Louis Braille Celebration
The Difference the Dots Make: A Personal History with Braille
Print edition page number(s) 196-198
Although braille has been used in the United States since as early as the 1860s and its use has opened career opportunities to hundreds of thousands of blind people, in most public schools braille is not taught to blind students, and the right to learn braille was not codified in the legal system of the United States until 1998. Very few college programs that instruct teachers of the blind demand fluency in the reading and writing of braille sufficient to permit a graduate to pick up a braille page and read it with ease. Reading a braille book for pleasure is a concept that many blind people and many teachers of the blind simply do not have.
The year 2009 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Louis Braille. His reading and writing system for the blind is the most important invention ever created for blind people; it has brought opportunity and joy to the hearts of millions. The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) has declared this year the year of braille literacy--the year of Braille Readers are Leaders. We want to double the braille literacy rate for the blind of the United States, and we have received support for our aspirations from many quarters. The U.S. Mint has been instructed by Congress to strike a commemorative silver dollar with readable, properly made braille embossed upon it. If our society believes that blind people have something to contribute, then we will believe in the tools used by the blind, and braille is one of the most important.
Learning to cherish braille
My own experience with braille began at the age of 6. At the school for the blind, those of us in the first grade who had very little remaining vision were taught braille. We started by studying flash cards, but fairly soon we graduated to the Dick and Jane basal readers. Sixteen of us were in the class, arranged in two rows of eight students. My desk was the sixth one from the front in the first row. We were told to open our books to page 1. The teacher asked the first student in the first row to read the braille page. When the student had trouble reading, the teacher corrected the errors made by the student. Then, the teacher called upon the second student in the row and again corrected that student's errors. Before the teacher came to me, we had been through this exercise five times. When my turn came, the teacher asked me to read page 1. I put my fingers on the page and spoke the words that were there. The teacher called me to the front of the room, expressed her satisfaction in my ability to read, and pasted a gold star on page one of my book. It is the only gold star I have ever received.
My family lived more than 100 miles from the school. On weekends, my father came to pick me up for the drive to our home. When he appeared at our first-grade class on Friday afternoon, my teacher advised me to take my book home with me to show to my mother. My mother had learned braille because she thought she might need to know it to communicate with me or to help me with my homework. I carried my book home with me, and I showed my mother my gold star. Because my mother is a suspicious woman, she asked if she could borrow my book, and I gave it to her. Later, during the weekend, she brought me a piece of braille paper with words on it, and she asked me to read it. When I told her that I could not, she said that it was an exact copy of page 1 of my book.
When I had completed the first grade, during the summer months, my mother took me in hand. She decided that I was to learn braille. For an hour each day she taught me to read. I objected. My brothers didn't have homework during the summer; I was the only one. But my mother insisted, and I had no alternative. By the end of that summer I had learned to read. I returned to the school for the blind in the fall, and I discovered the school library. By the time I had finished the fifth grade, I had read every book in the school library that the librarian would let me have. Some of the books in the library were too advanced for me, she said. I have wondered ever since what they were.
When I attended the school for the blind in the 1950s and early 1960s, I was required to write a braille letter to my mother each Monday night. Much of the time I had visited my family over the weekend. Therefore, I had little to say to my mother on Monday nights. Each letter was required to be one full braille page. The first line usually read: "How are you? I am fine." Even then, I knew that this was a dull way to start a letter, but I needed to fill the space. It had not occurred to me that I could have described the classes that had taken place on Monday or given a recitation of the food served in the dining hall or complained about my classmates. My imagination at that time was somewhat limited. After inquiring about my mother's health, I turned to the weather. I could usually get at least a brief paragraph out of that.
I was astonished by the rule regarding the letter to my mother. Braille paper was scarce at the school for the blind. In a box placed in my classroom, the teacher put scraps of braille paper. She cut them from the bottoms of our assignments. We were expected, when creating braille documents, to fill the paper, writing all the way to the bottom of the page. We were adjured to remember that taking a new braille page without completely filling a previous one was wasteful, expensive, disrespectful to the school--a veritable heinous offense against all right-thinking people. I was not allowed to write a brief letter to my mother even though this would have saved as much as half a sheet of the precious braille paper. My mother never complained about the repetitious nature of my writing, but she never said she was glad to get my letters either.
I received a copy of the magazine My Weekly Reader in braille during the summer months. I had no other braille reading material of my very own. Even though some of the articles in the magazine were dull, I read them anyway. Fascinating, dull, or witty, the copies of My Weekly Reader stayed with me. I did not discard them, because braille that was my very own was almost unknown.
Using braille in all aspects of life
I have a braillewriter in my office, a braillewriter at home, a slate and stylus in my desk, and almost always a slate and stylus in my pocket. I learned to write braille using a slate and stylus in the third grade, and I have been doing it ever since.
When I was in my first year of law school, I took notes in every class using the slate, as I had done in grade school, in high school, and in college. I wrote with my slate and stylus in class as fast as possible, and my grades reflected my diligence. I soon learned that the student with the best set of notes was frequently found by others who needed help. At the University of Notre Dame, because I had better notes than they had written, I taught accounting to my fellow students.
At the end of each semester, I would have a big pile of braille notes. Unlike the school for the blind, I never stinted on the paper. I bought as much of it as I needed, and I used it up as fast as I could. I preferred lightweight braille paper, because my stylus could make braille faster with it. Although the large pile of braille notes were essential to my education, I admit that it never hurt my feelings to throw them away when the tests were finished.
Witnessing history in France
Louis Braille was born in Coupvray, France, and his birthplace is still standing. NFB was asked to support the work of restoring this historic birthplace, and in February 1997, the work of restoration had been completed and the time to open this home to the public had come. I traveled to France and stood in the yard where Louis Braille played. I examined the workbench where the accident happened that blinded him at age 3. I sat on the bench that was part of the living quarters of the Braille family. As I stood in the chilly February sunshine in the yard of the humble home that symbolizes so much to the blind of the world, I experienced not only gratitude for the work Louis Braille did but also a sense of pride. Braille was invented by a blind person. The need for the blind to be an integrated part of discovering solutions to the problem of blind people's inability to participate fully in society has always been great, and Louis Braille caused a dramatic leap forward in that participation by creating a system of reading and writing for the blind. I stood in Louis Braille's yard thinking about six small dots, one human life, and centuries of progress. I was representing the blind of the United States, but I was also reflecting on what braille has meant to the organization I lead, to my family, and to me.
I have read braille to myself for study and pleasure, I have read braille to my children, I have read braille to judges in courts of appeals, and I have read braille to tens of thousands of blind people. My mother taught me to read it, and I have taught braille to others. It is the medium for my learning, my work, and a very significant piece of my life. I have enough braille in my possession to give me the opportunity to read for the rest of my life even if all of the electricity disappears. I cannot imagine a life without a braille volume to stimulate, entertain, and inform.
Marc Maurer, J.D., president, National Federation of the Blind, 1800 Johnston Street, Baltimore, MD 21230; e-mail: <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
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