How braille changed my life

It’s not really a secret that I love Braille. It’s got to the point that whenever I go out with some of my friends from goalball and I get asked if I want a Braille menu they go “oh no”, or if there isn’t one tease me about how frustrated I get. It’s totally true and pretty funny that they know me so well, but most people don’t get why I think Braille is so useful.

I started to learn Braille before I entered primary school, meaning I could read from a very young age. I thought my experiences were perfectly normal until I met other visually impaired students when I went to a school for the blind. Some of them had been given limited access to Braille reading materials, instead relying on assistive technology to get through school. Others hadn’t started learning until much later than I did. It was then that I realised that my experiences weren’t the norm and that I was extremely lucky to have had such a good education. At secondary school I used a combination of Braille and a laptop, in maths I solely used Braille and for the majority of science I did the same. In other subjects, such as English, I’d sometimes write essays in Braille and other times on the computer. I had also learnt to touch type at primary school, something else I realised not all visually impaired people had been taught.

I left NCW with high GCSE grades, my best results in maths, English and science. I definitely couldn’t have achieved this without access to Braille reading and writing materials. Having strong Braille reading skills doesn’t necessarily guarantee high grades. I proved this over the next two years when my academic performance slowly declined through a combination of disinterest and frustration at the system I was trapped in. I was prevented from taking maths and science subjects as I “wouldn’t be able to keep up” as I couldn’t see the board. The fact that I was academically able was irrelevant, it was assumed that because I couldn’t see it would be impossible for me to study science based subjects at a higher level than I had already done.

I still use Braille now, I’m studying sports science and for some units I’ve had a lot of diagrams to look at. They are all labelled using Braille as it’s the easiest way for me to access them. I also have a BrailleNote, I often use a laptop but it’s another way I take notes in class. When a lot of people think of Braille they assume it’s outdated and mustn’t be useful. That’s totally not true, with the creation of electronic note takers Braille can be a convenient way of reading and writing, in fact my braillenote is a lot smaller and lighter than the laptop I have so I often choose to take it places with me if I think I might need to take notes but have limited space.

Braille may no longer always be the best method for reading books for fun, ebooks and audio are often good alternatives. The Lord of the Rings for example is 20 volumes in grade 2 braille which isn’t exactly ideal if you want to read it on the train or something! Audio books and ebooks have given us a way of reading that is accessible and convenient, I use them both and would never want to give them up. However there are so many advantages to being able to read Braille I don’t think it should ever be fully replaced. I also love my copy of the Lord of the rings, no matter how impossible it is to transport!

People who read Braille generally are better at spelling than those who always use a computer or have never learnt Braille. This is because with a computer there are features like spell check, and instead of reading it yourself the screen reader does all the work. If you are a braille user you have to maintain good literacy skills which is really important when you consider how exams and other assessments influence a person’s educational outcomes. Also would you say to a bunch of sighted kids “ok you’re going to learn to read but there’s no point writing as you can just use the computer”. That would never be allowed so I don’t see why some professionals think it’s ok to deny blind children the right to access written materials.

If you learn Braille and choose not to use it I have no problem with that, but people should be given the choice. It can be hard to find people qualified to teach Braille so some schools just don’t bother and they introduce technology instead. It’s really sad that this is considered an acceptable thing to do. Clearly blind people still find Braille useful or services like the RNIB national library and their transcription service wouldn’t exist.

I feel extremely lucky that I’ve always been surrounded by professionals who see the value of learning Braille, I could read grade 1 by the time I was 4 and by age 7 I’d finished learning grade 2. This made my primary school experience so much more positive from an academic perspective and I honestly think it’s one of the reasons why I never faced some of the educational challenges some visually impaired people do. I’ve always had the choice to either use Braille or technology such as a laptop, this has meant that depending on what I’m doing I am able to choose which method works best. If I didn’t know Braille I would be limited and at a disadvantage in some areas such as maths and science.

Many people who work with the blind still see the value of Braille, it’s because of them that other VI people like myself have access to an education, discover the pleasure of reading books and leave school with strong literacy skills. The work they do is rarely recognised, people just think they’re teaching a child to read like any teacher does. But in reality what they do is constrained by funding and the views of the particular local authority. The fact that they want to teach us, to give us those skills and a chance to have an equal education is so important, if I had never learnt to read I wouldn’t be where I am now. Sadly this is a reality many blind children growing up now are going to have to face. It really is unnecessary, I would urge parents to be strong if you think your child needs access to Braille, it can make such a difference to their lives, it has totally changed mine.

  1. Jenny left a comment on June 16, 2013 at 4:10 pm

    I couldn’t agree more with everything you’ve said about braille. I learned it before i started school, and definitely believe it helped me to do well academically. I was a good speller and my grammar was good because of Braille, and it got worse as i depended on the computer to read when i got older.
    I wish parents would realise the importance of Braille for their children.

