Having a Braille of a Time

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.

Absolutely Caning It

I’m not going to apologise for being a shit blogger anymore, it clearly doesn’t work. I’m just going to accept myself as the lazy fucker I am.

Anyway, it’s been several months since I did some mobility training for my long cane, and I’ve had to start using the thing all the time as of about a month ago, so I am massively overdue to write something about it.

I had three sessions in total with the one and only mobility officer in my borough of London (fuck you austerity, you have improved exactly nothing and I will fight anyone who says otherwise). I was pretty apprehensive beforehand because not all people who work with the visually challenged actually seem to know what in the name of arse it is like – as I am sure many other VI people can attest to. This coupled with the fact that my borough is made up of like 99.9% old people had me convinced that I was going to be dealing with someone whose knowledge was lacking and who couldn’t relate to anyone under the age of 50.

I will hold my hands up here and admit I was being a grumpy bitch. My mobility officer was absolutely brilliant, they listened to everything I had to say and really got what I needed help with and what I wanted to use my cane for. On our first meeting we had a long chat about what I had been struggling with mobility-wise, and they helped me familiarise myself with the different ways you can use a cane and which methods would be best for me. The only slight snag during our first session was that my parents were having a new kitchen fitted and having to scream over drilling to a person you have just met is never ideal.

On our second meeting we just went fo a walk so I could get used to using my cane. I remember it vividly because it was at this point I realised that I would need to swap the marshmallow tip of my cane for a roller ball if I didn’t want to end up with a dislocated shoulder from all the pissing jarring. Pavements are really bumpy, has anyone else noticed??

For out third and final session we went out in the dark. This was what I had been waiting for as at this point I still didn’t need my cane when it was light but really had no confidence using it in the dark. We mostly just wandered around and I got to whack a lot of stuff with my stick, it was pretty hard work but I started to get the hang of it after a short while.

Since my vision has got worse I have found that the best way to stop myself from chickening out of doing things is to put myself into situations where I have to. Not sure about getting around in the dark? Well, go out when it’s light and then stay out until you have no choice but to use your cane and learn! Can’t read that bus number? Well, if you want to get home you’re just going to have to ask someone!

Obviously this method might not work for everyone but I have found it really useful. The more situations I realise I can navigate successfully in the less I worry about doing new things. I hated the idea of using a cane at first, and then when I started using it I was mostly just concentrating, so I didn’t have time to worry about what other people thought. After using it a couple of times and getting more comfortable with the practical side, I realised that I was a lot less self conscious about what people might be thinking. At the moment I have to use my cane all the time as my vision has got worse and I am waiting for surgery to (hopefully) improve it. I thought I would be really annoyed about this but actually all I really care about is being able to get about on my own, and my cane lets me do this. In a way, having to use it all the time helped me get more confident with it. I have also noticed that poeple are so much more helpful, it has really helped me get over my stubbornness about asking for help.

Sometimes when you have a disability, it is being able to do the little things that make you feel more like yourself. For me, using a cane means that I don’t have to slow down when I am walking and can enjoy racing along at quite a decent speed.

I will also never stop enjoying the people who don’t see me until they are almost falling over me and then have to leap out of the way. It is never not funny. I think it confuses them when I wander off laughing to myself.

Happy New(ish) Year!

Ok, so I missed actual New Years and am a bit of a shit blogger, but it’s still January so I think it’s not too late for a post like this.

The end of last year really got away from me a bit I must say. Winter set in and with it quite a lot of lethargy on my part, I felt like I did quite a lot of learning to be blind and had very little energy left over for other stuff – including blogging. Do any other VI people really hate it when the clocks go back? I really miss the light evenings. Also, this is not an agricultural society anymore so what even is the purpose of this please? We don’t need more time to plough the pissing fields.

