Braille Monitor                                                May 2013

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How Braille Turned Me into a Purse Junkie

by Audrey T. Farnum

From the Editor: This delightful article is reprinted from the Winter 2013 issue of the NFB Ok Today, a publication of the NFB of Oklahoma. It, like Audrey, is a gem. Enjoy:

Audrey Farnum slipping her Braille display into one of her many new purses.January 4, 2013, would have been Louis Braille's 204th birthday. As I read many comments on Twitter and Facebook about the occasion, I started thinking about how much Braille has revolutionized my life over the past few years. Although I have been legally blind since birth, I was a very high partial who was mainstreamed in public schools and got by with reading print. I occasionally relied on large print, and, as I got older and my reading load increased, I turned to audio books to help me keep up with my sighted peers. No one ever suggested that it might be beneficial for me to learn Braille, and, to be honest, had it ever been suggested to me, I probably would have fought against it with every fiber of my being. I was young and insecure and trying to hide my blindness so I could fit in. I have no doubt that I would have been horrified by the idea of using Braille at school. Looking back on it, I probably would have received more acceptance in school had I embraced my blindness. At least then my peers would have understood the reasons for the behaviors for which I was frequently ridiculed. Instead I largely kept to myself and clung to a small group of friends who accepted me without question or need for an explanation. I always felt awkward, out of place, and ashamed because I was different, but I survived and made it through school. I went on to college, then law school. While the pressure to fit in decreased with age, I still did everything I could to cover up my blindness.

Then, in 1999, the retina in my left eye detached, and I lost all my vision in that eye. I was twenty-five at the time and fresh out of law school, looking for my first job as an attorney. When I lost the eye, I remember thinking that I was probably on borrowed time with my remaining eye and learning Braille would be wise. But after the initial shock wore off and I got used to working with my one eye, I reverted to my old ways and stuck to print and some audio. Finally, February 2006 rolled around, and I had just had a second vitrectomy on my right eye to try to repair a detached retina. I went to the doctor the day after surgery to have my bandage removed and get some post-surgery follow-up. This second vitrectomy involved putting some silicon oil in my eye to hold the retina in place, so there was no waiting for a gas bubble to disappear with the hope of my vision returning to pre-detachment quality. When the patch came off, I knew that was the best things were going to get. I thought I was ready for it, but, when I opened my eye for the first time and all I could see was distorted wavy shapes—light and colors that were all wrong—I came to the terrifying realization that I was no longer going to be able to glide through life, acting as if I were sighted. I was blind, and a lot of things were about to change.

Of all the things that I could no longer do, the thing that was most upsetting to me was the inability to read. I could no longer read print, and I had never learned Braille. With all my education and the fancy degrees hanging on my wall at work, I was functionally illiterate. It was a soul-crushing development for me. While I knew that the other blindness skills I was learning in rehabilitation were important and essential to independence, I needed Braille most of all to restore my sense of self-worth.

I was scheduled to go to a rehabilitation center for twelve weeks of training to learn Braille, among other skills. When I went to this center for a two-week evaluation in June of 2006, I was told all the usual nonsense about how hard it is to learn Braille as an adult and not to expect too much from myself. Basically, the vibe I got from this place was that I should focus on learning to use audio for all my reading needs. Fortunately, the best way to get me to do something is to tell me it can't be done. So I went home and resolved to get a head start on Braille. I was told it would take the whole twelve-week training program to learn uncontracted (grade 1) Braille. That wasn't good enough for me. If that's all they wanted to teach me, then I decided I'd learn uncontracted Braille before I went back to the center in September so that I could force them to teach me more. I found a Braille teacher in Oklahoma City who got me started, and in four weeks I was reading uncontracted Braille. I couldn't read fast, but it was an encouraging start, and it was proof to me that the rubbish that had been fed to me during my evaluation was wrong.

I went back to the center in September 2006 for my twelve weeks of training. One of the biggest highlights of the experience for me was sitting down for my first Braille lesson. I was paired up with another student who had no Braille experience and a bad attitude to boot. As the teacher was handing us uncontracted Braille lesson books, I spoke up and told her that I had learned it over the summer and wanted to move on to contracted Braille. My declaration was met with stunned silence. After a few moments passed, she flipped open the book to a lesson at the back and told me to read it. I oozed arrogance and confidence as I accepted her challenge and read the passage she indicated. It was all I could do to keep myself from doing a victory dance on the table. My fellow classmate with the bad attitude dropped out of the program the next day, and I conveniently found myself in a one-on-one contracted Braille class. I was the only client at the center who learned contracted Braille during my time there.

About ten weeks into the program, my Braille teacher gave me my first Braille book to read, Horton Hears a Who. She was very excited about my progress and told me that in her years at the center she had never had the opportunity to teach contracted Braille to someone. She had done some touch-up with people who had learned Braille in school but were rusty from nonuse, but she had never taught a newly blind adult. I was stunned by this and questioned her more about it. She said that most of her students never even finished uncontracted Braille because they thought it was too difficult and preferred relying on speech. I found this revelation disheartening and depressing, and I couldn't imagine why, barring some other condition or medical complication, someone would choose not to read Braille. It seemed to me that the expectations for newly-blind adults were very low, and that made me sad. Only after a couple of years would I find the NFB and discover that there were people with higher expectations and people who truly believed in the capacity of the blind. I left that rehab center with the false belief that what I had accomplished in my Braille training was unusual. I later learned from my NFB family that it was not and that I could do more.

