I don’t know who comes up with these, but many organizations dedicated to blindness celebrate January as National Braille month. Louis Braille was born on January 4 in 1809 and invented the alphabet that became the basis for the current system of dot combinations that enable blind people all over the world to read. He died tragically young, but his legacy has lived on for all of these years. In addition to Latin languages (English, French, etc.) there are braille systems for Japanese, Chinese, and Korean, as well as many other languages that enable blind children and adults to not only read and write for themselves, but contribute to society at large.
I learned how to read braille at the same time my schoolmates were learning to read print – perhaps even earlier. My vision was such that I could read very large print and see pictures in books or on TV, but using it for long periods gave me massive headaches. So at the age of four or five, I started learning braille, which allowed me to continue my schooling uninterrupted when I realized that one of my many eye operations robbed me of most of the sight I had left. I initially learned to write using a Perkins brailler, and then was forced to learn using a slate and stylus – something I hated at the time, but am eternally grateful for now.
As a child, I thought every other blind student learned to read and write braille in this way, but I have learned that many are not being taught braille at all, due to the prevalence of screen reading software. Many of those that are taught to read may not be taught to write braille, since typing on a computer is so commonplace. While audio feedback and learning has its place, I believe there is no substitute for learning proper spelling, grammar, and sentence structure, and for those with little or no usable vision, I believe braille is the only way to achieve this. In no way am I saying that everyone needs to be perfect at it (I’m sure Meagan and others can find six mistakes in my first few paragraphs), but even sighted learners using a tablet or a smart phone have a visual concept of spacial relation, grammatical correctness, and even spelling (with or without the aide of a spellchecker). I believe the lack of braille teaching (with hard copy paper or with an electronic braille display) will ultimately put blind children (and later adults) at a disadvantage, because it is extremely hard to learn basic language concepts without being able to “see” them. I should know; I have learned three languages in addition to English, and could never have succeeded as well as I did, particularly with French, had I not been able to “see” proper spelling of words (those silent “e”s would have killed me).
Braille has made me the person I am today. I am literate, articulate, and play a mean game of Scrabble. While I do listen to audio books and use a screen reader to access a computer, I am eternally grateful that at eight years old I was all but glued to a chair and forced to learn that slate and stylus; who wants to carry around the braille equivalent of a Smith Corona? From a practical standpoint, having a secondary way of processing information (a braille display) proved incredibly helpful on an occasion where my computer’s sound card was fried and I had no access to my screen reader at all for several days! Buildings with elevators that don’t have braille signage can send me to the wrong floor; now imagine that in every single elevator because no one took the time to teach you how to read numbers? Not everyone will agree with me, but I firmly believe that those little dot combinations are one of the few things that can help level the playing field. Look up “Braille Literacy” and many organizations will correlate braille literacy with academic achievement and employment. So maybe it’s not just me…