Braille: A new way of seeing
When she learned she was going blind, Jacq Kelly initially chose to soldier on stubbornly with her failing sight. But learning Braille has offered a new sense of solidarity with the visually impaired
Tuesday 19 November 2013
My first lunch with the other Braille learners was only a few weeks ago and it was a lovely but slightly odd experience. I've only been learning this new touchy-feely language for a few weeks and, as a beginner, I am taking one-to-one lessons, whereas everyone else was in the group class and knew each other already. That wasn't the odd thing, though. I'm fairly accustomed to being in a group and not knowing anyone else and I'm pretty relaxed while I wait to find someone to talk to.
The weird bit was that it was the first time in a very long time – maybe 10 years or so – that I have been able to see more than most of the other people in the room. With the exception of a few support workers, I was one of the most sighted people there.
It was almost as if my life flipped back a decade. I was handed a Braille menu (too soon for that – print, please) and, for once, was more able to assist some of the other diners than they were able to help me. It's usually the other way around. In addition, being around so many people who had visual impairments – some of whom have the same condition as me – gave me a strange sense of solidarity that I hadn't expected. People sometimes talk about the "disabled community" as though we have our own nightclubs and congregate on special holidays to celebrate our status. If that's true, then someone forgot to invite me to the party.
Coming to terms with a degenerative eye condition has had the curious impact of forcing me to consider new ways of doing more or less everything – and Braille is possibly the most obvious example of this.
I was formally diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa in 2007. I had become accustomed to walking into stools in bars, litter bins and A-boards outside shops, as well as knocking over glasses of water, among many other things. I knew these incidents were being caused by night blindness and my lack of peripheral vision.
Through a combination of Google searching and some research done by my partner at the time, I was well aware of the nature of my condition before I was informed by the doctor at the Eye Pavilion in Edinburgh. This may explain my lack of shock and horror when I was finally, officially, told: "Keep up the good work! You seem cheery!"
Mr Eye Doctor said this before blurting out: "Are your parents cousins?" For the record, he was asking because there is a genetic basis for the disease and, no, my parents are not cousins.
I've always loved reading. I've done it to learn, to relax, or as a way of escaping from the other passengers on a long train journey. However, reading Braille is something that frustrates me. I get angry; I fume at how difficult reading words as straightforward as cab, car and cat has become. I certainly never thought the sentence "that man is very tall" would take me half an hour to read in any language. Languages have, after all, sort of always been my thing. This time it's different.
The act of learning to read through my fingertips and interpreting bumps on the paper in relation to written letters that I'm used to reading with my eyes is infuriating and painstakingly slow. It also presents a huge sense of achievement when I read it accurately or, even better, manage to type my own name on the Braille machine without making a mistake.
My brilliant teacher, Sue, informs me that I will get there eventually. She also talks about this transition period – between being sighted and being blind – as the hardest bit.
The insistence on trusting my eyes when I really should have learnt better by now can lead to temper outbursts as I take 20 minutes to spot something – a glass, a stray shoe – with my eyes rather than the two minutes it probably would have taken to locate it with my hands. Few things illustrate this as well as the night my sighted partner and I returned home and discovered that the light in the stairwell to the building had broken. I led her to our front door, feeling the way using my cane, and got us through the pitch darkness in no time.
Since they fixed that light – and I now have some vision when climbing the stairs – the stairs have become a nightmare to navigate as I revert to depending on my eyesight again – the thing that I know, logically, doesn't work, but which I am instinctively stubbornly determined to trust anyway.
Most of all, patience with other people and maintaining confidence around people who don't understand my condition have been the hardest thing to acquire. Although I wouldn't leave my house without a long cane and have regular accidents even when I'm using it (lazily and therefore badly), I still have enough vision to see my phone or read a book.
This has been problematic, leading to accusations from complete strangers time and again that I am "taking the piss" or "doing it for the benefits". The sheer frustration of this can barely be put into words and I've taken to spending journeys on public transport listening to podcasts or staring into space rather than dealing with that all over again.
There are occasional benefits, though. I loved meeting new people at the lunch for the Braille group and, as much as it's hard and tiring work, I even enjoy learning the language.
It sometimes gets me perks, too – when my girlfriend and I visited the zoo recently, she was given half-price admission on the basis that, as well as visiting in her own right, she was also assisting me.
I wouldn't quite say that it's worth all the abuse from strangers or the other bruises, but it's certainly better than a poke in the eye with a white stick.
Reading by touch: the story of Braille
* The use of Braille has declined in recent years, due to technologies that offer books and other media in audio form, which some people prefer. But Braille remains a much more similar experience to visual reading and is used by millions of people worldwide.
* Using Braille also means that blind or partially sighted children can be taught a full range of literacy skills, and those who learn it will have improved chances of employment when they leave school.
* The system of raised dots representing the alphabet, readable by touch, was devised in the 19th century by Louis Braille, who had lost his sight in a childhood accident. It was based on a method of sending messages, used by the military in France, which could be read by touch on a battlefield at night.
* Technological advances are likely to boost the numbers of people using Braille. Braille displays can be used with computers to read and write, using pin keyboards, and Apple pioneered Braille displays using bluetooth for smartphones.
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