It was a steaming July day in Smithtown, New York. I sat at the dining room table at the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind examining a Braille slate. "This is a stylus," said my classmate Marian Edson, placing a strange object into my hand, "Start from the right side. We write each letter backwards. Place the point inside the first cell and see if you can feel where the six dots go."
Marian and I were from East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. I had just bluffed and blundered my way through college. She had a teenage daughter. We were part of GDF's grand experiment in 1971 to determine whether guide dogs were appropriate for people with some usable vision.
Marian learned Braille as a young child at the Overbrook School for the Blind. I was the first blind child mainstreamed in Pennsylvania's Easton Area School District. Despite being legally blind from retinitis pigmentosa or more commonly known as RP, Braille was never discussed.
Was this a mistake? My experiences doing without it and then trying to learn it as an adult suggest that it was. When I met Marian, I had already fallen through the cracks. If it hadn't been for six dots and a dog, both of which allowed me to focus on something other than physical sight, I may have never found my way.
In 2010, I wrote articles on Braille literacy for the online magazine American Chronicle. Mothers of blind kids told me horror stories about trying to get Braille education for their legally but not totally blind kids. The children were spending far more time on their homework than their peers and often had chronic headaches. As they grew older without Braille, their love of reading diminished, and they were falling behind socially as well as academically.
"You can't expect the same thing of him as you would if he were sighted." Why not? Some blind kids have already become doctors, lawyers and engineers. "If you teach him Braille, you are going to make him blind." Excuse me? These were medically-certified legally blind kids. Braille is still the only system that provides true literacy on a par with print; spelling, punctuation and sentence structure are observed as you read.
My "aha" moment came in 2006. I'd been using contracted Braille for to-do lists, journals and song lyrics. I was an atrocious reader, but Braille allowed me to live alone for decades. That independence, however, did not include being employable. I supported myself as a musician, and I lived on the fringes of society.
I finally got a computer and wanted to write about the Harry Potter series. I submitted an essay to the fan site Mugglenet. The editor was not happy. The quotes I included were from the audio version. How could my interpretation of Rowling's sentence structure have been that off-base? I fessed up about being blind. My editor helped me with the quotes, and I wrote several essays on the boy wizard.
I improved my Braille skills, but I am slow. My spelling and grasp of homophones is better than it was, but I'm always double-checking and often wrong. I wish I had learned Braille in early childhood. Algebra was deemed necessary, and I've never used it. Why not teach Braille?
My braille journey is reflected in my fictional novel, “The Heart of Applebutter Hill.” Abigail, my 14-year-old heroine, is legally blind. She bears the scars of having been forced to use her remaining vision to read print. She's starting to learn Braille and assistive technology, and the reader witnesses her struggles and triumphs as the plot unfolds. An upperclassman, Susan, who learned nonvisual adaptations in early childhood, is far more accomplished. I've tried to include all of this unobtrusively. The point of the book was to place a blind kid in an exciting adventure.
Abigail and her friend Baggy are making their way in a new land, when they learn a dangerous secret. Abigail, a shy songwriter, isn't learning to accept her limitations. Like Rutherford, the animated acorn who acts as her muse, she's learning to stand her ground.
Not everyone will write a novel about braille literacy like I have but we can still share and discuss the journey. So, do you read braille? If so, how has braille enhanced your life? Would you recommend another person with vision loss to learn braille? Share your comments in the section below.