Future Reflections Special Issue: A Celebration of Braille
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by Lauren Merryfield
Editor’s Note: Lauren lives in Marysville, Washington, with her three cats: Gabrielle, Maryah, and Meriwether Lewis (Lewie). She is a member of the Cat Writers’ Association, the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement, and the National Federation of the Blind of Washington. Lauren is vice-president of the Sno-King chapter of the NFB/WA.
When Louis Braille devised his reading/writing system as a teenager, he undoubtedly meant for all blind persons to use it in everyday life. Because Braille was different from print (and many people fear anything that is different), it did not catch on during his lifetime.
Still today, there is often a problem with Braille catching on and its worth being recognized. Many children and adults who could be reading and writing it are not doing so and they are missing out on its usefulness and fun.
I wasn’t quite five years old when I began to learn Braille in kindergarten. I remember hammering away on a black Hall Braille writer: A, E, A, E, etc. I was too young for it to occur to me to be ashamed of Braille; instead, I was excited to learn to write and I looked forward to learning to read.
Back in the 1950s, when I was just learning to read, there was a shortage of Braille textbooks. My second-grade teacher had me and another student write down all of the short-form words and contractions; thus I learned the entire English Braille Literary Code by age seven. That was one smart teacher. She accomplished two things at once: teaching us the system and having two copies of the Braille chart available for other students to use.
Later on, I learned Braille music (which Louis Braille also invented); however, I did not practice enough to make good use of it. I learned music quickly by ear so that has remained my preference.
Though I was not at all gifted in math, I did learn the Nemeth Code for Mathematics. I can’t imagine how lost I would be trying to do math problems using only computer speech.
When I was older, I was exposed to British Braille, Spanish Braille and computer Braille. Though each code had some differences, much of it was basically similar. I had hours and hours of Spanish instruction in both high school and college. Eventually I was able to read Spanish poetry, with a dictionary handy. I have not kept up with Spanish and would now be reading the dictionary more than the poetry at this late date. Therefore, I know what it is like not to put some aspects of Braille into everyday practice.
Although I have not learned Grade Three Braille, I devised some of my own short cuts. Probably no one else would be able to read my class or meeting notes, but they work for me.
I believe the reason Braille has been so fun and useful to me, and many other blind persons, is that we practice it every day of our lives. Just as it is important to practice learning and continual use of print, the same is true for Braille.
I am reminded of a quotation regarding the television: “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference.” (Edward R. Murrow, Speech to the Radio and Television News Directors Association, 1958.)
The same goes for Braille; it is only as useful as we allow it to be. If you who are reading this article are not up to snuff in your use of Braille, all you really need to do is find as many ways to practice as you can until it comes naturally to you.
I have refreshable Braille on my computer because synthetic speech and spellcheckers do not pick up everything when it comes to proofreading. Unless the speech program mispronounces a word, I probably am not going to stop to read each character to see how a given word or name is spelled. An example I came across the other day proved to be enlightening. In the subject line of an e-mail the name sounded to me like Allison T. Carr. Imagine my surprise when I read my Braille display and discovered that the woman’s name was actually Alysson TeCarr.
Another example came into my inbox sounding like “doll larger auctions.” Again, I was surprised to read, in Braille, “dollar girl auctions.”
Imagine trying to read poetry by someone such as E. E. Cummings using only speech. Much of his poetic style was in odd placement of words, among other interesting characteristics.
It is much easier to read back phone numbers, addresses, and other information to others using refreshable Braille (the Braille dots move up and down electronically so that one reads a line at a time). By using refreshable Braille, I am able to retain the good spelling skills that I acquired as a youngster while learning to read Braille.
We all know, however, that computers can crash, so I have a Braille rolladex of phone numbers and other important information on my desk. I carry a Braille notetaker with me but I have discovered that it is important to keep some vital information in hard-copy Braille since the technology can become problematic.
Since I am a published writer, I have used Braille for writing stories and poetry. I am writing this article using a combination of computer speech and Braille. I could come fairly close to a perfect copy using speech; however, I would not be as certain as I am when I read with my fingertips, as Louis Braille intended us to do.
No one asks anyone to list all the uses for print, though there are many. The same is true for Braille. I know that if I interviewed many blind persons, I could gather an unending list of uses. Instructors need to know it well enough to make it useful in everyday settings for their students. Both the fear and stigma surrounding Braille need to be dealt with head-on if it is to endure.It is fascinating to think how a six-dot cell with sixty-three combinations could be so important, useful and fun for blind persons everywhere. As we are celebrating the 200th anniversary of Louis Braille’s birth, it has seemed appropriate to honor him by reflecting on just how important Braille can be every day of our lives. I hope that those of you who are reading this will honor Louis, and yourselves, by elevating Braille to its rightful place in your own lives and the lives of those you love. Perhaps you could take this phrase with you: “Braille every day in every way!”
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