Future Reflections Winter 1996, Vol. 15 No. 1



by Lauren L. Eckery

Editor's note: We can hope that the time will come, sooner rather than later, when an article like the following will no longer be an appropriate candidate for inclusion in the pages of a publication like this. No one needs to persuade sighted people about the pervasive usefulness of print; the case has been made so effectively that even those for whom it is inconvenient, awkward, or painful struggle to use it. But would-be Braille-users and parents of children for whom print is not an efficient tool still need down-to-earth examples of the value of Braille in the conduct of everyday life. So here are some practical reminders about Braille from a busy, organized working woman and mother who uses Braille as efficiently and automatically as her sighted counterparts use print.

Lauren Eckery is an active working woman and mother. She frequently writes about her experiences as a blind person.

It is the early 1970's, and my family is traveling by car to Minnesota for a vacation. Both my mother and I like to read and crochet on long trips.

The dimness of the evening sky envelops us gradually, and my mother stops reading. She also decides she can no longer crochet. She wants to check the time but cannot see her watch without turning on the dome light. She chooses to listen to the radio or take a nap.

Meanwhile, in the back seat of the car, I continue my activities. I read my Braille magazine for a while. Then I crochet several rows on my afghan. Braille labels help me keep the different colors of yarn in order. Now and then I check the time on my Braille watch, the excitement mounting as we near our final destination.

It is the later 1970's or early 1980's. I am singing in my church choir. During our Thursday evening service prior to Good Friday, the lights are extinguished one by one until it is nearly dark in the sanctuary. While the choir sings, I notice a discreet scramble for notes and lyrics. I continue singing the alto part I have memorized and reading the lyrics in Braille. Rather than becoming anxious and embarrassed by struggling to continue the music, I go on as before, experiencing the special tone of the service.

It is any day. I am speaking to a group of school children, who are interested in what I am saying about blindness: "Given the proper training and opportunity, blind people can lead normal lives." But their favorite part of the presentation is the show- and-tell segment, during which I demonstrate various aids and appliances enabling the blind to be independent. Their greatest curiosity seems to revolve around Braille. "What is it? What do you do with it? How do you read and write it? Is it hard to learn?"

Simply telling the children that Braille is a blind person's equivalent to print is seldom enough. They seem to understand that Braille can be used in school for reading and taking notes, but for what else can one use it? Again, to oversimplify, saying that we use Braille for the same purposes one uses print for often goes uncomprehended. The children want concrete examples.

At our 1991 annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind, held in New Orleans, Louisiana, the usefulness of Braille was one of the underlying themes of our discussions. In the course of attending convention activities, I was observed and approached by several new Federation members who were losing some of their vision. They were grappling with the fact that they needed to learn Braille. Two young women who spoke with me knew that it made sense. They had been told that Braille could be useful to them, but they were reluctant to commit the full amount of time and effort necessary to learn Braille well enough to use it on a daily basis. Their lack of motivation seemed to stem from a lack of everyday examples in which using Braille could be useful and necessary for them. They, like the children I have spoken of previously, understood that Braille was useful for academic and employment pursuits, but what about blind people who are neither in school nor working? How could they make Braille such a part of their lives that they couldn't resist learning and using it efficiently? I was pleased to give these convention delegates concrete examples and encouragement in the use of Braille.

With the advent of our efforts to obtain a Braille bill in Nebraska, readers of News from Blind Nebraskans and other interested parties might appreciate some further examples of the everyday usefulness of Braille in the lives of everyday independent blind persons. Although the list is endless, here are some examples which have occurred to me during the writing of this article:

Taking telephone and other messages; making grocery and other lists; keeping telephone numbers, addresses, and other informational index files; placing Brailled clear plastic sheet overlays into printed children's books so that blind parents, teachers, and others can read to blind or sighted children; keeping recipes, crochet or knitting patterns, and instructions of various types in Braille for efficient and independent access- -and the list goes on.

One can label almost anything in Braille: photographs; phonograph records; cassette tapes; video tapes; games; puzzle pieces; food items; medications; printed materials for later filing; checks; receipts; bills and other documents for independent handling of finances; household and other appliances; newsletter mailers; coupons; greeting cards; post cards; gift tags; yarn, thread, and other needlework equipment; etc.

At this point one might decide that such labeling mania is overwhelmingly time-consuming. Abbreviations to the rescue! For instance, when I label a spool of thread, I abbreviate the color so that the small label will fit on the end of the spoolþ"bl" for blue, "br" for brown, "bk" for black, "gy" for gray, "pk" for pink. Most blind people use a combination of memory, recognition by touch, sighted assistance, and Braille labeling for identification.

An especially interesting example of labeling comes from my storehouse of childhood memories. One of my favorite pastimes for most of my youth was cutting out and coloring paper dolls freehand. For several years I could see blobs of color well enough to use a color-coded system for naming my paper dolls ("Laurie" was blue skirt and white top, for example). As my vision waned and the diversity in the names I chose for these paper dolls increased, I eventually changed my naming system to one in which I wrote each doll's name in Braille on it. To this day, I have a collection of some of those paper dolls. My ten- year-old daughter, Lynden, has enjoyed looking at Mommy's collection. She has asked me the names of many of the dolls. Although I do still remember the names of some of the dolls with colored clothing by recognizing some other characteristic about them, reading the Braille names is foolproof. If I had wanted to continue coloring the dolls' clothing, I could have devised a labeling system for my crayons and paints, but at the time Braille was my preferred choice, whether I colored the dolls or not.

Years later, as a young adult, I took a cue from my creative childhood's adaptive technique. When I lost the slight amount of vision I had, it was simple and natural for me to separate my yarn colors into individual bags and place a Braille label in each one for identification. This method works well for multicolored crochet projects.

One who is just beginning to learn Braille might feel exhausted by this incomplete list of examples. But believe me, if one has no opportunity to learn or use Braille or if one is limited in his or her creative capacity in devising multiple practical applications of Braille, he or she can indeed be illiterate and unnecessarily dependent on others for assistance.

On the other hand, if we use Braille pervasively in our lives, we will become experts at reading and writing it just as print users do with print. One of Lynden's earliest and best methods for beginning to learn print, besides watching "Sesame Street," was reading labels and signs in her environment. Why not make Braille as normal a part of our environment?

The main purpose for passing a Braille bill in every state of the Union is to maximize the independence and equality of blind persons, be they children or adults. Now, who could in good conscience oppose adoption of a Braille bill once they truly understood the everyday usefulness of Braille?