American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Special Issue: The Individualized Education Plan (IEP)       BRAILLE

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Braille for the Sighted

by Paul Hostovsky

Paul HostovskyFrom the Editor: As coordinator of the Slate Pals program, which matches up K-12 students who want to exchange letters in Braille, I have noticed an interesting trend in recent years. More and more often I receive Slate Pal requests from sighted students who have become fascinated with the Braille code. These kids study Braille in their spare time, become proficient at reading and writing, and want to practice by writing to kids who use Braille on a daily basis.

Paul Hostovsky is a strong proponent of Braille, not only for blind people, but for the sighted as well. In his day job he works as an American Sign Language interpreter. He is also a highly recognized poet whose work has appeared in Carolina Quarterly, Shenandoah, Bellevue Literary Review, Atlanta Review, and many other literary journals. He has won a prestigious Pushcart Prize and has been featured on Poetry Daily and The Writer's Almanac. You can read a selection of his poems at paulhostovsky.com.

I'm not blind, but I am an avid Braille reader. I learned Braille years ago while working as a transcriber at the National Braille Press, and I've been reading it with pleasure—physical pleasure—ever since. I love reading with my fingers. I like the idea of touching the words. I know that's just a romantic notion—I mean, Braille readers aren't more "in touch" with the words than print readers—but I like it nonetheless.

I used to worry that people who saw me reading Braille in public—on the subway or in a Starbucks—would think I was pretending to be blind. A sighted person reading Braille is, after all, a weird thing, wouldn't you say? But it doesn't have to be weird. In fact, I have a fantasy: I envision a world where blind and sighted people read Braille, just as deaf people and hearing people use American Sign Language (ASL). ASL is taught today in high schools and colleges all over the United States. People think ASL is cool, and they want to learn it. Sign language has made a comeback. Well, Braille is cool, too, and it's high time that Braille made a comeback.
 
For a long time I was in the closet about my Braille reading. If I ventured out in public with my Braille, I would read it furtively, sort of cloak-and-dagger, Braille-in-coat-pocket. I'd keep the Braille pages inside my jacket or deep inside my knapsack, fingering the dots clandestinely, feeling vaguely illicit about the whole thing. At the Starbucks, for example, I would build a little fort on the table around my Braille magazine—cup of tea, laptop, water bottle, phone. I built ramparts surrounding the treasure of the dots, hiding the Braille so that no one would see me reading it and mistake me for a blind imposter or a blind wannabe.

I am not a blind wannabe, but I do love Braille. It's a beautiful thing—some would say it's a beautiful dying thing. That's why I say it's time for Braille to make a comeback, among blind people as well as sighted people. ASL has made a comeback because beauty and value were finally recognized. It's popular now. It's "in." By some estimates, there are more hearing people who know how to sign than there are deaf people. ASL is cool, but I maintain that Braille is even cooler. (I know both, so I'm qualified to judge!).

Braille isn't a language, true, but it encompasses all languages; it can adapt to and contain any written language on the planet. Blind people who know Braille (10 percent in the United States is the bleak estimate I have heard) are blessed to know it. Most of the 90 percent who don't know Braille wish that they did.
 
Sighted people, too, are fascinated by Braille. It's a secret code to them, and they feel the urge to crack it. They look at it, touch it, turn it upside down and right side up, baffled by the inscrutable configurations of dots, wondering how it all works.

Actually, the original tactual reading code was invented for the sighted—not for the blind—back before it was even called Braille. It was invented by a retired military man. He called his system "night writing," and he tried to sell it to the French military as a method for passing messages in the dark. The full story is in the beautiful book published by the National Braille Press, Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius, by Michael Mellor.

Since so many blind people and sighted people would love to know Braille, let's give it to them! Let's start a movement, a "Braille is cool" movement. Let's teach Braille to blind people and sighted people, offering it as an elective, right alongside ASL, touting the joys and benefits of Braille (of which there are many; too many to list here), not only for blind readers but for sighted readers, too.

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