It’s World Braille Day! Which feels very fitting for me personally because was around about this time last year that I finished learning braille and accidentally got a job that allows me to use it every day. And thank fuck, because I definitely would’ve forgotten it by now otherwise. So I thought I’d attempt write down some thoughts and opinions on the code.
I want to throw out a disclaimer/warning/please don’t hate on me now. I have some relatively strong opinions about braille, but ultimately I know that it’s not for everyone. Whether that’s because you’re unable to learn it for whatever reason or because you don’t feel it’s for you (sorry I had to, there’ll probably be a lot of these), it is a choice and we should all respect each other’s choices. Except people who listen to music on trains without headphones, they can get in the fucking bin.
In October 2018 I started teaching myself braille using the Fingerprint course from RNIB. I have written a post about my initial thoughts upon learning and why I chose to do so, and I don’t blog much so if you want to read it just croll down a few posts. A couple of months later I then got a job that would eventually involve me teaching braille to children. When I started learning braille it was because my vision was declining and I thought it would be a helpful skill to have. Because of the necessity I felt it had for me I really expected the learning process to be kind of a sad chore, so I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I genuinely enjoyed the course and found the idea of the code itself pretty cool. I feel very fortunate because I know braille can be very hard to learn – and don’t get me wrong, there were times when I really felt I was giving my brain a workout – but the idea behind the code and the shapes all seemed to make sense to me quite quickly. I like to try and practise my reading as much as possible because it takes years and years to get quick, but I have recently discovered I can read braille upside down.
Teaching myself was really the only option I had as there aren’t many adult lessons available, so I learned very much in isolation, which means I’m always really curious about how other people learned and how they found it. It’s also interesting seeing the difference between sight and touch readers. I am able to do both but I’m definitely speedier at touch reading, and also I can’t actually see braille on a bit of paper properly so I only really sight read on a screen when the need arises. I don’t know many braillists but of the ones I do know quite a lot of them are sight readers, and although I’m ok with that in theory, I really notice the difference in understanding of the importance of good reading technique. Braille is a tactile format, that is the entire point of it, so it’s frustrating when that element is sometimes forgotten.
There’s a lot of debate over whether braille is dying, and whether it’s really needed when technology is always improving. I can see why this argument is made, and braille does have its downsides. It’s bulky and not always easy to get your hands on. But in the last few years there have been improvements in braille technology, so it’s begun to work alongside other assistive tech. My main argument for learning braille – especially children and people who lose their vision young – is that it’s vital for good literacy. Imagine how hard it is to fully comprehend a language you’ve never seen (or felt) written down. English particularly is a crazy bastard language that has ridiculous spellings, words that are spelled the same and sound the same and words that sound the same but are spelled different. Only ever hearing that language is really limiting, particularly in some of the bizarre robot voices you get with screen readers etc. I don’t even think Siri can say my name. I do occasionally wonder if English was devised by some omniscient mad-head who hated the idea of reading being easy for everyone. Probably a Tory. But anyway, I digress… The point is, braille is really helpful for those who can’t see print to learn correct spelling, grammar, punctuation and formatting.
It’s really tricky to approach the subject of learning braille a lot of the time because it’s so often wrapped up in the feeling around sight loss. I know that I considered it for a very long time and a lot of that was because I wasn’t sure what was happening with my vision. The thought of learning to read again at any time is difficult, but especially when trying to process and adapt to a change in vision. This is why I think it’s better to be honest about how important braille is, because it really is a great skill for independence and a great string to your bow.
I think the one thing that still holds braille back is this sort of vicious circle it’s stuck in. In that, paper braille is great for when you only need a small amount of it, but ideally anything more will need to be done digitally or on a braille display. As I said above though, braille tech is still horrifically expensive. It is improving somewhat, but given that a lot of VI people either don’t work or do but don’t earn lots, getting hold of a bit of braille tech for personal use is not necessarily an expense that can be spared. This barrier to accessing braille devices means that some people don’t see the point in learning and others who do know it can’t access it very easily. This means there’s less demand for stuff to be available in braille, and thus less demand for products which I’m assuming is partly why prices for it are still so high.
I don’t know exactly how the circle can be broken, but I really don’t think braille is dying and I think things are slowly improving.
I did some reading up on Louis Braille recently and discovered that he was a teenager when he developed the code. This makes me admire and sort of hate him at the same time. At his age I was concerned about what theme I had on my MySpace page, listening to a lot of Panic! At The Disco and seeing how red I could dye my hair. Maybe if they’d had the internet in 19th century France Louis wouldn’t have been such a bloody over-achiever.
Anyway, I asked my boyfriend to get me a caterpillar cake. I told him it was to celebrate Louis’ 211th birthday but really I fucking love those cakes. It’s quite tactile though, here’s a picture:
Photograph shows a chocolate cake shaped like a caterpillar with a bit of a creepy face and little smarties and sprinkles on top of it. Also the packaging in the background because it has braille on it! (Nice one Co-Op!)
Many happy returns Louis, you dotty nutter! I bet you loved the birthday bumps.
I asked my boyfriend what to call this post and his immediate suggestions were:
Nationalise the Brailleways
Wrapped in Chainbraille
Touch, Don’t Look
Not really relevant but admirable.