Anyway, what have I been up to? Well, I had some surgery on my eyelid. I had it done under sedation rather than anaesthetic which was new and which I had been dreading, but was totally fine. I thought being awake while someone tugged on the inside of my eyelid would be slightly horrific, but with the sedation it turns out I was just weirdly intrigued by the sensation. Also they let me pick the music, and although I was tempted to ask for the Book of Mormon soundtrack or Too Drunk to Fuck by the Dead Kennedys, I went for Billy Joel instead, and he makes everything better obviously!

My vision has been getting worse gradually since September and so I spent a lot of the last few months adapting to this, which is fucking hard work to say the least. I’ve started using my cane much more and have become more comfortable with it not just practically but also psychologically, which was something I had been struggling with. I’ve also done a shit load of braille and am very near the end of my course. For Christmas I got a braille deck of cards, braille UNO and braille scrabble. If there are braille versions of any other games please let me know, I’m always on the hunt to satisfy my constant need for entertainment.

The most exciting thing happened right before Christmas: I got a job!!!! It happened very quickly but I am absolutely thrilled. The job also involves using braille so hopefully I’ll be able to hone some mad skills. I started this week and am absolutely knackered but very pleased to finally be back at work. This is the first job I have had since I lost some of my vision and so navigating around that has been a bit intense, but not as tricky as I thought it might be Being visually impaired does mean you have to concentrate much harder than others though. I have to familiarise myself with new buildings and try to remember where everywhere is. It’s also hard meeting new people who don’t know what level of vision you have. I find that eye contact is a bit lost on me now so I can’t always tell when people are talking to me, which can be a bit awkward.

Getting a job in 2019 was my big aim for the year, along with going vegetarian. But it was pointed out to me that I hadn’t eaten any meat since about November and I managed to get a job before Christmas so now I’ve got to set myself some new goals!

One of these goals is to try and be a less shit blogger this year. I am planning on writing some posts about mobility and using a cane, as well as about braille. I’ve become much more comfortable and confident with both of these things.

I hope you’re all having a good start to the year and hopefully I’ll have some more posts up soon.

Bill made a lovely big mess – My first month of Braille

When my period of unemployment began to stretch on for longer than I had anticipated I thought the worst thing was going to be boredom. Don’t get me wrong it is pretty tedious sometimes, but what really began to concern me was whether my brain cells were dying because I wasn’t really having to use them. This was epitomised by my insistence a few months ago that my boyfriend should Google the phrase ‘Where were horses invented?’ (Fun fact, it’s North America, I thought it was Europe). So I began to consider the possibility that I needed a new hobby. However, I was limited by being piss poor and a bit lazy.

I did think at the time that I should consider learning Braille. After all, I had been having a spot of bother with my eye for a while and I was sick of only being able to see well enough to read for short periods of time. I remember speeding through the Handmaid’s Tale because I’d been scheduled for surgery and I desperately needed to finish it before then. So after accepting that it might be a while before I could read the normal way again and getting so fucking bored one day that I literally Googled the phrase ‘Where do bananas come from?’ I decided it would be a good use of my time and a handy (get it!) skill to have.

I wasn’t massively sure where to start so I read the RNIB’s page on learning Braille for adults. It had a lot of information but I felt like I’d do better if someone taught me. This is mostly because I am a horrific procrastinator and need a real grown up to keep me in line. The last thing I taught myself to do was knit while I was at university, and although it’s a hobby I’m extremely fond of I am very sure that I only got good at it because I used to do it instead of writing essays.

However, I had no luck with finding any real person lessons. As far as I am aware – unbelievably – there are no statutory provisions in place for adults who are experiencing vision loss and want to learn Braille. Eventually my sight got worse and I got impatient so I gave in and bought Fingerprint, a course to teach myself. I then had a bit of a tizzy when I realised I did not have several hundred pounds to spend on a Brailler and honestly, will probably never be willing to spend that much money on one. But I was recommended Perky Duck, a free bit of software that lets you use your computer keyboard like a Brailler, thus giving me everything I needed to get going! A word of caution to any who might search for it on their phones – mine autocorrected it to ‘perky suck’ without me realising and i was briefly alarmed at all the smut until I saw my mistake.

