Future Reflections         Special Issue: A Celebration of Braille

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Writing with a Slate and Stylus is Easy!
On Reversing the Backward Notions about the Slate and Stylus

by Ramona Walhof

Walhof (on right) and her brother, Curtis Willougby, and sister Susan Ford. All three are active members and leaders in the NFB. Ramona, now retired, owned and ran a successful business for many years, Curtis is an engineer, and Susan is a Braille teacher.Editor’s Note: Ramona Walhof’s credentials and experiences as a leader, a teacher, a mentor, a mother, and Braille expert are legion. A long-time national and state leader in the Federation, Walhof has a special passion for Braille. When she sent me the following article, she expressed some concern that readers who knew little to nothing about the Braille system would not have the necessary background to follow her argument. However, I think there is enough information included in this issue about Braille--including a simulated print Braille alphabet on page 10--that I don’t think that will be a problem. Here is what Ramona says about writing with a slate and stylus:

Backwards means awkward and wrong. A backward somersault is harder than a forward one. Wearing clothes backwards is wrong. Only someone who is incompetent wears clothes backwards. Walking backwards is difficult, for the sighted because they cannot see where they are going, and for the blind because it is hard to use the cane or dog. If you are traveling south, you do not say that north is backwards. North is opposite from south, but not backwards.

If something is correct, it is not backwards. You can spell a word backwards, but it is wrong. You can count backwards, but that is not the normal way. A car can move backwards, but you do not drive it backwards. You put it in reverse and back it up.

For all these reasons, I submit that you do not write Braille backwards with the slate and stylus. When you write with the slate, you start at the right side of the line and move across the page to the left. You still spell the words the same. You still form the letters the same. Dots 1, 2, and 3 are on the first side of the cell as you write it, and dots 4, 5, and 6 are on the second side of the cell. To read that line, you turn the paper over and begin reading from left to right. The words are still spelled the same when you read it as when you wrote it. Dots 1, 2, and 3 are on the first side of the cell as you read it, and dots 4, 5, and 6 are on the second side. Anyone with this information and knowledge of Braille can readily understand how to write with the slate and stylus if they have not been confused by someone saying it is backwards. Yes, you push the dots down onto the paper with the stylus and, yes, the dots point up when you turn the paper over to read it. That is normal and obvious. Nobody says you write upside down, and you don’t.

The next question is: Does it really matter? And I submit that the answer is yes. It matters a great deal. In the Federation, we use the word “alternative” to describe the set of special techniques used by the blind. Independent travel with a white cane or dog guide is an alternative technique; using the computer with Braille or voice output is an alternative technique; and Braille itself is an alternative technique. We object to calling these techniques “substitute,” because that connotes inferiority or an abnormal approach. Granted, the techniques are not always perfect. Computer access for the blind lags behind access for the sighted. There isn’t enough material available in Braille. You cannot read signs with a white cane or dog guide. Yet they are excellent techniques. Using them, blind people can truly compete on a basis of equality with the sighted. I submit that using the term “backwards” is far worse. Not only does it smack of inferiority, but also of difficulty and confusion.

How many times have you heard a teacher say to a Braille student that he or she must write backwards with the slate and stylus? How many times have you heard teachers and students say writing with the slate and stylus is difficult? Could there be some correlation?

How many times have you heard sighted people say how difficult it is to write with a pen or pencil? No. They complain about poor penmanship. They choose to use computers to write lengthy documents. But they don’t complain that writing with a pen or pencil is hard because it isn’t.

I submit that learning to write with a slate and stylus is easy.

Using the slate and stylus is easy.If you are sighted and have a slate and stylus handy, try a simple test. Find a copy of the Braille alphabet* (in real Braille dots, not simulated print dots) or have someone write one out for you on an index card. Turn it over so that the dots face down. Begin at the right-hand side of the card, and write the print letters below the Braille ones. (You can see the impression of the dots from the back of the page just as well as from the front.)

You now have yourself a guide you can use to write a Braille note with a slate and stylus to a Braille reader. Just remember to start at the right-hand side of the paper and move progressively to the left as you write. You have to develop some dexterity with the stylus and some new muscles in your wrist and arm. This comes with practice. I recommend that young children start with a board slate instead of a pocket slate. (For some children, the hardest part is gaining skill in moving the pocket slate down the paper.)

Today most people do not need to write out long items with the slate and stylus. This is a fact. Nevertheless, the skill can be invaluable. It is the only Braille-writing device that has the same portability, flexibility, and affordability as a pen and pencil. When away from home, all of us need to jot down a note from time to time. Just as the pen and pencil are not likely ever to become obsolete, the blind person who can use the slate and stylus is more flexible and often more competent than the one who cannot.

The teacher who feels that teaching the slate and stylus is difficult or not worthwhile conveys this attitude to his or her students, whether the students are children or adults. Let’s put this attitude behind us. A first step can be to stop describing writing with the slate and stylus as writing Braille backwards. This terminology is neither accurate nor helpful.

So if writing Braille with a slate and stylus is not backwards, is it difficult? For many children and adults, it is not. I taught myself to write with the slate and stylus in one day when I was seven-years-old. I understood the process, and it just wasn’t hard. I had been reading Braille for a year and wanted to write it. My older brother (who is also blind) had a slate and stylus, so I took it and used it. Often sighted children begin writing in very much this way. When they are coloring or scribbling, they attempt to make letters, and some of their letters are recognizable. At age seven, my letters were largely correct. This would also be true of most sighted children printing their letters at age seven.

Most blind children do not have the opportunity to pick up a slate and stylus and play with it or practice writing when they feel like it. Why not? The tools are not expensive. You can buy a plastic slate and stylus from the NFB Independence Market for just $6.00 (plus shipping and handling costs, of course).

There are lots of ways to discourage people from learning and using Braille. We know Braille has been underrated ever since it was invented. Could it be that the slate and stylus has not yet reached full acceptance, even among many who think they have dropped all prejudice towards Braille?

FREE Slate and Stylus
In honor of the bicentennial of Louis Braille’s birth, the National Association to Promote the Use of Braille (NAPUB), a division of the NFB, is offering a FREE plastic slate and stylus to the first twenty-five parents of blind children who respond to this notice. Send your request by e-mail to Nadine Jacobson, president NAPUB: <nadinejacobson@visi.com> or call her at: (952) 927-0259.

Order a Slate and Stylus:
Plastic and aluminum pocket slates, board slates, and a variety of other specialty slate and styli are available to order from the NFB Independence Market. You can order online, by phone or fax (with a credit card--VISA, MasterCard, or Discover), or you can request a catalog. The Independence Market is available to take calls at (410) 659-9314 extension 2216 during regular business hours, 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Eastern Standard Time. The fax number is (410) 685-2340 and the Web site link is <www.nfb.org/nfb/Independence_Market.asp>.

*FREE Braille Alphabet Card:
Individual copies are available from the NFB Independence. See contact information above.

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