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 When a lot of people think of Braille they assume it’s outdated and mustn’t be useful.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.