Future Reflections         Special Issue: A Celebration of Braille

(back) (contents) (next)

Braille: What It Is and What It Is Not

by Sister M. Elaine George, IHM

A Braille cell and the Braille alphabet.I have been working for St. Lucy Day School for Children with Visual Impairments for eighteen years now. People who learn of my occupation freely share their understanding of blindness with me. Here are a few treasures of common misunderstandings in regard to Braille as well as my usual instructive responses to them.

“Braille…Oh I know what Braille is … it’s those dots next to the numbers on the elevator.”

“Right. And do you know what those dots mean?”

To which I sometimes get the response, “Well I don’t know because I can’t read Braille.”

Truly, for some it is a revelation that the Braille dots next to the number one mean “one.” Once we have cracked the code I encourage them to study those dots on the elevator to learn some Braille numbers. Their enthusiasm and sense of accomplishment puts smiles on their faces. And I have won another small victory on the way to Braille literacy.

“Braille is a code of communication that only those who are blind are able to read.”

Actually, anyone can learn how to read and write Braille with proper interest and adequate instruction. From my experience in giving Braille workshops to sighted children, their immediate feedback is always, “This is fun!”

“All blind people know how to read Braille.”

Not true. It is not something you are born with or automatically acquire once blindness has set in. It is a skill that is learned. Braille literacy requires Braille instructors, Braille books, and instruments that produce Braille such as: slate and stylus, Braille writers, Braille software, and Braille embossers (computer printers).

“Isn’t it wonderful that blind people all over the world can communicate with each other using the Braille code.”

Many are surprised when I explain that Braille is language specific. Those who speak Spanish write Spanish words in Braille. As a matter of fact, the same Braille dot configuration can be used to mean different things even in the same language. Our students learn literary Braille code for reading and Nemeth Braille code for math. There is also computer Braille code which uses eight dots per cell.

“Oh my--it must be so difficult to learn how to read Braille.”

It is true that learning how to read is one of the most challenging intellectual acrobatics the human brain has to grapple with. But learning how to read and write Braille takes about the same amount of time as learning how to read and write print. The key factor here is daily instruction and daily use equal to the amount of time a sighted student is given to learn how to read and write print.

“Blind people are specially blessed with extra-sensitive touch to be able to read Braille. It is nature’s way of making up for the loss of one sense.”

Sensitive touch is more directly related to having or not having calloused hands as well as the health of your nervous and circulatory systems. It matters little whether you are blind or not blind. In short, if you are a construction worker who has neuropathy and peripheral vascular disease, your sense of touch may be significantly impaired, and that will affect your capacity to learn Braille.

In fairness to all those who don’t know much about Braille, I admit that I was one of you eighteen years ago. That is why I am patient with the uninformed, and why I take the time to spread the good news about Braille.

(back) (contents) (next)