    • Holly left a comment on June 18, 2013 at 11:47 am

      Yes, I hope more parents realise that braille is incredibly useful and even though some people may discourage them from doing so they should make sure their child has access to it. Unfortunately a lot of professionals in the field of sight loss don’t believe it is useful and parents follow what they say because they don’t have access to information that tells them otherwise.

  2. edward child left a comment on June 16, 2013 at 4:35 pm

    Hi Holly, I am and have been following your progress with interest since you began publishing your communications. There is another avenue which you haven’t touched on as yet and that is that there is a very interesting study is the history of the evolution of the various codes used in braille and the study of grade 3 braille in particular which might even be called ‘the forgotten code’. I however have given the last ten years to investigating this and with a study of this I am quite happy to share my findings with other people.

    • Holly left a comment on June 18, 2013 at 11:48 am

      Thank you for reading my blog. I have heard of grade 3 braille before but have had no experience using it.

  3. torie left a comment on June 16, 2013 at 7:11 pm

    Hi Holly. I love braille and don’t use it as much as i should really. But there is something satisfying about picking up something to find it has braille on it.

    I’ve got to do a talk to some kids at my old school about braille as they are just not interested and would rather use technology. so any hints for 11 year olds.

    When i was in school you had to learn braille first. You didn’t even look near a computer until you were about 10 where you learnt to touch type. You then got a braille and speak about 12, and a braille lite in about third year. I hate audio books as i find i can’t get in to them as much as i can if i read them. I’d love to have a braille display for my ipad lol.

    I get so annoyed when blind people don’t use punctuation because everything is read to them.

    Great post! Xxx

    • Holly left a comment on June 18, 2013 at 11:52 am

      Thanks! I’m glad you liked the post. Maybe you could bring in products that have braille on them, and challenge them to see what they can find next time they go to the supermarket or are just out that has braille on it, maybe that will help them engage. There are also cards you can get from the RNIB that have the braille alphabet on them as well as print so someone learning grade 1 can use it as a reference.

  4. fred left a comment on June 18, 2013 at 10:52 am

    It sounds like you have had and are still getting an excellent education and have learnt Braille from a very young age. I agree with you that it should be made available to more people especially children who are VI and learning to read, but also to adults who become VI in later life through adult services from local government. Unfortunately, this is still not available to all depending on where you live in the country.
    I was told by someone from RNIB that they didn’t think it was worth learning Braille because it would be superseded by technology and also as you say it takes up a lot of space when used for large volume books. But then I totally agree with your point that bad spelling and punctuation can creep in even if spell checkers on computers are used!
    In my opinion Braille is still not used by enough organisations as an alternative to standard print (let alone an audio version).
    It is also not that difficult to learn Grade 1 Braille once you understand that it is generally based on the first 10 Braille cell layout for the first 10 letters of the alphabet.
    The main downside to learning Braille is the loss of sensitivity in your finger tips as you age – so possibly a reason why so many people don’t take it up in later life.

    • Holly left a comment on June 18, 2013 at 11:53 am

      Thanks, I definitely agree that services should be improved for both children and adults.

  5. Ted Cooke left a comment on June 18, 2013 at 11:08 am

    I didn’t start learning braille until I was in grade 6, since I could see before then. By that time, I think it was too late. I used braille a lot for the next 6 years, but never gained the reading speed of my peeres. I think a big reason is my fingers simply haven’t developed the sensativity. If I move my fingers at the speed my peers move their fingers, the braille becomes an indistinguishable mass of ripples. I am thankful for it, though. I would have never been able to have done so well in math without it.

    • Holly left a comment on June 18, 2013 at 11:54 am

      I have heard that this is the case for some people, but I’m glad you still found your braille skills useful.

  6. Guenni left a comment on June 18, 2013 at 3:31 pm

    Hi
    For the most part I totally agree with your post. I also learned braille when I started school, and couldn’t imagine my life without it.
    However, there’s one point where I have to disagree somewhat. The way you wrote some sentences, one might get the idea that using a computer and braille kind of exclude each other which definitely isn’t the case. To the contrary. Imho screen readers that support refreshable braille displays aren’t worth their salt. I’d go crazy if I couldn’t proofread a written text manually. I also like to read longer texts like ebooks etc. on the braille display.
    Because someone asked about pointers for a talk to kids. It’s probbably not something their teachers might like, but using braille might make it easier for the kids to do stuff that’s not erm… exactly part of the school lesson while in class. 🙂
    take care, Guenni

    • Holly left a comment on June 18, 2013 at 3:35 pm

      Thanks for the comment. I ocasionally use the computer and braille simultaneously, for example connecting a braillenote to it, but in general use them under separate circumstances, it’s something I haven’t explored a great deal though. Both are really valuable skills. I totally agree that you can use braille in class and not just to advance your education 🙂

  7. Natalya left a comment on June 18, 2013 at 10:11 pm

    Thanks for this post, it’s not only informative but also really interesting to see how multiple solutions are used by different people (the original poster and commenters) to achieve useful aims.

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