Braille has been a topic of intense discussion over on blind people Twitter. I was also interviewed today for a piece that will air on al Jazeera America sometime in the future about Braille, so it’s on my mind and I have all kinds of feels. Plus, this has been a topic I’ve wanted to bring up for a while and haven’t quite figured out how to frame it. Since most of my vocal readership is sighted, I’m hoping this will prove useful, or at least entertaining, and while I have no reason to believe that my interview will result in a terrible piece, when journalists talk with people with disabilities, the resulting stories are invariably fluffy and insubstantial, and this is important to me, so I wanted to make my position clear.
First, some background. I am in a position of privilege when it comes to Braille. My parents actively cared about my getting a good education. Thus, I started working with a teacher of the visually impaired when I was 18 months old. She taught me the basics of Braille at the same time my peers were taught the basics of print, so when I started school, I was able to keep up with my peers.
I was lucky in other ways. Not only did my parents do everything they could to make sure my education never suffered, up to and including moving to a better school district when it became clear my home school district wasn’t going to meet my needs, but–and here I am going to make a statement that will startle some of my sighted readers–I had no useable vision to get in my way. There was no alternative. I either had to learn Braille or be illiterate. I know of blind children who were never taught Braille because if they smooshed their faces right up against a closed-circuit TV, they could read large print. They might only be able to read six words a minute, but by Odin, they could read print so they didn’t need Braille. Some of these kids had to take up Braille out of necessity later in life. The people I’ve spoken to found it intensely frustrating, and while they might end up with a grasp of Braille, they weren’t ever likely to use it, let alone to enjoy reading for pleasure.
I, on the other hand, loved to read even as a kid, and somehow, the wiring clicked into place early in my brain that said that there were whole worlds to be discovered in books. I remember spending a summer at the local residential school for the blind and being fascinated by a copy of Little Women they had in the girls’ dormitory. For the next four summers, I tried to read that book, each year thinking I was a little older, so this time i would get it. I can’t remember if I ever finished it during those summers–I feel like I never did–but I wanted that adventure. I wanted the joy of cracking open the spine of some book I’d never read and discovering what lay within. My biggest disappointment about that residential school was how many Braille books there weren’t. I used to have dreams about being able to walk into a library and have floor-to-ceiling shelves full of books, all of which I could read. (This explains so much about the state of my TBR, but we’ll get there in due course.)
Fast forward through high school to college. in high school, all of my textbooks were available in Braille. I never read an audio textbook until I entered college, and it was an uncomfortable paradigm shift. Now I had to absorb everything through listening instead of through reading, and most of my text books came from a company called Recordings for the Blind, which has now rebranded itself as Learning Ally. (Which a number of screen readers think should be pronounced like “Learning Alley”, a minor detail I find both frustrating and amusing.) The textbooks were recorded by volunteers, none of whom had the skills to read aloud. At least, none of the volunteer readers I ever heard did. Many blind people I know have their RFB stories–listening to some book on Greek history, absorbing whatever nuggets of wisdom could be found, only to be jolted out of that frame of mind when the reader would let out a belch that never made it onto the cutting room floor. That happened to me, too, only the book was on domestic violence. I adjusted, though, and in the intervening 15 years i’ve come to rely on listening in order to take in new information. With the rise of digital technology, I can listen a lot faster than I can read. I even speed up my audiobooks as a matter of course, simply because I’ve learned to process what I’m hearing fairly quickly, and there are so many books, I don’t actually want to take 9 hours and 37 minutes to read something when I can finish it in five or six and move on to the next big thing.
I also stopped using Braille because it is bulky. Because Braille is a uniform size, and because it has to be rendered on thicker paper than does print, Braille books are divided into multiple volumes. To put this in perspective, the bane of my existence as a YA and a romance fan, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight clocks in at 544 pages in the paperback version. The Braille version is four volumes, each covering about 150 pages in print. So if you were a voracious reader like me who read a lot of doorstoppers, well, they had to go somewhere, and checking them out from the library for the blind meant they’d be mailed to your house, where you would have to find room to put all those bulky books. (And sometimes you might run into a mailman who rightly thought that he wasn’t getting paid enough to hand deliver all 12 Braille volumes of Stephen King’s It to your house, so your parents would have to pick them up from the post office.) And when I moved into my first apartment, there simply wasn’t that kind of room, and I didn’t have ready access to people who could drive me to the post office if the mailman got persnickety about delivering my books.
So I read on audio. When ebooks came along, I embraced digital first publishers because then I didn’t even have to wait for someone to record a book so I could hear it. I could read whatever books I was interested in on the same day as my sighted peers. In fact, it was the advent of digital first publishers that converted me into a dedicated romance reader, because romance readers made the switch to ebooks early and I did not want to miss that train. Now that Amazon and B&N have stepped up accessibility efforts with their various apps, I can read practically any ebook I want when my sighted peers can, and I cannot tell you how amazing that is. It’s one of the reasons I have vast quantities of digital books. I will never read all of them, but I can have them, and I can read whatever I want, whenever I want, and I don’t have to go through any gatekeepers to do it.
Even with ebooks, though, I was still relying on listening to the text. I thought that made me happy. In fact, I am sure I made some ill-informed dismissive comments about how Braille wasn’t useful or relevant anymore on various social media sites. Then I got my job at the library for the blind, which meant I now had access to Braille in great profusion again. Thanks to my job, I was also able to purchase a refreshable Braille display. I love my Braille Edge, and here is why: it is comfortable to read on. It’s easy to use, the braille is crisp under my fingers, and I can sit for hours and enjoy the reading experience.
Once I had my Braille display, I quickly realized how much I had missed reading for myself. This seems so simple when I say it, but I can read again. I am now able to slow down and process the text. I can give my own interpretation to the words and voices to the characters. I can learn how names are spelled. You can’t do that with audio. I remember being quietly overjoyed when I could call Meka and read aloud a favorite passage from a book I was immersed in.
These days, my reading is split fairly evenly between Braille and audio. If I know a book is going to take a while for me to read, and I want to spend that time, I read it in Braille. If it’s a smutty little novella I plan to read and then quickly move on, I’ll listen with text to speech. And I can’t entirely break the audio habit, so if a book is available on audio either through the National Library Service for the Blind, or through Audible, I’ll read it that way. It depends on my mood, really, how I read, and I like having the choice.
Unfortunately, Braille has fallen out of fashion. It’s easy to understand why. There are all kinds of devices that can render text to speech, and Braille is expensive to produce. Braille displays are not something just anyone can afford. Mine cost me $3600, and the state paid for it. When I need to replace it, I will probably have to take out a loan to buy another one. Luckily, this is feasible for me. But that wasn’t always the case. Braille is a specialized skill to learn, and the vast majority of blind people were not born to it like I was and may never develop it.
That said, it’s still important. For one thing, we would never say, “The Kindle has a text to speech feature. Why don’t we make all the sighted kids use that instead of teaching them their ABCs?” If people really put forth that argument, there would be a huge hue and cry about literacy, and rightly so. And that’s just it. Being a fluent Braille reader means I’m literate. As a literate person, I have more of a chance to get a decent job. I can write well and professionally. Hell, I can natter on about romance novels on this very blog. If I hadn’t been taught that essential life skill, I would do none of these things. So the people who think Braille is an outmoded crutch are flat-out wrong, and I don’t want to live in a world where literacy for someone like me is a concept that is out of fashion.
(Note: After writing this, I came across an NPR piece that gets at the worries concerning Braille in a way that was much more concise than this blog post. It’s worth a listen.)