Picture shows a woman sitting in a rocking chair reading Braille
Barbara Pierce

Reflections of a Braille Student

by Barbara Pierce

Reading the preceding article reminded me irresistibly of one of the most interesting and valuable parts of my ten-year working relationship with Doctor Jernigan: the hours of Braille-reading demonstration and discussion. He often commented that he intended to write a Monitor article reporting on what he had learned about reading Braille from our work together. Sadly, he didn't have time to carry out his intention, so it seems to me appropriate that I should try my hand at reporting our discoveries, both hopeful and discouraging.

To begin, I must briefly describe my reading history. I attended public school because my parents wanted me to live at home and because the local school was willing to enroll me since I could see the type in the first-grade primer. No one, I think, fully appreciated just how limited my vision was at the time. I was quick to catch on to letter shapes and sounds, and since most of the early work was producing the correct sound when a letter was identified, I did pretty well at sounding out the words. All the children were dealing with the words letter by letter, so I was at no disadvantage. From the first I was one of the top readers.

Then three things began to change. The print grew smaller; the amount of text on the page grew larger; and the other children got the hang of what we were doing. My superiority melted away until by the third grade I was acknowledged by the whole class to be one of the dumb kids. I don't know how rapidly my vision was deteriorating, but by sixth grade I could no longer read the print in my books, even with extreme magnification. Not until a few years ago did I grasp the full catastrophe that was overtaking me during these elementary school years.

By the time I had completed sixth and seventh grades without ever reading a word myself, the powers that be decided that Braille was going to be necessary to my further education. Arrangements were made for me to receive an hour of Braille instruction every week at the Pittsburgh Association for the Blind during the summer before eighth grade. Memorizing the code was simple; determining which dots were present in each symbol was a different matter altogether. My teacher, a blind woman, seemed to be able to tell the difference between a capital A and an st sign; she was never fooled into reading the beginning of the word "beautiful" as "bunder." But despite all this skill she was not a proficient Braille reader. She did not read quickly or fluently. She assured me almost every week that, if I could only hear her husband read, I would understand how effective a tool Braille could be. But I never met the man, and I don't think I ever truly believed her.

I was encouraged to read Braille during high school, and to that end I was given my physics text--all nine or so volumes of it--in Braille and told to use it. What a joke. I now realize that it was filled with equations in Nemeth code, but even without that impediment to comprehension, I would have had a hard time decoding such a complex text.

I did understand, however, that in college I would have to use Braille to take notes, so I laboriously took class notes throughout high school using my slate and stylus and Braille paper heavier than anything one can buy today. I built up calluses on my right hand and muscles in my right arm but no speed in Braille writing. Still I was reinforcing my mastery of the code even if I was making errors in placing dots where I intended them to go.

When I entered college, I quickly decided that there was no way that I could take Braille notes for hours together using paper as heavy as that I had been using in high school. I bought spiral notebooks for each course and discovered the relative emancipation of having my stylus fly across the page of light-weight paper.

For four years I used Braille every day and depended upon it completely, but my own writing was almost the only Braille I read. I married three months after college graduation, and though I continued to use Braille, it was not in the same intense way. Now it was recipes, phone numbers, grocery lists, and odd notes to myself. I had slid into all sorts of personal abbreviations and shortcuts which, coupled with my rather unreliable spelling, made my Braille incomprehensible to everyone, including me after a few days.

When I returned to work full time in 1981, I found myself again depending on Braille regularly, but my own notes were still the only thing I was consistently reading. Then, in October of 1988, I came to work for the NFB as Associate Editor of the Braille Monitor. I admitted to myself that I had put off making a serious attempt to learn to use Braille about as long as I could. I remember asking Dr. Jernigan if he thought I had any chance of actually increasing my reading speed. His response was immediate and positive: "Of course you can if you are prepared to work at it." I was not afraid of work, and I was afraid both of disappointing Dr. Jernigan's expectations of me and of standing up to make a state convention banquet address as a national representative and losing my place in my Braille notes. Clearly I was ready to begin playing catch-up.

I began asking all the good Braille readers I knew what suggestions they could give me. Their advice was simple--read--read every day, and read high-interest material. Compared to that physics book in high school, this sounded like great advice.

I began by setting a daily goal of reading at least five pages. It took an hour. My rule was that I could read more than my goal, but if I fell short, I had to make up the pages the next day. Reading ahead did not count against future lapses. Whenever I came to the National Center, which was every other week in those early years, Dr. Jernigan invariably inquired how the reading was going. I could always assure him with a clear conscience that I was reading every day and that I was pretty sure my speed was increasing. I did not often time myself, but I was confident that a page was taking less time to get through. When it became clear to Dr. Jernigan that I was serious about Braille, he offered to work with me to make sure I was using my hands the way he did.

