Future Reflections Winter/Spring, Vol. 14 No. 1


by Charles Brown

[PICTURE] Charles (Charlie) Brown

Editor's Note: Yes, there really is a Charlie Brown. He has practiced law for almost twenty-five years and currently serves as assistant general counsel for the National Science Foundation. He is also a member of the Board of Directors of the National Federation of the Blind and the Federation's Virginia state president. Charlie is married and the father of two sons, ages twenty and sixteen.

As a leader in the National Federation of the Blind, I am an enthusiastic participant in our Braille literacy campaign. I know how important Braille is to me, even though I have a good deal of usable vision. þLow visionþ blind kids are primary victims in today's crisis in Braille literacy.

Yes, Braille is important to me, but I also use print. I use it a lot.

Even totally blind folks need to know print. Print is all around us-raised letters and numbers are on everything from kids' blocks to restroom doors. Our language assumes a knowledge of the print alphabet. Like sighted folks, blind folks need to know what a T intersection is, or an S curve, or a U turn. Blind folks need to know why O is used synonymously with the number 0 (in Braille zero corresponds with the letter j). How does Zoro make the "mark of the Z" on the chest of his victims?

My totally blind friends routinely sign their names, make out checks, and type letters to their friends. I strongly believe that the schools must teach blind kids to read, write, and touch-type (keyboard) print. Print is part of living in the world even if you never see a word of it.

Many blind people, like me, can see print. Does knowing Braille mean I should ignore what I can see? Nonsense! My office is full of print, and I use it everyday.

I've always been able to read ordinary sized print with decent lighting, provided I held it right up to my face. If I were in school today, there would be a good chance that I would not be taught Braille. My print skills would probably be judged as "good enough." But, thankfully, when I was starting school in the fifties, my parents and the others responsible for my education realized that I could not read print fast enough or long enough (comfortably) to compete as a true equal with sighted folks my age. So I also learned Braille; and I competed pretty well in school. I did well enough to get through Harvard College and the Northwestern University Law School-using mostly Braille, tape recordings, readers, and my typing skills.

Just after I graduated from law school, the closed circuit television (CCTV) was invented. I got one of the first models and have used CCTVs in my career as a lawyer ever since. With a CCTV, I can read print faster, longer, and more comfortably than I could before the CCTVs came along.

I use the CCTV in my office to read all the papers and files that come across my desk, to read cases and articles in books and periodicals sitting in my bookcases, or form items checked out from the law library. I also use the CCTV to fill in forms and prepare hand-written notes.

As so many other working Americans do these days, I constantly use a computer. Some blind folks use speech output devices to gain computer access, but I use screen enlargement software. I use my computer to write legal opinions and memoranda. I use it to handle my electronic mail and for so much more. When it became time for me to become computer literate, I had a real leg-up on most of my sighted colleagues. I was already an excellent touch-typist.

A number of screen-enlargement software packages are on the market, and they are mostly pretty inexpensive. Many members of the NFB use screen enlargement programs. One of the great fringe benefits of being a Federationist is the ability to check out each other's packages and exchange demos. We talk about color contrasts, letter shapes, cursors, Windows compatibility, etc. I need to know what's out there in order to know what will work for me. It's almost as if no two þpartialsþ see alike. What works fine for me may be frustrating or even useless to someone else.

When I leave my office, Braille looms larger in my briefcase and in my life. I use a Braille slate to take notes at meetings. It is one of the fastest, least disruptive, and most efficient note-taking devices I knowþat least for me. I like to get periodicals in Braille because, unlike print, I can read Braille rapidly and comfortably anywhere; on the bus, for instance.

I still use recorded materials, too. For example, I get the American Bar Association Journal on tape (produced by the National Association of Blind Lawyers, a Division of the NFB).

Like most lawyers, I must often make prepared oral presentations. For one thing, each year I teach about thirty seminars on the Government ethics rules to employees of my agency. I design the lesson plans, write the case studies and other hand-outs, and conduct the classes. The participants get the materials in print, but I Braille all of my materials, outlines, quotations, slides, etc. This way I can have these items literally at my fingertips. I cannot credibly do the essential teaching part of my current job in print. I'd hate to think of trying to teach hiding behind a CCTV, or holding papers up in front of my face. Eye contact and rapport count so much in effective and convincing teaching. That's why I use Braille.

I use Braille outlines for my speeches (including any quotations I'll be using). Braille is also my primary medium for meeting agendas when I am chairing. I cannot afford to let a struggle with print get in the way and distract from my messages.

Sometimes I need to make a very formal address, and I write it out completely in Braille. This way I can concentrate on my delivery, without worrying about phrasing. I can focus on voice modulation, gestures, and eye movements. Remember, lawyers are supposed to be convincing.

As a lawyer, church leader, and civic activist, I use Braille when it is the best medium, and I use print when it works best.

It all seems so obvious and second-nature to me that I am shocked when some so-called experts talk so loosely about the "choice" between print and Braille. Did learning Braille impair my ability to learn and use print? Not at all! Some people even say that learning print and Braille is comparable to learning two languages. No way! It's all English. I can fully attestþas I recall my struggles with four years of high school French-that learning both Braille and print is nothing at all like learning two languages.

Parents often come to me looking for advice about the education of their children. The advice I give is basically pretty simple. Their children need, I tell them, to find alternative techniques for reading, mobility, and the like. These techniques need to be, on the whole, as effective as those used by sighted peersþassuming they want their kids to be prepared to compete on terms of equality. Braille and print are just two parts of the total mix.

Print or Braille? It's a silly question not worth asking, as far as I am concerned. Most blind kids need to learn both.