I have been an avid reader all of my life–mysteries, biographies, software manuals–there aren’t many topics I have not explored over the 43 years of my life that I have known how to read. Like so many others in the blind community, I have listened to audio books since I was able to operate the record player that used to store talking books back in my early childhood. Today I enjoy reading books on my iPhone, using my Victor Reader Stream, or sitting at the computer. As important as the digital age is to me, nothing has even come close to empowering me as a blind person the way Braille has.
As I allow myself to reflect on my experiences with Braille, certain memories come to the forefront of my thoughts–writing lines of Braille cells across a page as a first-grader; the bewilderment I felt the first time I came across a page of Braille with lines of text that were not separated by blank lines; the smell of Braille books, both new and old. When I was in middle school, I received a four-volume atlas of the United States as a companion to the social studies textbook our class was using. I studied every map in that atlas over and over again for hours on end, tracing rivers and pretending they were roads. I was ecstatic to find my home town, small as it was, listed on the map of Missouri. Most of what I know about the geography of the United States today came from that set of maps. I think back on the excitement of running to the mailbox and carting back box after box of Braille books and then hunting through the boxes for the first volume of the latest book I was about to devour.
These days, what with the portability and low cost of ebooks, it seems that Braille is struggling to keep its place in the lives of the blind. The high cost of Braille displays compounds the problem, making it easier to simply abandon Braille, or perhaps relegate it to infrequent use. Does it really matter if Braille becomes a medium that exists only in museums and the memories of older blind people? Is it time to move on to more modern and cost-effective ways of communicating the written word, or should we fight to bring Braille back to the forefront of our collective consciousness? Why is Braille still relevant today?
I believe Braille is essential for good writing. I would not be the proficient speller I am today if I had not read hundreds of thousands of Braille words over the course of my life. While any decent screen reader provides the ability to spell words and review lines of text character by character, it is virtually impossible to catch all formatting and spelling errors in a document with speech alone. Anyone who uses text-to-speech software at all knows all too well the frustration of deciphering b’s from d’s, and sorting out all of the words that sound alike but are spelled differently such as there and their.
As I type these words, I wonder how many readers are listening to my thoughts at 600 words per minute? Is it really possible to absorb and digest a piece of writing such as this one when listening to speech at supersonic speeds? Don’t get me wrong—I skim through familiar and reoccurring text on a daily basis and would not consider using a speech synthesizer that I couldn’t speed up at will. That being said, when I really need to digest something I am reading, I will slow my speech rate down or transfer the content to an sd card for later reading on my Braille display. I am constantly amazed at the number of errors I find in documents I am reading in Braille that I did not catch with speech alone.
Finally, reading a book, poem, or blog post in Braille permits me to become part of the experience in a way that speech never allows. I create voices for characters, hear a friend’s voice in my head as I read their written thoughts, and most importantly, slow down and really pay attention to what I am reading.
Would I want to go back to the days before I had my iPhone and portable book reader? No way. Am I as likely to use a slate and stylus today as I was 20 years ago? Probably not. Can I imagine what my life would be like if I never again read another line of text in Braille? I don’t even want to dwell on the thought.
And now that I am finished writing this blog post, I plan to do something I haven’t done in quite a while. I intend to order a novel in Braille from my local lending library and–gasp–wait for it to arrive in the mail. I will once again rush to the mailbox, collect those bulky boxes that have been sitting in the hot sun all day, retire to my room, open the first box, and enjoy the smell of a Braille book. More importantly, I will once again rediscover the joy of reading Braille!