Braille: a Vital Companion for Any Age
Jordie Howell, Braille Trainer, Vision Australia
Has Braille been left behind in this digital age? Have smartphones and tablets replaced this old-fashioned reading and writing tool? I, an avid and passionate braille user, am here to assure you that braille is not only just as important as it ever was, but that it has kept up with developments in technology and even enhances it.
We tend to automatically associate braille with people who are totally blind; particularly those blind from birth.
I have used braille since I was four years old and it is part of every aspect of my life. I teach braille, I transcribe braille music, I read braille music to sing in choirs or to learn a piano piece, I keep a phonebook in braille, and I label household items in braille.
Braille to me is my means of working on an equal playing field with my sighted peers. I always have a braille notetaker handy to jot down notes, or paired to my iPhone to send a text message using braille on a crowded peak-hour train. In my bag I carry a small hand frame which enables me to mark a piece of printed paper in braille if I need to identify it later for scanning. When a Braille letter arrives in the mail, I still find it exciting when I can read it straight away.
The approach for those who experience vision loss later on in life, is traditionally to help them maximise the sight they have, to encourage magnification and larger font sizes for reading. This keeps people working with familiar methods. In many cases though, reading becomes slower and less efficient.
Screen readers and screen enlargement software on computers is now commonplace. For a person who is blind, screen readers provide quick access to printed material however screen readers don’t easily provide the detailed access to the spelling of words and the formatting of text that braille offers. Although screen enlargement software allows a person with low vision to read in detail, it often does not allow for speed or fluent reading.
At Vision Australia, along with other braille trainers, I run braille classes for adults who have lost their vision in adulthood. We teach university students, people of working age and those who are retired through face-to-face courses and correspondence.
Reasons for learning braille differ widely. For example, someone may want to learn to read books because they would dearly love to read to their grandchildren. But, the motivation to learn can also be far more immediate and practical.
How about writing a shopping list, labelling items in the cupboard or identifying bills with dates by which they must be paid. Playing cards, bingo, scrabble and other games can be possible with both braille and print-reading players (bingo is often quicker in braille than in large print). Recognising money with a cash test marked in braille means you don’t need an app or sighted assistance to organise your finances. Notes for public presentations in braille allow eye contact to be maintained with an audience while the fingers peruse the material.
For the tech savvy amongst us, refreshable braille displays and braille notetakers mean that braille is portable and volumes of braille can be stored on one small device. Sending text messages is now possible by pairing your braille display or notetaker to your smartphone and controlling the phone all with braille. A combination of computer access and braille provide more than one tool to be extremely efficient at work or when enjoying recreational activities.
I encourage anyone who has thought about learning braille but hasn’t taken the plunge to do so. Yes, it will take time and commitment, but I hope I’ve convinced you of the benefits and independence Braille offers. Braille may just help you increase your independence and efficiency in ways you didn’t think was possible.