So I learned Braille and read a children's book. Big deal. I couldn't read very fast, and it was useless to me except for labeling and writing short notes to myself. It was a start, but not enough. I wasn't using it at work. I was devouring audio books, but I wasn't really reading Braille. At my first NFB national convention in 2009, there was a panel discussion about Braille literacy. Anil Lewis talked about his experience with learning Braille and how he came to the realization that he needed to learn it. He read his remarks in Braille and commented that he had been inspired to learn to read it after stumbling through a speech a year earlier. Much of what he described sounded eerily familiar to me. Suddenly it dawned on me that memorizing a code does not make me literate. I couldn't read Braille enough for it to be useful, and I couldn't write more than a label or quick note. I was still functionally illiterate, and that center I went to did me no favors by giving me the false belief that I was somehow special. I resolved then and there that I would make more of an effort to read Braille.

I went home and ordered myself a Braille book. I tried to read for at least an hour a day. Because of working full time and other stuff going on in my life, I didn't always make that goal, but I kept reading and getting faster. I finished that book and another one after that, and my speed gradually improved. Eventually I decided to get a refreshable Braille display to use with my iPod Touch. I found the experience of reading refreshable Braille to be more satisfying, since it removed the extra distraction of trying to keep my place on a page. I turned off the speech on my Read2Go Bookshare app and read. Later I discovered that reading newspaper articles with the NFB-NEWSLINE app was a great way to practice since I could read a short piece and feel like I was accomplishing something every time I finished an article. I would also read Twitter updates as a way to make myself read but keep things short so I could manage my frustration level. My efforts paid off, and I started to feel comfortable reading. I was reading well enough that I could now go into a restaurant and read a Braille menu in a reasonable amount of time. This was encouraging, and I was starting to feel better about my skills.

I was in store for yet another humbling experience when I attended a leadership seminar at the NFB Jernigan Institute in the fall of 2012. I was asked to write a brief assignment, and my work could be handwritten or written in Braille. I have no confidence in my handwriting anymore, so it was Braille or nothing for me. I had the option to have someone Braille the assignment for me, but I'm stubborn and decided it would be a good experience to do it myself. I started out with a slate and stylus, but it was taking forever, and I knew I'd never get any sleep if I kept that up. I had used a Perkins Brailler a couple of times during my rehab training, but I didn't even remember how to load the paper correctly. Fortunately, my NFB family is a helpful and encouraging bunch, and one of my fellow seminarians gave me a refresher course on Brailler basics. Then I began the process of laboriously typing my essay. I discovered that, while I could read contracted Braille, I apparently had been picking up a lot of what I was reading from context. When I actually had to type in contracted Braille, I couldn't remember about half the contractions I needed. I felt like an idiot. With help from my new friend, who patiently sat with me during the whole process to tell me contractions I couldn't remember, I finally finished my six-sentence essay. It's an exaggeration even to call it six sentences. A third of the way through I gave up and broke my thoughts down into a list so I wouldn't have to write so much. The whole thing barely filled half a page. It took about an hour to write that little masterpiece with the Brailler, and that's not counting the hour and a half I spent composing my rough draft on my computer and the numerous attempts I made to write the assignment with a slate. It was embarrassing to observe how deficient my writing skills were, and I can't imagine the patience it took for my friend to sit with me while I demonstrated my incompetence.

Shortly after my writing fiasco, the cell phone I had been using for years finally kicked the bucket, and I ended up with an iPhone. While I was already a seasoned VoiceOver user with my iPod Touch, I had resisted getting an iPhone because I preferred the text-entry method on my Nokia N86 and wanted to stick with it as long as possible for texting and Twitter. I love VoiceOver on the iPhone, but I do find the process of typing with a touch screen to be tedious at best. After several unsatisfying experiments with different QWERTY Bluetooth keyboards and with my writing failure fresh in my mind, I decided it was time to learn how to type with the Braille keyboard on my Braille display. It was slow going at first. I recall spending about thirty minutes typing a short status update on Facebook. But after a week or two I was typing at an acceptable speed with the Braille keyboard and wondering why I hadn't tried that sooner. I can now type faster with my Braille display than I could if my iPhone had a physical keyboard instead of a touch screen. A great side effect of learning to type with my Braille display was that it helped me to read better and made me faster with a slate and stylus.

