Future Reflections         Special Issue: A Celebration of Braille

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Heirloom Technology

by Bonnie Lucas

Bonnie as a young child stands outside on the sidewalk in front of her father’s insurance business.In the spring of 1967, I was ten years old and finishing the sixth grade at the California School for the Blind in Berkeley. It was the last day of school, the talent show was over, and everyone anxiously awaited the final dismissal words from the principal, Mr. Tuttle. I was barely listening when I vaguely heard him say something about giving a Braille writer to the best intermediate student in the school. When I heard the word “intermediate,” I tuned him out because to my friends and me, intermediate referred to the students who were about junior high age but were not on grade level. Then I did a double take. Why, he was saying my name, “Bonnie Owens.” I jumped up, screaming with jubilation, and dashed from my seat on the front row up onto the stage.

Mr. Tuttle had announced that someone named Miss Heloise from the Perkins School for the Blind was giving the Braille writer to the most outstanding student in the school. The words, “Sent with love--Heloise,” were inscribed on the top of the Braille writer inside the depression where the handle lies when it’s not being carried. Though I do not remember exactly who this great woman was, I do remember the joy that was in my heart that day. I knew students whose families had purchased Braille writers for them, but for my family, making such a purchase was out of the question. I am sure there was not even one Braille writer in my hometown of Blythe, a rural farming town in the hot desert of California, located on the Colorado River. How excited I was to think that now, during the long summer days while hanging out at my dad’s insurance office, I could write lengthy, drawn-out letters to my girlfriends using a Braille writer instead of a slate and stylus. For me, summers were pretty boring; they consisted of spending day after day at my parents’ insurance office with my brother and sister. Though I loved reading books (which I did much of the time) and watching television, having a Braille writer meant I could write as well as read.

Over the years this Braille writer proved to be a tough machine. Each year when I left for school, I had to leave it behind (my mother would not let me take it with me). So, every summer when I returned home, I would happily wipe off layers of dust and shake out the Cheerios and small toys contributed by my little sister and the myriad of kids that my mother babysat. It always worked as well as ever, and I would quickly get busy writing important letters and “documents.” One summer I used it to make a record of the high temperature each day (Blythe is famous for having very high temperatures in the summer).

Bonnie (seated on the couch, left) proudly shares her heirloom technology--the Braille writer she won in 1967--with her twelve-year-old daughter, Aubrie (right).When I started ninth grade, I was able to live at home as a mainstreamed student in my local school. My Braille writer took on the important role of taking notes as my mother read chapter after chapter of books that were not available to me either on tape or in Braille. Occasionally, I took it to school to use in my algebra class. I also continued to write lengthy letters to my friends in the California School for the Blind that I had left behind.

When I graduated from high school, my trusty Braille writer came with me to Utah where I attended college at Brigham Young University. I began keeping a journal and consequently have a number of binders full of journal entries from my college days. In one class, I wrote a 60-page autobiography. Whatever I wrote in Braille that needed to be handed in for my classes, I would read line by line and then type it into print with my manual Underwood portable typewriter, a machine my mother purchased for me with her lovingly collected Blue Chip Stamps.

After completing my undergraduate degree, I looked for over a year for a job without success. So, I took some classes to become a medical transcriber. In the eventual job that resulted, I used both my Braille writer and my slate and stylus to write endless numbers of medical terminology cards for the huge Rolodex that contained spellings and definitions of the countless words I needed to have available to perform my typing job.

Not feeling content with being a medical transcriber forever, I applied to graduate school and was accepted into the Master of Social Work program at the University of Kansas. Again, my trusted Braille writer came along. This time, it was employed as the best rough-draft writer known to man. Oh, the papers I wrote with it! The process went something like this: Once I had selected my topic, I would meet a reader (a live person that I employed to read to me) at the library. We would begin by finding research articles which the reader recorded on tape. Then, using you know what, I would take notes on the taped material. Next, I would Braille the rough draft. After I had my Braille draft copy, my next step was to personally record the entire paper, speaking as clearly and concisely as possible, including all the punctuation, and spelling out difficult words. Finally, using a transcribing machine, I was ready to type my paper from my recording. (While working as a transcriber, I had purchased an IBM Selectric correcting typewriter. Man, I really thought I had joined the world of technology with that baby!) The very last step in the process was to hire a proofreader who was good at putting the paper back in the typewriter and aligning it to fix any mistakes I had inadvertently made.

All of this happened over twenty-five years ago. During the years as full-time wife and mother, my Braille writer has served our family well. It is the appointment scheduler, phone directory creator, “to-do” and grocery list maker, the recipe writer, the Tupperware party list compiler, entertainment for my children, and much, much more. My four children are nearly raised and yet this Braille writer still resides in my home. It is not stuck in a closet gathering dust either. Lately, its time is spent on the desk of Aubrie, my twelve-year-old who is also blind. Though its life is rather leisurely at this point (mostly helping Aubrie with her math) it is always available in the event of a modern technology crash. Who says heirlooms have to be jewelry or furniture? Hmm, I wonder if it is time to give it a name--any suggestions?

About the Author:

Editor’s Note: Bonnie is active in the NFB parents’ division, but that’s about all I knew about her before she submitted the whimsical piece above. After reading her article, I was intrigued and wanted to know more: did she ever use her degree and work outside the home? How did she get involved in the NFB? So I asked her. Here’s what she said:

My parents had no experience with blindness or blind people as far as I know. They waited to send me to the blind school until I was six because it was hard for them to send me away. At the blind school, I was paid $8 each month for making beds for the younger children. Unfortunately, that was the last time I worked until after graduating from college. My parents did not encourage me to do much outside of my home, but I did plenty of things at the blind school.

After completing my MSW, I spent another fourteen months looking for work. During those months, I met my future husband (at church), and by the time I found a full-time job, we were engaged. I quit that job the day my first child was born.

I went back to work part time when my first two children were very young. My mother-in-law managed an agency which provided home health care and nursing home support. At that time, nursing homes did not have to hire fully qualified social workers but their social work designees did have to be supervised by certified social workers. So, I worked for my mother-in-law as a supervising social worker. I often took my children with me, and Grandma (my mother-in-law) took them around to visit and entertain the residents while I did my work. That job worked well for me until the state changed the regulations.

I did not join the NFB until I was nearly fifty. I thought I didn’t need it; in fact, after leaving the blind school, I had very few blind friends. I began to reconsider that decision after my youngest daughter, Aubrie, was born blind. Then we moved to Utah and I met Norm Gardner. He challenged my opinions about the NFB and encouraged me to do my own research about the organization. I did, and realized that much of what I believed about blindness was the same as the NFB philosophy. Although I’m not a failure, I would have done many things in my life differently had I been involved in the NFB. I decided I wanted Aubrie to have the opportunities and ingrained philosophies that the NFB could give her. I believe she is well on her way to making the NFB a part of her life’s plan.

Today, three of my children are grown and out of the house. Aubrie is my last child at home, and I am in the process of determining what I should do in the next phase of my life. I am leaning toward either teaching blind children or becoming a rehab teacher to work with the ever increasing population of adults losing their vision.

When I think about the NFB, I am so grateful for the Utah members who encouraged me and became my role models. I am proof that you can teach an old dog new tricks.

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