The Braille Monitor                                                                                         July 2002

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What's in Your Toolbox?

by David Evans

David Evans, cane in one hand and the bugle he soumds in the other.
David Evans, cane in one hand and the bugle he sounds at convention in the other.

From the Editor: The following article appeared in the Spring 2002 issue of the Florida Federation Focus, a publication of the NFB of Florida. David Evans is a member of the NFB-F board of directors. Sometimes it seems to me that people are just looking for excuses not to begin learning Braille. I am certain that they do not enjoy the frustration of functional illiteracy. Of course learning the code brings with it frustrations of its own. The difference is that the pains associated with learning any new skill have about them an aura of the constructive. In the same way, a person who is in poor physical condition experiences pain climbing to the eighth floor when the elevator is out of order and also when beginning a rigorous exercise program. Both activities hurt, but one is healthy and positive while the other is simply unmitigated misery.

David Evans offers some great reasons and a fine role model for those who wish things were different in their own lives. This is what he says:

Braille will be around as long as paper and ink are. As long as the sighted use paper and ink, there will be a place for Braille. I am not very good at it yet, but I am trying. I think that the hardest thing for me to overcome was the mental image of me trying to read big books in Braille.

What helped me was this thought: the most important person I have to communicate with is myself. I needed some way of writing down small, short personal messages and the ability to read them back anywhere and at any time. Pocket tape recorders work well for some things, but what do most sighted people do in the same situation? They write it down on a piece of paper and put it in their pocket. Well, if writing things down on a piece of paper is the most common and practical technique for the sighted, then using Braille on paper should be a very good way for the blind.

I decided that I could picture myself reading information on a three-by-five-inch card written in Braille. So I decided to learn Braille, or at least enough to write those personal messages, and, if I went no further than that, at least I could copy down a person's name, address, phone number, an appointment time or date. I tried getting someone from DBS [the state agency for the blind in Florida] to teach me, but I will just say that this person did not work out.

Then, while I was attending a national convention, a friend told me about the Hadley School for the Blind. I called its toll-free number, (800) 323-4238, and explained what I was interested in learning. They sent me a test to take about the rules of the school and then sent me my course, called "Relevant Braille"--all free of charge. This was an at-home course in Grade I Braille using a slate and stylus. They sent me directions on tape that were easy to follow and broken up into sections that explained everything. I followed the instruction to do at least one card or fifteen minutes a day. Being the impatient type, I did all of the lessons at once and was writing and reading Grade I Braille in about three weeks. By this I mean that I was using a slate and stylus to write all of my personal communications down on three-by-five cards and using them to keep my life organized. I did eventually get around to finishing and sending in my course materials and getting my certification in Grade I Braille.

I think that learning to write and then read using a slate and stylus is the best way to learn. This teaches you to write Braille right-to-left and to concentrate on dot position. Most people I have met who learned on a Brailler seem to have a hard time making the switch to a slate, but those who learned on the slate do not have any problem going to a Brailler for greater speed.

I like the slate because I can carry it anywhere, and now I am rarely without one, even though I do most of my note-taking on a Type 'n Speak. I found that the trick to learning Braille is just learning the first ten letters. Once you learn them, you repeat the letters in order while adding dot three at the bottom. Then you do the same thing again, adding both dots three and six at the bottom until you have all twenty-six letters of the alphabet.

The only oddball is "W" because Braille was invented by a Frenchman named Louis Braille, and at that time the French did not use the letter "W" in their alphabet. The Hadley course also teaches the numbers and punctuation symbols. Learning the first ten letters also gives the student the ten digits when paired with the number sign. Last year I went back to the local Lighthouse and began learning Grade II Braille, all 200 contractions of it. This is where you get faster with Braille. Grade II turns Braille into a form of shorthand that speeds up both writing and reading. I am still very slow, mostly because I do not practice enough and because I have diabetes, but I am still using Grade I Braille because speed is not the most important thing; the ability to read it is.

I believe that, like all people, blind people need their own toolbox--special tools and skills that help get the work done. It is wise for all of us to include in our toolbox any and all tools we think may help us to do the job. And as with any collection of tools, they should be kept sharp, in their proper place, and available whenever they can do the best job. By the way, the friend who gave me that tip about Braille and the Hadley School was Doctor Jernigan. He could read over 400 words a minute in Braille. The average sighted reader reads between 225 and 250 words a minute.

Who says that reading Braille has to be slow?

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