I am now addicted to that Braille display as much as I am to my iPhone. The two items are inseparable in my opinion, and I don't go anywhere without them. I felt so strongly about wanting my Braille display with me at all times that I actually went out and bought a purse specifically to carry it. Not just any purse, mind you--I ended up with a three hundred dollar Coach purse. I rationalized this expenditure by telling myself that my newly treasured Braille display deserved to be carried around in style. This may not sound like a big deal until you realize that, in my thirty-nine years of life, I have rarely carried a purse. I'm a low-maintenance kind of girl, who values comfort and convenience over fashion and social conventions. I have never felt the need to lug around a bunch of extra stuff. I was of the opinion that, if I couldn't fit what I needed in my pockets, I didn't need to take it with me. I thought women who spent hundreds of dollars on purses were idiots. Now, because of the Braille display, I not only carry a purse, but I spent a ridiculous amount of money on a Coach and had a blast doing it. I now have multiple purses to suit different occasions and carrying needs and can't resist cruising by the purse department every time I go to the mall. Everyone who knows me well is shocked by my sudden purse addiction. This really is a major development in my life, and it is all because Braille has become an essential part of my daily existence.

Not only is typing on my iPhone now a pleasant experience, but I also appreciate the Braille display for giving me a way to use my phone in noisy environments. Sometimes at concerts or noisy sporting events I might as well not even have a phone because it is too loud to hear VoiceOver through background noise. With Braille, background noise is no longer a problem. The first time I made a Facebook post completely with Braille and with no help from VoiceOver, I honestly got a little teary. I suppose it's silly, but using Braille at a noisy football game so I could use Twitter and Facebook during the game made me feel normal. It was ironic to me that, after spending the majority of my life trying to hide my blindness and feel normal, I suddenly achieved the feeling of normalcy by using Braille.

After observing how Braille has improved my quality of life and changed the way that I think about myself and my blindness, I often wonder how much better my life might have been had I learned Braille as a child. It was assumed by teachers, my parents, and even me that, since I could read print, that was the best option for me. But looking back on it, I think about all the eye strain, the neck and back pain from hunching over my books, and the extra hours it took me to read because my low vision made reading slower for me. I also think about the shame and embarrassment I felt when I had to give presentations and had to hold my notes a few inches in front of my face. I was always self-conscious about the fact that my audience was seeing the back of my notes and not my face. I'm not pointing fingers or placing blame. I do believe that I had enough vision to warrant learning print, and it was a tool that I needed. But Braille would have been a nice extra weapon to have in my arsenal of skills. I have no doubt that, had I started as a child, I would have ended up reading Braille as fast as my sighted peers read print.

When I think of all the times Braille could have helped me, the first situation that comes to mind is an experience I had during law school. I had to do an oral argument in front of a mock appellate court. I spent the whole semester preparing my case, and the trial would determine my grade for the class. I showed up to the oral argument in a spiffy new suit thinking I was prepared and ready to wow the judges with my brilliance. I thought I had planned ahead to deal with my note-reading issues. I knew I would be too nervous to rely solely on memory, so I put all my notes in large print on index cards and was certain I would be able to look down at the podium to read them. I don't know if it was nerves, different lighting from my practice runs, or both, but, when I looked down, my notes were a blur. I didn't want to hold the cards in front of my face, so I tried to go from memory. Ultimately my oral argument was a complete disaster. I got trounced by my opponent and looked like a stammering idiot. I got a C minus in the class, the lowest grade I would receive in law school. It was one of the three low points of my law school career, all of which had direct ties to my blindness. It was also the exact moment I decided I did not want to be a trial attorney. In hindsight I understand how valuable Braille would have been to me in my oral argument. My Braille notes could have rested comfortably on the podium while I read them, likely unnoticed by the judges or anyone else in the courtroom who witnessed my debacle. I would have appeared more normal by embracing a blindness skill instead of trying to rely on vision as the only answer, and I know I would have received a higher grade.

On more than one occasion I have heard statements like "Don't make that child look blind by forcing him to read Braille. Print is more normal.” My experience is a classic demonstration that this belief is wrong and harmful. It teaches a blind child to be ashamed of blindness and is a sure-fire way to cripple confidence. Braille should not be thought of as something that only totally blind people use. It is not an inferior alternative to print that should be taught only if there is no other option. Braille is a tool to attain literacy and independence. We should teach our blind children to be proud of Braille and see the value of literacy. Studies have shown that there is a strong correlation between Braille literacy and employment. Blind children have enough obstacles to deal with as it is. We shouldn't rob them of an additional tool to overcome educational and employment barriers just because they can read large print by straining and taking extra rest periods. While a low-vision child is resting his eyes so he can start reading again, his peers are leaving him behind.

My journey with Braille is still in its infancy. I have made tremendous progress over the past couple of years, but I know that I can still do better. I still find myself regularly falling back to audio alternatives because I am in a hurry and want to get things done faster. There are going to be plenty of times when audio is simply more efficient for me, and it will always be a part of my life. However, I have found ways to make Braille useful to me by using it in practical situations that are interesting and meaningful to me. I will likely never be a fast Braille reader, but I cherish Braille. I am so thankful that it is a daily part of my life. I still need to practice, but I am glad that I made the choice to learn and put forth the effort. I am thankful to my NFB family who humbled me and encouraged me to embrace Braille. And mostly I am thankful to Louis Braille, who as a teenager created this life-changing code because he rightly believed that literacy and knowledge were essential to independence for the blind.

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