise to switch to computer braille all the time so I wouldn’t have to worry about missing silly things like that which would detract from my writing and confuse the heck out of teachers unfamiliar with braille. Ironically nowadays, my fingers fly on the braille keyboard typing computer braille, and I have noticed I have gotten a little rusty when I need to type grade 2 braille every now and then!

    But as language and technology are constantly evolving, so is braille. In 2016, the Braille Authority of North America began the transition to a new code called Unified English Braille. I didn’t need to attend any training sessions in this new code: the basics of braille remain unchanged, and the modifications I quickly figured out as I started receiving my braille magazines in the new code. When I bought an updated BrailleNote a couple years ago, I was able to continue typing in computer braille, but the symbols that were different, most notably the parenthesis symbols, appear on the braille display in Unified English Braille. If I ever have to start typing in Unified English Braille, there will be a tiny learning curve, just as getting used to computer braille was, but nothing I cannot get used to.

    This code is actually more consistent with other english speaking countries. (While we were at it, I think we should have switched to the metric system of measurement as well, but that’s an argument for another book.) This code developed new dot combinations for symbols like bullet points which have become more commonly used, and created separate combinations to indicate whether a passage of text is underlined or italicized, rather than using the same combination to represent both which made reading a little confusing sometimes. According to an articlepublished by the Perkins Institute, there is room in the code for the addition of new symbols, making this a forward-thinking code that can evolve as language and technology continue to evolve in the future.

    Unified English Braille also removes some contractions, making it a little less complex. Experts hope that this change will improve the braille literacy rate for blind children today. I was shocked and sad to learn in 2009 that only 10 percent of blind children were being taught to read braille, a statistic which as far as I know, has not changed. School administrators overseeing tight budgets often don’t see the value of hiring braille instructors, especially for children with some vision who can read large print, and often even for children who are totally blind given the availability of screen reading software and audio books. I am not sure what the braille literacy rate was back in 1994-1995 when I would have started learning braille, but even then, if one of my siblings’ teachers is any indication, there were signs of trouble for the future of braille literacy.

    Because of my special needs, I had to attend public school, but my siblings attended a Catholic school through eighth grade. My mom can still recall the bewilderment she felt when in conversation with a teacher at this school, the teacher asked why I was learning braille given the availability of audio books. Before she could even think what to say, my mom recalls saying slowly, I imagine in a tone of astonishment that this wasn’t obvious to a teacher, “because, she, would be, illiterate.” I feel so blessed to grow up with parents and a district administration that never questioned the value of braille. I listened to a lot of audio books over my school years too, as some books were not available in braille, and especially by middle school, audio books were more practical as braille books require a lot of shelf space. But I cannot imagine a life where simple things like finding the right bathroom or elevator button are more difficult, especially if someone’s vision gets worse–as it often does–and the person can no longer read large print. I cannot imagine never knowing the pleasure of reading silently in bed or outside on a beautiful summer day.

    The National Federation of the Blind is a very rhetorically militant advocacy organization whom I disagree with on many things. But I agree with their position that every totally blind child, and in many cases even children with partial vision, especially those with progressive eye conditions should be taught braille.

    In 2009, this organization used the 200th anniversary of Louis Braille’s birth to highlight this literacy crisis by publishing a book of 200 letters written by blind people to President Obama urging him to address the crisis. Many were from people like me, blessed to have learned braille as children, but there were also numerous letters from people who were never taught braille. Many recounted childhoods filled with needless hardship, like suffering headaches from the eye strain of reading large print they really couldn’t see that well, and falling behind in their school work. Some learned braille in high school or college. Some never learned braille. But all said if they would have been taught braille as children, everything from finding employment and succeeding in a job, to just daily living would have been easier. So if you happen to be the parent of a child you found out is legally blind and you found my book, I urge you, make sure they learn braille.

    A common misperception about braille is that it is slow. For sighted adults who feel called to a career teaching visually impaired children, or adults who lose their sight, learning braille is understandably more difficult. Just as is the case with learning a foreign language, braille is easier to learn as a child when the brain is more plastic. Mrs. Reich told me she reads braille with her eyes because her brain is so wired to using vision, her fingers alone cannot distinguish braille dots. And because braille wasn’t second-nature for her as it would have been had she learned it as a child, she sometimes made typos in materials she brailled for me, typos which I delighted in pointing out as I became fluent in braille. Teachers who read braille with their eyes also find it especially difficult to read braille embossed on both sides of a page, and when she introduced me to double-sided books in second grade, I remember Mrs. Reich warning me that I might find reading these books a little more difficult at first. But I had no problem adjusting at all. To me–and I think I can speak for all blind people fluent in braille here–you can barely feel the dots on the opposite side of the page. In fact, they are so faint they aren’t even legible to me, whereas the dots on the side I am reading are crisp and very easy to read. But Mom could no longer help me with homework when I started reading double-sided braille, and Mrs. Reich said this is difficult for her as well because sighted people can clearly see the dots on the opposite side of the page, so much so that they are confusing and distracting. But with practice, children and adults can improve their reading speed, and children can become fluent in the language of braille.

    One accommodation I did receive in school was extra time for tests. This was especially necessary for math tests, as it takes longer to make meaning of a tactile graph or figure than it does for a sighted student to look at it, and for reading comprehension tests because referring back to a passage and skimming it for the answer takes longer in braille. But for everyday reading and writing, I could use braille just as efficiently as my peers used print. Hard-copy braille books are expensive to produce but Seedlings Braille Books for Children, and the National Braille Press, the most well-known producers of braille books for children, have programs for parents or teachers to get free braille books. They do take up a lot of shelf space, but there has been incredible innovation in recent years, with BrailleNotes, and even stand-alone braille displays that can connect to an iPhone or computer. This technology is currently very expensive, with a stand-alone braille display costing around $1,000, and a full BrailleNote costing over $5,000. Dirty/sticky fingers can also damage the braille display, so your school district may understandably want to opt for hard-copy books until the child is mature enough to treat this technology with care. But as an adult, I only have a couple prized hard-copy books. With my BrailleNote, I can download books and read them in braille just like sighted people who download books to a phone or tablet.

As is the case with most children learning to read, I was slow at first, but this wasn’t a braille problem. I was just a child who needed to practice, just like my sighted peers. I think in the early years learning braille–kindergarten through second grade–I would see Mrs. Reich for an hour a day three days a week for intensive braille practice. The rest of the time, I slowly sounded out words right alongside my peers in class, Ms. Gnacinski calling on me to read just as often as any other student. By the end of second grade, I was reading so confidently that I found pleasure in reading. When my siblings and I were growing up, my parents were strict about bedtime when it came to putting away video games, turning off the television, but we could stay up as late as we wanted reading. I took full advantage of this, especially since I didn’t even need the light on to read.

Published by Allison Nastoff

As I write this in 2020, I am 30 years old. I am blind, and Gilbert was my first guide dog. He passed away on December 2, 2020, but I decided to keep the title for my blog as a tribute to him because he will always hold a special place in my heart. In 2012, I earned a Bachelor of Science in Communication with a journalism emphasis, and went back to school for a Paralegal certificate in 2014. I worked for five years at a Social Security disability firm. When the pandemic hit, I did some reflecting and decided to resign from this job and take seminary courses. My dream is a career as a teacher or writer where I can be a blessing to others.

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