Saturday, August 29, 2009


When I was five, my best friend who live two houses down was Deaf, so I learned some ASL in order to play with her. Later I moved and lost touch with her, but my interest in people with disabilities expanded to include wheelchairs, Braille and almost any kind of adaptive technology.

braille book

I was in seventh grade when I discovered a fellow schoolmate with a white cane. Being the strange child that I was, I decided it might be fun to become pen-pals, even though we went to the same school. So one evening I pulled out the ancient 1964 Encyclopedia Britannica that lived in our basement. I think Dad had picked it up at a yard sale somewhere for a few dollars. To my delight there was an entry on Braille that even included the alphabet. I was determined to contact this girl via her own written language, so I set to work.

Hi, My name is Erin and I'm in seventh grade. If you want to write back, my locker is number 547.

Once I had composed this brilliant piece of literature, I set about translating it using the chart in the encyclopedia. I was hampered by that fact that I had no Braille writer, so I used a pad of paper and a sharp pen to press the dots. With no guide, they traveled haphazardly all over the page and I wondered if she would even be able to read them. Braille doesn't lend itself to handwritten work.

Also, I didn't know how to make capital letters, punctuation or numbers. So it actually read: hi my name is erin and im in seventh grade if you want to write back my locker is number five forty seven

But I finished my note, taking half an hour to write the two sentences on lined notebook paper. The next day at school, with my heart hammering and the note in my bag, I took the east stairwell, a route I never used, in hopes I'd see her. I was immediately rewarded because she did indeed pass me.

"Hey," I called, "I have a note for you." I shoved it into her hand and fled, terrified. What she must have thought, a stranger emerging out of the crowd of students to hand her a note, I never found out, although we did later become friends.

I waited, half in hope, half in shame for a return note in my locker. Of course she couldn't read it, I thought. It was so messy and not even on real Braille paper. And how stupid she must think me, wanting to be Braille pen pals.

It turns out she was glad that someone cared to learn "her" language. More like a typeface. Braille is English, just in code. It's not a different language. But she thought the idea of being pen pals was great fun and so, apparently, did her Braille teachers who were probably thrilled at some interest in it from a peer. She was the only blind student in the district, as far as I know.

It was only a few days later that I got a return note in my locker. It was written on a scrap of Braille paper in neat, machine-punched Braille. It told me her name and that I could leave another note for her in my locker. It was just a little bit cloak-and-dagger, these coded exchanges and I enjoyed having some excitement aside from the dull Junior High routine. She had put a small piece of clear tape on my locker under the latch, unnoticed by anyone else but allowing her to quickly identify mine in the long row of metal lockers.

In order to write back, I needed some method that was more efficient than a pen pressed into layers of notebook paper. Using the note she had given me, I carefully cut out the rectangular letters she had written so I'd have the right size for each letter and taped the square-holed paper over the widest rubber band I could find to make a soft surface on which to punch dots. Then I dragged my encyclopedia out again.

Luckily she had written using only the alphabet. The encyclopedia did not even give me the benefit of numbers so I felt like I'd barely dipped my toe into the knowledge of the Braille code. It still took me about five minutes per word to encode my message but I wrote back, explaining that I didn't know much Braille but I'd love to learn.

Several days later I found another note explaining numbers. I was ecstatic. I set to work learning the alphabet and numbers in earnest. Once I had them memorized I found the words and sentences coming much easier.

The next note I received added a new element: a dot before each capital letter. It took me a long afternoon of puzzling over that dot before I figured out what it meant. But like a scientist who makes great discoveries, I got it and then proudly used it in my next missive.

We continued to exchange schoolgirl notes for several months. Rarely did we meet and talk but at last we did and began exchanging the notes in person. We ended up going to one another's houses after school and became friends, although she looked down somewhat on me, a lowly seventh grader, from her heightened experience of ninth grade. It's how Junior High goes.

We eventually parted ways at the end of the year, resumed our friendship briefly in high school, then she moved away and I have never seen her since. But my love affair with Braille has continued unabated to this day. The day I received my first Braille slate and could finally abandon my home-made one and create smooth, perfect Braille letters stands out in my memory.

I ordered a Braille dictionary from the Idaho Commission for the Blind who wanted to know who in my family was blind and needed it. I didn't know what to tell them. I figured "I'm interested and weird" would probably suffice. Unlike most sighted or low-vision people I forced myself to read by touch alone, slogging through learning all the short forms and abbreviations. Since I am not technically blind, I couldn't order books from the national printing houses, but I found other sources where I could buy books. (See below.) I learned to read it fluently and I still practice often, reading usually in bed where I don't need to bother with a night light and where after a long day of computer-induced eyestrain and myopic blurriness, I can relax in the soft darkness and read.

Two years ago I decided reading wasn't enough and I wanted to qualify to transcribe it for others who needed it. I applied to the Library of Congress and began their correspondence training course. I got more than I bargained for, though and I had to quit halfway through when I couldn't keep up. I plan to finish it at some point when I have more time to study. There is an amazing amount of code and lots of special rules to memorize.

So there it is. After all these years I still love Braille and if my reading speed was just a little faster and materials more available, I'd almost prefer it over print. It breaks my heart that only 10% of blind children are being taught Braille since audio books and other technology have nearly replaced it. But like ASL it was developed by people who needed and wanted it, not by sighted teachers who don't want to bother with it. So hopefully it will stay alive and in use in spite of those who call it outmoded and cumbersome.

What is Braille?
Braille Bug

Buy Braille Books (or donate)
Seedlings Braille

Free Bibles in Braille (or donate)
Lutheran Braille Workers

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