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Sunday marked an important milestone for the entire blindness community. Louis Braille was born two hundred years ago yesterday (January 4). Braille is how people who are blind read, though surprisingly few people actually use the code, those who do, however, couldn't live without it.

I learned Braille starting around the age of four years old. It took a while for me to fully understand how important Braille is for my daily life. Without Braille, I am positive that my writing in school, my blogging and my daily functioning would be much more difficult. Much of my knowledge of how to form sentences and write well comes from my voracious appetite for books. And as much as I value audio books, they are my main method of reading because I can read them faster, I wouldn't know anything about spelling or even punctuation. While I know my posts are far from perfect, I can usually read them later and know what I wanted to say, even if it has been months since I wrote the post. Also, I cannot imagine learning html without seeing at least some of it in Braille. C++ was a hard course, but it could have been so much worse if I hadn't used a Braille textbook. My slate and stylus, which I hated learning how to use and resisted its use, has helped me in so many ways, taking notes in class when my BrailleNote, lap top or other equipment run out of juice in their batteries. All I have to do is ask the student next to me for notes and thank them for their help as I whip the Slate and Stylus out of my purse. I've been places (this was more of an issue before the Mobile Speak on a Smartphone and small recorders like the Victor Reader Stream) ,I'd been out to eat, at a funeral or other social gathering or more professional setting where getting the number from a person I want or need to speak with later. I can write on almost any paper, I haven't tried napkins (at least, I don't remember doing it), but this shows the abilities of the slate and stylus and the power of Braille.

Another low-tech way I use Braille is reading a physical book. I don't do this as much as I did, because I can rarely make the time to read at a slower pace (I consider myself a medium to fast Braille reader but I still can't read as fast as I can read an audiobook or text file put onto the Stream)> That doesn't mean that I never appreciate the joy of Braille reading. In fact, I love reading a long Braille book just to prove that I can, and I love the feeling of words coming in through my fingers as I slide my fingers across the page. I get a similar feeling to a lesser degree as I listen to information, but there's something impersonal about it, or maybe it's too personal, I can't decide. When I read with text to speech, I get a robot voice, and even though these voices have improved greatly, they kind of drown out the voice in your head.

With audio books, the narrator can be great, or she or he could be a narrator who drives me nuts. I have no decision in who the narrator will be.

In talking about other methods of communication which seem to pop up whhen we least expect it.

Live Journal

and finally one of my other favorites beyond the blogs of others, is Delicious

These tools are all great and they definitely enhance school and my personal life. If we're ever going to convince students to learn Braille, we will have to do it in a way which fits in with the digital lifestyle that students grow up in.

It saddens me that so few people use Braille, some are not given the opportunity to learn it, some don't want to learn it and some can't use it for medical reasons or because of cognative challenges. I want to see a day when Braille is used more and where students are liberated through its use. Recently, I've been thinking about how to encourage the use of Braille without compromising the right to choose. I do know that Braille readers have a better rate of employment than those who do not read Braille. That being said, my own experience has led me to realize that as there are many ways to use print, there are many ways to use Braille.

Like many Braille readers who learned Braille as a child, I learned to read Braille and to write in Braille using several different methods. I wrote in Braille using a Perkins Brailler (think typewriter but instead of using print keys, we had the traditional 9 key keyboard which is all one needs to write in Braille). Then, I learned to use an electronic Braille note taker, first one that used Braille input and used speech for the output. Then, I had two note takers which use Braille for input and output (they use tiny pins which raise and lower to simulate dots on a page). Finally, I use a slate and stylus, which allows me to Braille anytime anywhere. I've used it to take notes when my technology failed me during class (dead batteries don't work well). My problem now is that somehow I lost the ability to think and write in Braille while listening to lectures. This seems to have happened as my pain got worse and I wonder if RSD might be disrupting something in my brain. I can read fine.

I mention this because I feel guilt about this every day. I'm a huge Braille literacy advocate and I wish I could write in Braille. There tends to be an attitude of "my way or the highway" about Braille in the blindness community and I know that's part of the guilt. I wonder how many people don't use Braille because they feel intimidated and don't feel free to use it in a way which is best for them. This guilt isn't something I've seen in the sighted community. I think this is still an issue in class rooms where children who are lefthanded or who have difficulty writing with a pen or pencil. But in the adult world, this becomes irrelavent.

To me, Braille should be a tool which empowers people, not one more status symbol or reason to shun members of the blindness community. When we use Braille to improve our lives and when we use it in a way which makes sense to us, we honor Mr. Braille and his work. I plan to continue reading Braille and using it fully this month and in the months to come! If you use it, consider what you can do to help to use Braille in an empowering way. If you don't, this is your chance to learn about Braille. A search in your favorite search engine should yield some fascinating reading.


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Jan. 8th, 2009 04:38 am (UTC)
I was a late bloomer in learning braille despite my mother trying to get to me to learn braille... it didn't happen until I was diagnosed with glaucoma in grade 8, that I realize I needed to find some other form of reading... then a wonderful person came into my life when she moved into the school I was going to, with her student who used braille.. she got me started, then I taught myself the rest while I recuperated from major 12 hour back surgery, in grade nine. Braille is such a necessity for me as a deafblind person as I get older losing more vision and hearing. I am so glad to have learned it.
Jan. 8th, 2009 06:25 am (UTC)
I actually learned Braille, back in elementary/middle school, just because I wanted to. School wasn't challenging, so I taught myself Braille on the side (and maybe during class too, lol). At one point I could read it fairly well (visually) and write it okay too. My parents got me a slate and stylus for Christmas one year, and I found it again when I was unpacking after my most recent move. I don't remember much now, except for my name and a few other letters.
Jan. 9th, 2009 06:23 pm (UTC)
Thanks for sharing. I agree with all you say here. There definitely isn't anything like reading an actual, physical Braille book. I, too, am a strong advocate for Braille.
Take care.
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