by Jan A. Lavine
From the Editor: Jan Lavine received the 2011 Braille Student of the Year Award from the Hadley School for the Blind. She loves Braille so much that she became a National Library Service patron, a certified Literary Braille transcriber, and a certified Braille proofreader. Jan was asked to help provide hands-on Braille instruction to adults at the Edmond Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Oklahoma starting in the spring of 2010. She continues to teach and mentor new Braille readers. Here is what Jan has to say:
I was a print reader until things changed in my life on March 27, 2006. After a day filled with working on house projects, I jumped into the shower and was giving my eyes a good rubbing, when I heard and felt a "pop," and it was not a champagne bottle. The next day I noticed my vision had started to deteriorate rapidly due to leaking blood vessels behind my retina, filling the pigment epithelial detachment (PED), which was the "pop." Within seventeen hours I could not read those huge highway signs on the interstate, and within weeks I could not make out the golden arches. All I had was a small area of clear undistorted vision in which I could see only three small print letters at a time while reading. There was no way I was going to be reading print competently at that rate. I knew at some point that even that small window would disappear; would I really have to give up reading?
Although I had never known any blind people, I did know they used Braille to read. What I didn't know was where to find Braille instruction. The NFB has a brochure, "New Approaches to Consider: Suggestions for Individuals with Recent Vision Loss," by Ramona Walhof. What a great brochure for people like me! In this brochure the Hadley School for the Blind is listed as a resource offering correspondence courses in Braille reading and writing. I contacted Hadley for a catalogue and learned that its courses were all free.
With over ninety years of experience Hadley definitely knows how to create and teach Braille correspondence courses. I had taken correspondence courses years ago for my job, so I knew I could do this. First I had to fill out an application and get my eye doctor to sign the Hadley eye report. Then I was ready to start to learn Braille. For its students without any Braille or tactile experience, Hadley offers six easy lessons providing practice for hand movements and to start the brain-hand tactile awakening. This is part one of a four part series called "Braille Literacy."
All the Hadley Braille literacy courses arrive with Braille workbooks and audio cassettes, which contain all the information and lessons. Since a tremendous advantage of correspondence courses is the ability to work through them at your own pace and in the privacy of your own home, I would sit down comfortably in my recliner with a Braille workbook in front of me and put on a cassette. It felt as if the Hadley Braille instructor was right there with me, providing hints, suggestions, and encouragement to improve my Braille skills. With the tapes I could stop the lesson temporarily when I needed to think or rewind it whenever I wanted to hear something again. It was easy to complete sections in approximately fifteen minutes. Success often depends on making things bite size, and fifteen minutes each morning to learn Braille was quite doable. This was easy.
After I finished a lesson, I had to complete a short assignment to send off to my instructor for grading. One must submit an assignment at least once a month, but it was so easy that I could get many done in thirty days.
In no time I was ready for Braille Literacy 2, the class in which you learn the Braille alphabet and how to make Braille labels to use around the house. This was tremendous, but I wanted a real Braille book that I could search through to find the letters and words I was learning. Where could I find Braille books? I went to our public library: no Braille books. I went to new and used bookstores in our city and in larger ones nearby: no Braille books. We even took a trip over to the city that housed the school for the blind: no Braille books there either. Okay, I hear you laughing, but keep in mind I was new to blindness and to Braille. I was accustomed to finding print anywhere I went; why would Braille not be the same?
Finally I found our state library for the blind. After another application signed by my eye doctor, I registered to get access to Braille books from the National Library Service (NLS). Concurrent with working through Braille Literacy 2 I requested an uncontracted Braille book. NLS sent me Cinderella, but at the time I sat down to read it I didn't yet know its title. I had just gone through the first lesson in Braille Literacy 2, learning the Braille letters l, c, a, and d. With the NLS book on my lap, my fingers were on the search for those first letters. Lo and behold, my fingers found a c, d, and lla. It was almost certain that this word was "Cinderella." I was ecstatic to find my first word but then shocked to find that the Braille word "Cinderella" filled most of a Braille line.
Braille Literacy 3 is the class in which the real work of reading and writing uncontracted Braille occurs. And here I was, getting ahead of myself by trying to read, though I hadn't yet learned more than twenty letters of the Braille alphabet. It didn't take me long to see that most Braille books are published in contracted Braille. Now I needed to take the Hadley Braille Literacy 4 course in order to learn the 189 Braille contractions. This course has thirty lessons. It might sound like a lot, but it wasn't—it was fun.
I found that my instructor would grade three assignments at a time. It took ten days for the assignments to make the round trip: leave my house, travel in the mail, get graded, and finally be returned to me. Within ten days it was easy to complete another three lessons.
When I began this course, I found that NLS had my favorite cookbook in Braille, so, inspired, I spent my mornings doing my Hadley lessons and my afternoons brailling recipes. I Brailled enough recipes to fill five volumes. Braille consumed my every waking moment. I fell in love with Braille and with Hadley.
But I still wanted my own Braille books, books I didn't have to Braille myself or borrow from the NLS and then return. I attended my first NFB national convention in 2008 in Dallas. The Hadley School for the Blind had a booth in the exhibit hall. Who was at the Hadley booth? Why, it was my first Braille instructor. It was exciting finally to meet her in person. What was even more amazing was the high percentage of people passing by the Hadley booth who also turned out to be her Braille students. Had they all read Ramona Walhof's brochure?
The biggest draw for me to attend my first NFB national convention was the Braille Book Fair presented by the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC) and the National Association to Promote the Use of Braille (NAPUB). Why, it was just what they advertised it would be: an opportunity for me to obtain "free, gently used Braille books," to read. I would have Braille books all to myself.
Waiting in the long line to get into the Braille Book Fair seemed to take forever, but, wow, was it ever worth it. Adult books were on one side of the room, children's books on the other. I went on a mad dash for the cookbooks. Oh do I love cookbooks; I happily picked up one for preparing recipes using a Crock-Pot®. At the adult book area I found a Sudoku puzzle book by Will Shortz and an all-time favorite, The Bridges of Madison County. My arms filled with books, I headed over to the volunteers who packed up my new treasures for shipping.
About thirty minutes later when the crowd around the children's book area was gone and so too were most of the books, I made my way over there and managed to pick up yet another armful. Oh, the joy of having my very own Braille books and all those pages to turn.
During the national convention I attended the meeting of the National Association to Promote the Use of Braille. At this meeting I learned about <www.sharebraille.org>, the NFB website for exchanging Braille books. As soon as I read one of those books I had gotten at the Braille Book Fair, I decided to share it, and no sooner had I posted it on the site than a person wanted it. What a great way to exchange and keep those Braille books moving into other people's hands.
Through Hadley I obtained Braille skills. Through the NFB I obtained Braille books to satisfy my thirst to read in Braille. Braille allows me to keep reading and keep turning those pages, albeit in a different format. Someday I hope to find a copy of that first book, Cinderella, at the Braille Book Fair or on <www.sharebraille.org>.
Over 10,000 students annually take courses from Hadley, ranging from art to container gardening. And, if you missed the chance, you can even get your high school diploma through Hadley. But guess which courses are the ones with the highest enrollment? You got it, Braille.
For more information contact the Hadley School for the Blind, 700 Elm Street, Winnetka, Illinois 60093. Call toll-free at (800) 323-4238 or visit the website at <www.hadley.edu>.