I had begun my life as a Braille reader with my left hand dominant; in fact my right hand was pretty unreliable. Then in 1978 I tried to put my left index finger through a food processor. Manufacturers have changed the design to make such experiments much less likely. But the result of my adventure was to put an end to Braille reading altogether with my left hand for several years until the nerves regenerated. During that time I was forced to use the right hand to read. By the time Dr. Jernigan took charge of me, my hands were about equally able to decode the dots. I am living proof that it is possible to train the less perceptive hand, but I trust that others can find less dramatic methods of getting the job done.

Dr. Jernigan began by having me place my hands on top of his. Together we discovered that his left hand stayed fairly well anchored along the left margin of the page. The index finger moved to the right, sometimes reaching as far as a third of the way across the line. But his middle and ring fingers provided an anchor. When he strolled around a room reading Braille, it was the strength of this left hand that held the document in place against his body.

The index, middle, and ring fingers of his right hand were responsible for the right-hand two-thirds of each line. The ring and middle fingers slid along the gutter between the line being read and the one above. At first Dr. Jernigan told me that their job was to keep his place on the line so that the index finger could follow along confident that it was reading the correct line of text. The left index finger began the line, and the right hand took over a few words into it. As he finished reading the line with his right hand, the left index finger was retracing its way to the left margin and down to the next line, where it began reading even before the right hand had completed its work. My hands over his confirmed that he was actually reading both lines simultaneously. This discovery was both thrilling and depressing. I could not imagine--and still can't--how he read two things at the same time, but I am convinced that he did because his one-handed reading was distinctly slower.

One day he came to me and announced that the evening before he had discovered that more was going on with those two lead fingers on his right hand than he had thought. They were not just keeping his place in the gutter above the line; they were actually doing preliminary letter identification. He picked up a Braille page and showed me what he meant. His ring and middle fingers were actually gathering information about the tops of the characters that were about to be read: dots in positions one and four might be mostly present or they were completely absent in a cell close to the end of a word, suggesting a two-cell suffix, or perhaps single dots were present at the tops of cells, which probably meant that vowels were present. I was highly skeptical until he began reading aloud first with all three fingers at work and then with only his right index finger on the page. The reading became jerky and less fluent. He was surprised by this discovery; I was astonished. Here was even more evidence of his brain's ability to accomplish several kinds of decoding simultaneously. After that discovery he would often interrupt his proofreading aloud to remark on some nuance of word structure that his lead fingers had distinguished and prepared for. He completely convinced me of the accuracy of his reporting, but I am still utterly unable to do it myself.

I am afraid that in some ways my Braille reading disappointed Dr. Jernigan. He believed that with steady application of time and effort I could become a rapid Braille reader in a few months or years. That did not happen.

I have come to understand just how much I lost by not receiving Braille instruction as a young child. Despite the best efforts of my parents and teachers, I was never able to do more than read print letter by letter. My vision never allowed me to glimpse the shape of words or intuit what a word might be from a glance at a few letters. My recognition vocabulary in print was sharply constricted by the ending of my reading career in about the fourth grade. For the next thirty-five years my own Braille shorthand was almost entirely the only reading I did for myself. In this way I gave myself no chance to make up my deficit.

Looking back, I now see, as neither Dr. Jernigan nor I recognized when we began, that, before I could achieve any real speed in reading Braille, I had to learn to read. Even today I come upon phrases like poring over a book or the horse's gait and do a double-take at words I have used for years and never seen spelled correctly. All this makes reading an enchanting adventure, but a slowly developing one.

Am I discouraged? Sometimes. I would have liked to respond more rapidly to Dr. Jernigan's coaching. Am I frustrated at having to learn these skills as an adult already set in my neurological ways? You bet I am! Do I regret the time I have invested in my effort at remediation? Not one second of it. My life is richer and my literacy more complete for reading Jane Austen carefully and thoughtfully. And though I still have to read a text several times through if I want to read it in public, my reading speed is easily three or four times as fast as it was when I started this adventure.

I count myself deeply lucky to have had Dr. Jernigan as my reading teacher. But long before he took me in hand, he was inspiring me with his wonderful reading. Scanners and computers and new gadgets for portable access to electronic text notwithstanding, curling up with a book in front of a fire, delivering a speech from a Braille text, or reading a recipe to a friend over the phone are pleasures I would never have known if I hadn't decided to do something about my misspent youth and if Dr. Jernigan hadn't decided to take apart his own reading technique in order to help me.

My experience teaches me that anyone with intact nerve endings in the fingers, fairly steady hands, the capacity to learn new things, and the determination to try something challenging can improve at reading Braille. I am also convinced that it is little short of criminal to keep visually impaired children from learning Braille at a time when they can do it so much more effectively than they would later in life. If you have not dipped a toe--or more accurately a finger--into this particular body of water, I invite you to try it; the water is fine. If you have influence on a child who is likely someday to need Braille, do what you can to see that the instruction begins now. Would you prefer to have Dr. Jernigan's reading skill or mine as the model to be followed? That is the question.