Fingerprint arrived swiftly and I must say I have been pretty good at doing it regularly. I’m not sure if it’s because of my shitty vision or because I spent fifty quid on the stuff but I have managed to motivate myself to do something at least every other day since I got it. Not only that, but I am really enjoying learning it. I managed to pick up the alphabet in about a week and have found having the option of using it to read medication boxes so useful already.

It’s been about a month now and I have finished the first volume, which consisted of the alphabet, some punctuation and numbers. I’ve just started volume two and the beginnings of contracted Braille. This is the stuff I’ve been looking forward o getting my teeth into.

The title of this blog is my favourite ridiculous sentence from volume one of Fingerprint, in which Bill and Jane feature heavily and their lifestyle preferences are discussed at length. Jane loves an active life and likes bikes. Bill is lazy, he likes to eat and take the bus. Generally we are given the impression that Bill is a bit of a prick.

I am only eight pages into volume two and I really think the the person who devised this course has a vendetta against Bill. This was the first paragraph of text I had to read:

Few people like Bill. More people like Jane. Jane is so very nice. Bill is rather bad. He is very lazy. Jane is quite small but Bill is very big. He is rather fat too. That does not surprise us. He eats as big a tea as two normal people can eat. You will not see anybody else eat like Bill does. It is bad but Bill is bad.

And as if the fat shaming wasn’t ridiculous enough, here’s a sentence on the next page:

Bill is as big as a bus.

I’m a bit scared about what will happen to Bill over the rest of the course. Will he get so large he becomes bed ridden? Or maybe he’ll finally snap and eat Jane and her pissing bike.

Bill’s slow descent into madness aside, I have found Fingerprint to be a really easy and clear way to teach myself Braille. We live in an age where technology is increasingly able to help those of us with sight loss, and it is a fantastic thing for us to have. But I must say I find it surprisingly refreshing to do something so physical and tactile. I wonder if other Braille users feel similarly? I can’t wait to get into grade 2 and start reading books properly again.

Minding the Gap – How not to get horribly maimed when commuting

I recently attended an event I about the research project VI Mobilities. The project aims to explore the experiences of young visually impaired people as they travelled. At the event we saw six short films that participants had shot, these highlighted the particular challenges that VI people face when navigating. Afterwards there was a panel discussion with various people, including participants and representatives from organisations such as RSBC and Transport for All. The audience seemed really engaged and it gave me hope that people would remember what they had seen in these insightful videos going forth.

This has left me thinking a lot recently about how much more VI people have to think about when we travel. This goes particularly for those of us residing in London, a city so large I think it might be trying to eat the rest of England. I often say to people that I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else but London partly because of its accessibility, however, I grew up here and I wonder how someone with a visual impairment moving here for the first time might find it. The capital is not known for its warmth and friendliness.

I have always been fortunate enough to enjoy travelling around independently (from an appropriate age of course, I wasn’t a tube hopping toddler), but I have always had to work a little harder than sighted people to navigate around. Having quite a narrow field of vision can be a bit of an arse ache in a busy station when people are in a hurry and not always looking where they’re going. I find I have to move my head around a lot like some kind of demented owl. I treat walking across a busy pedestrian street almost like crossing the road and I think that people who look at their phones while walking along are tossers and I should be able to cough in their faces.

Using apps such as Citymapper and Moovit are helpful but signs dotted about tube stations can be tricky and when you’re moving along in a crowd sometimes you might not feel comfortable stopping, or even be able to get as near as you need. Since I lost more of my vision I have actually realised how little I need to read specific words on signs on the tube. Thankfully the majority of the network has a coherent design, each tube line has a colour, ‘Way Out’ signs are always the same and I can judge which way something is pointing by where it is placed on a sign. I also find the tube maps usefully distinctive, the lines tend to be quite clear. If I am trying to work out which platform will take me in the right direction, instead of trying to read the words I can just look at the shape of the lines. For example, the northern line is sort of forked at both ends and so I know which shape is which direction. This does not work for the DLR because it was designed by an imbecile, seriously what the fuck is the DLR, a robot bus on rails???

