People seem to think that living without sight must be an ordeal. Little do they know that there’s more to being blind than meets the eye and I like to point out the positives. For a start, you can read in the car without getting travel sick. I’m sure that avid braille readers will agree when I say that this is a huge positive.
I’m eight years old, travelling along bumpy roads to North Wales. The boot is packed with luggage for my parents and us four children. However, they have still found room for nine braille volumes of The Famous Five and my Perkins brailler. My holiday entertainment takes up a lot of space but my parents have learnt that there’s no question of taking me anywhere without my books and brailler. Two years later, they will breathe a sigh of relief when I’m given my first braille note-taker. From then on, all my books will be stored on this computer and the car will seem a lot bigger. But back to the year 2000. We squabble on the way to Wales; I balance the book on my sister’s lap and she insists this isn’t comfortable. My fingers lose their place when we turn corners but I soon find it again. The hours pass in pages of words.
My love affair with braille began when I was four. I learnt to read and write alongside my classmates. When they were practicing joined up writing, my braille teacher would show me the difference between the ch and st signs and help me distinguish ing from the letter u. I remember reading my first book. It was about a rocket and I loved the story although I got the m’s and sh’s mixed up. It wasn’t long after this that I sat in front of the brailler, rolled in a sheet of paper, and started to write. This page of simple sentences and rubbings out was the first of many pieces of writing I would produce over the years.
Braille continued to enrich my life as I grew up. The year 2000 was also significant because of my mixed emotions when the fourth Harry Potter was released. I was frustrated that I couldn’t read it at the same time as everyone else. My teacher compromised by typing a few pages at a time into the computer and embossing them for me. Feeling the opening chapter unfold under my fingers was magical.
And then to secondary school. I was expected to study French and German, which meant learning 2 new braille codes. I was forever getting the signs muddled up, so dropping French was a blessing. German braille would become important seven years later, when I would spend a year in Germany. My teaching of English as a foreign language wouldn’t have been possible without being able to read or write.
With secondary school came other braille-related challenges. My textbooks were brailled in prisons which could take some time. We studied Macbeth in my third year, and I was surprised to find that my copy was in five volumes. Macbeth isn’t a long play, so this seemed excessive even for a braille book! When we came to read the play in class, I discovered that the prisoners had written notes to each other in the text. I tried to smother my laughter as I read:
‘Is this a dagger which I see before me, (Black coffee with sugar mate?)’
Braille gave me another reason to laugh more recently when I was shown to a disabled toilet. I was impressed to find dotty writing on the door – just a shame it said ‘toliet’!
Special occasions are a big part of growing up and my friends and family pulled out all the stops. They found a commercial cards shop which sold braille greetings cards at a high price. In spite of this, I would be presented with at least one brailled card every year. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that the birthday range wished me a ‘nappy hirthday’, whilst their Christmas cards read: ‘With festive fishes for the season.’
It’s clear that being a braille reader gives you a different outlook on life. Who else reads all the boxes in the pharmacy just because they can? I hope there aren’t many people who have experienced the distress I felt when taking exams; few of the papers had been brailled correctly so that the questions were different from those in the print paper. Without the help of my teacher, I would have lost unnecessary marks. I will never get tired of asking for a braille menu in restaurants, even though the answer is usually ‘no.’ The pleasure I feel when I’m given a menu in a format I can read makes it all worthwhile.
Times have changed since I travelled along that bumpy road to Wales. These days, family holidays involve much discussion at the airport as we try to convince security staff that my beloved BrailleNote Apex is harmless and that, yes, it must be allowed in the hand luggage. They check to make sure the electronic braille display isn’t dangerous. Then, they give way to curiosity.
‘How does it work?’ they ask.
I briefly explain how each braille letter is made up of six dots. They want to know more, so I inform them that I have over five hundred books stored on this device in addition to all my writing. They make a comment to the effect that braille must take a long time to write. Actually, the contractions that constitute grade two braille mean that I write as fast as the average person. I seem to have answered all their questions and they let us go. Soon we’ll be on the plane, settling back in our seats. My sister flicks the pages of a magazine. As the plane glides along the runway and leaps into the air, I take out my Apex and start to write.
Megan Paul is one of the brilliant mentors who runs our Parent Braille Club. Her love of literature is infectious and we are very lucky to have access to her incredible knowledge of braille. You can find out more about Megan and our Parent Braille Club, here.