The Braille Monitor                                                                                               January, 2004

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Learning Braille: Notes from the Trenches

by Heidi Lasher Oakes

From the Editor: For twenty years Heidi Lasher Oakes was a sculptor. Because of progressive vision loss she decided to return to college to earn a degree in biology. Heidi called the NFB of Maryland early in 2002 to seek assistance in obtaining rehabilitation services from the state agency serving the blind. As a result Heidi attended the Colorado Center for the Blind and Blind Industries and Services of Maryland (BISM) for adjustment-to-blindness training. Since completing her training, Heidi has continued to make good progress with Braille.

She says that she has placed Braille labels on about sixty spice jars and on appliances in her kitchen as well as on her music and computer CD cases. As a new Braille reader Heidi's insights and experiences, as recounted in the following article, will be a source of encouragement to anyone interested in Braille. This story first appeared in the spring 2003 issue of the Braille Spectator, the publication of the NFB of Maryland. This is what she says:

My interest in Braille dates back to my sighted childhood. I have always loved patterns and tactile surfaces. I was originally trained in sculpture, and I taught art at the college level for six years. Now I'm a second career graduate student at Johns Hopkins University studying biology and math. Even when I was fully sighted, saying "let me see that" meant that I wanted to hold or touch the object in question to determine its weight or texture. The base six structure of the Braille alphabet appeals to my left brain, while its attractive tactile quality appeals to my right brain—so both sides of my brain are happy when I am reading Braille.

Twelve years ago I began to lose my vision to what is now thought to be a rare form of X linked retinitis pigmentosa. In July 2002 I began to receive training in skills for the blind at the Colorado Center for the Blind. Even before the start of my training, I was very excited to learn Braille. I knew acquiring skills in reading Braille would help me to resolve the greatest fear caused by my vision loss—that I would become unable to read print before I had learned a viable alternative.

I have listened to and enjoyed books on tape for many years while working in my studio, but I have never considered them a replacement for paper books, and I do not equate listening with reading. There are two reasons that I feel this way. First, I relate to paper books as physical objects. My experience of reading a paper book is very different from reading the same words with a magnifier or listening to them on tape. While in both cases the words are abstract constructs, the book has its own individual weight, smell, and texture. Different books are made with different kinds of paper and different bindings. They can age, be damaged and repaired, and be written in or dog eared by others. Notes can be left sandwiched between their pages. These marks of use help to reinforce their identity as unique physical objects.

Second, when I am reading a paper book, I hear the voice of the narrator in my head. The narrator is often the main character, but even if no narrator is identified, I find that I imagine a different narrator for each book I read, often for different sections of the same book. This is a phenomenon I haven't read or heard much about but which has been confirmed by friends who are avid readers. This ability to create my own voice for the narrator of each book is for me a valuable part of reading. It is almost like the auditory counterpart of illustrations—the color and texture of the narrator's voice influences my perception of the words just as much.

For all of these reasons I eagerly anticipated learning Braille. However, my initial experience with Braille, which I have nicknamed the "Numb Fingers" stage, was unexpectedly frustrating. I could feel just enough to know that dots were on the page, but not enough to know which dots they were. I attributed this lack of fine tactile sensation to my twenty years of experience as a sculptor, which had left me with some peripheral nerve damage in my fingers. I tried to have a sense of humor about it, but within a few days I was feeling frustrated, depressed, and fearful that my tactile ability would never improve.

One night, after about three weeks, I remembered two techniques I used to teach my drawing students to observe more carefully—using their nondominant hand and drawing with their eyes closed. I decided to see if the same techniques might be helpful to me in learning Braille. To my surprise the experiment was an immediate and dramatic success. I had already been working under sleep shades, but somehow using my nondominant hand made a lightbulb go on inside my brain. Suddenly, without a doubt, I could recognize the first nine letters of the alphabet.

My experience of learning Braille was never as frustrating again. As I learned the rest of the alphabet and then moved on to learn the Grade II [contracted Braille] contractions, I was able to make some observations about my learning process. I was particularly interested to notice that, as I learned the letters, the tactile knowledge transferred from my nondominant to my dominant hand. Over the next few days my dominant hand gradually took over again so that now I rely on it as my primary Braille reading hand, with my nondominant hand filling in as backup.

Also it was essential for me to learn Braille initially under sleep shades although, once I mastered the alphabet, I found it useful also to practice using visual and tactile methods together. Finally, I have been amused to observe that my mild dyslexia—a tendency to invert or reverse print tail letters when I write, turning print b's into d's or p's and so on—transferred itself to Braille as I got more comfortable with the characters, just as it did to the keyboard when I learned how to touch type. In the case of Braille I have to be careful with m and ing, y and and, e and i, and most of all with that nefarious quartet, d, f, h, and j.

Learning Braille as part of a group of students was an invaluable element in my education. The group provided a sense of community, and it was helpful to be able to learn by observation and by conversations with others. For example, I was reassured to find that most of the people losing their vision as adults had at least initial difficulty feeling the dots. I have since learned that such loss of sensation is common for many people who work with their hands a lot and also for many diabetics.

The daily classes and dedicated instruction were also essential. As every accomplished Braille reader I have spoken to has told me, even two hours a day is not nearly enough, but it is definitely better than meeting with an instructor once a week. I worked regularly on my own and continue to do so now that I am back in Maryland.

After three months of Braille study I am now smoking along at the snail like rate of between twelve and sixteen words a minute. However, I feel optimistic. Even though it is a slow process right now, it is very exciting to be able once again to read on my own, without the assistance of a computer, tape player, or other assistive device. I am counting on this excitement, along with my love of Braille, to keep me motivated in what I know will be a long process of improving my reading speed.

In closing, I offer special thanks to Tom Anderson, my Braille instructor at the Colorado Center for the Blind, for his unfailing patience, generosity, and sense of humor.

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