Admittedly, a lot of my knowledge does come from having travelled a lot with better vision when I was younger and having a freakish memory. There are a few things I find harder with reduced vision. One of these things is not knowing what side train doors will open on. This is fine when it’s empty but when the train is busy and you can’t see out of the windows properly it can be a bit of a mad dash. Some lines do tell you what side the doors will open on but it baffles me that TfL haven’t bothered to make this universal, it doesn’t seem that hard. I also don’t massively enjoy stations that are for some reason decorated in various shades of grey (I’m looking at you Jubilee line!), it can be quite hard to tell where walls are and I am yet to find a way to style out almost walking into one.

I don’t often ask for help but I must say that when I do people are generally quite good. I know London has a bit of a reputation and it is mostly deserved but every so often the kindness of another commuter when I am looking particularly confused has restored my faith in humanity just a little bit.

I’d love to know how other people find travelling about in the city, does it make you anxious, are people helpful, do you have any tips or tricks?

I asked my sister for suggestions on what to name this post, these were some of her best:

Where am I?

Your Sight Terminates Here

Thomas the Blind Engine

I was sorely tempted by all of these I must admit.

My Kingdom for a Cane!

So after several near misses and one full on collision with lampposts in the dark last winter, I have been thinking about what I would do if my vision wasn’t okay enough by a similar time this year. Unfortunately it is not, and so I decided it would probably be better for me and my nose if I started using a cane.

It was at this point that I realised I had fuck all clue how to go about getting a cane and learning how to use it. Even though I see people using them all the time I had never considered the practicalities behind it. Do they grow on trees? Do you rub them and get a magic cane genie to teach you the ways?

After having a small fret I called the helpline of a large charity for the visually impaired who were Really Not Informative Basically. I explained to the person on the phone that I had lost some vision recently and wanted advice on getting mobility training and possibly learning Braille. After almost exclusively trying to sell me Braille products from the charity’s shop and asking if I had a pen and paper handy to write some stuff down (come on!), I ended the call and wondered if you can really call it a helpline if it is no shitting help whatsoever.

After this I discovered that I needed to contact my local sensory team to get a sensory assessment and then some mobility training. Getting through to them was surprisingly easy and I was soon speaking to a mobility officer. It was then that I found out however, that they were the only trained mobility officer in the borough and could not see me for a month. Initially I was frustrated at the situation, but really it’s not the fault of the mobility officer, I assume they have more work than there are hours in the day and not enough budget to hire more people. I do feel that I was justified in getting pissed off when they suggested that someone could ‘take me out’ to places if ‘the risk to yourself is too great’. Bore off mate.

And so while I wait for all the official assessments et cetera, I have a good solution. A very kind friend of mine who uses a cane has offered to teach me how to use one in the meantime. I mentioned this to the mobility officer on the phone and they did not seem keen, but really what could possibly go wrong?

Until now I have been so focused on deciding whether I wanted to use a cane and then actually sorting out getting one that I haven’t thought much about what it will be like. I should have my cane and some basic idea of how to use it within the next couple of weeks now and so I’ve started thinking a bit more introspectively. How does it feel to carry around something that announces your disability to people? How will I feel about the different ways that people will treat me and the assumptions that are made? I’m very lucky in that I have a lot of useable vision, I suspect this might confuse people when I don’t conform to what they think a ‘blind’ person should be like. I have also noticed that when I’ve told people that I’m going to start using a cane I quickly add what almost feels like a disclaimer: ‘Oh, I only need it when it’s dark or raining! I’ll hardly use it really!’ Why do I feel the need to tell people this? Who cares how often I use it if it gives me more independence and stops me from worrying?

Saying that, I am one hundred percent going to use it on the tube during rush hour when I want people to get out of my way.