Braille and Me

A man's fingertips read a Braille book.

Braille and Me

“Well, Bob,” said Melody, my Braille instructor. She stood up, small and frail. “We’re done!”

“Yes, ma’am.” I closed my McDuffy Reader for the final time, standing up also. I shook her tiny hand. “Thank you for all your patience with me.” I’d just finished, successfully, the Braille class, one of the requirements for graduation there at the NFB training center.

Leaving the Braille room, I thought about tomorrow. Then, I would have to do the “graduation walk,” a three-hour walk through unknown parts of the city. That would be the final hurdle needed to pass the mobility requirements for graduation. Well, that would be tomorrow’s anxiety.

There I was, a man in his sixties, going to graduate in two days from BLIND, Inc. Was I supposed to be too old to get through a strenuous program like that? Well, I’d just about done it. And there I was, in my sixties, having just learned to read and write contracted Braille. Wasn’t it common knowledge seniors couldn’t learn Braille? Well, I’d done that, too.

Braille, however, had certainly been the most difficult class for me. Memorizing those pages of rules and the one hundred and eighty some contractions had been somewhat difficult, but feeling those little dots had been really problematic. I often wondered if the sensitivity in my fingertips wasn’t quite what it ought to be, but I wasn’t going to use that as an excuse.

Reading aloud my lessons in Braille class before three or four other students had been humbling, me stumbling and bumbling. It seemed like the majority of those other students already knew Grade 2 Braille, and they were just trying to improve their proficiency. So with me learning contracted Braille from square one, I often felt like the dumbest one in the class. At my age, I thought I’d endured enough failures through the years to have acquired a reasonable amount of humility. But it still stung to be such a low performer in Braille class.

Once home after the center, I set out to improve my Braille skills. I’d sweated blood to get to my present level, and felt I’d slide backwards if I didn’t continue reading. I started ordering books from the National Library Service, mostly getting smaller books aimed at a younger audience. Being realistic, I thought it best to start out with simple material.

Bob Gardner reads from a Braille book with his cat Gracie on the table next to him.Several years later, a handful of us from our local NFB chapter formed the ABLE Group, all of us relatively slow readers with a goal of getting better. ABLE stood for Access to Braille Literacy for Everyone. We met weekly, each of us with a copy of the same Braille book. We took turns reading sections of text to each other, making us read aloud (no cheating by skipping undecipherable words like when reading to yourself), but also settling those contractions into our brains by repetition.

I found the ABLE Group pushed me to read Braille daily, and like others in the group I became a better reader for it. I remember being told on leaving my Braille class back at the center, “Read something tonight.” I found out now how right my instructor had been. Going through the lessons in the McDuffy Reader wasn’t enough; you needed to read books to cement those rules and contractions into your head.

Some rationalize Braille is unnecessary in this age of technology, but I believe knowing it is always a useful tool for a blind person. I always remember an incident when I was at Washington Seminar and needed to use the bathroom. Badly.

I knew the men’s and women’s were down this short hallway there in the hotel, and the men’s was the first door, the women’s the second. My need urgent, I dashed into the door, then was confused. I couldn’t find any urinals. And there was no one in there to ask. Being in a rush, I used a stall and darted out of there.

Outside in the hallway, now feeling more relaxed, I checked the Braille on the door. You probably have guessed what I’d done: I’d gone into the wrong door and was in the women’s bathroom. Who said Braille isn’t useful? I still thank my lucky stars that bathroom had been unoccupied.

I continue to read Braille regularly, recognizing that having learned Braille at my age, I will never get to the fluency of those who started their Braille journey as young children. But to me it seems a small miracle I can read Braille at all. Not only do I owe it to myself to not let my skills dissipate, but I also owe it to the staff at BLIND, Inc. who gave their time and effort to teach me. I still hear Melody in my head: “Read, Bob. You need to read, read, read!”

—Bob Gardner