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Spring 2004 Table of Contents
Versión Español de este artículo (Spanish Version)

What Braille Literacy Means to Me

By George Toone, Career Guidance Supervisor,
Criss Cole Rehabilitation Center, Austin, TX

Abstract: The author shares his experiences of learning and using braille.

Key Words: blind, family, expanded core curriculum, literacy, personal story

Braille holds many different meanings for those who encounter it in their daily life: Braille might be the buttons on the elevator; it might be a sign on a restroom at a business; and it could even be on a historical marker or monument commemorating someone or something special. There are many jokes about “driving by braille” that refer to those bumps or rough lines found on the side of the road that are keep drivers awake. And, there is always the proverbial question, “Why is there Braille on the drive-up ATM machines?” For those who don’t know the real answer to that, excluding ADA issues, those touch tone pads are manufactured by the same companies who have no idea whether these will be placed at drive-up machines, or in grocery stores. Not a glamorous answer, but a true one. Although ADA now requires all buildings to have braille signage, I find it a very sad thing that I still find places that are unmarked, or worse yet, embossed incorrectly. Instead of just griping about it, though, I think we have a duty to help make sure Braille signage is accurate. So, if you happen upon a Braille sign that is embossed incorrectly, I encourage you to talk with the building manager or owner about it or contact the company to help them know where the mistakes are and what needs to be fixed. If you know, you might even contact the company that made the sign to politely point out that there are mistakes. You can even take a bigger step in helping make sure Braille signage is right by offering to review the signs for them, either before they are installed or afterwards. I’ve done that myself and I know other people who have as well. Each time, the company or building was very happy to have the help because they do want their signs to be helpful to blind people. Well, enough about signs.

I was born with Retinopathy of Prematurity, a condition that was quite prevalent during the 1950s, that left me totally blind. Even though I lived on a farm in West Texas, my parents decided that I should be afforded the same educational opportunities as a sighted child. When it was determined that my vision was gone, my mother went immediately to attend a Braille school in Louisville Kentucky. I have no idea how long she was there but when she returned, she was a braille user. She began teaching me the basics at that time and I learned on a Perkins Brailler. I was also fortunate enough to have had a kindergarten teacher in my local area who knew some Braille basics. I am not sure how she learned; maybe my mom taught her.

Then, prior to my first grade year, my parents hired a lady who had worked with TEA for many years, Janie Jones, to come out to the farm and to teach me Braille. By the time I went into first grade of public school, I could already read. I was a hyper kid, and since I already knew how to read prior to first grade, I was bored during class. TEA sent all of my textbooks, which consisted of Braille and those plastic thermoform books that I don’t think are used any longer. I also received Braille and audio books from the Texas State Library. I liked them both but preferred the Braille books. I loved to read so much that when it was “lights out” at the farm, I couldn’t get by with reading the thermoform books because my fingers would squeak and I would get busted by my mom.

I went to college in the 1990s. At that time, the electronic age was kicking off and there was talk about people not using Braille anymore. After all, if one used tapes and electronic format, one wouldn’t have to learn Braille, carry around big volumes, or have the expense of embossing. I never bought that and continued to use Braille in all of my daily work and leisure activities. I do use electronic media and tape for some things, but nothing will ever take the place of Braille for me.

The main problem I had with Braille was that I was a horrible speller because I didn’t think of the words letter by letter. Due to contracted braille, I would look at the entire word in order to be able to speed-read. I also tended to spell phonetically. Then, when the computer age came along

and I began typing on the computer, I could spell close enough in order to use the spell checker. The spell checker has improved my spelling tremendously.

In conclusion, I am so glad to see that braille is “in” with the blind educators and with the rehabilitation agencies. It is a way to feel connected with what one is reading and I truly think that this connection provides a person with fulfillment that may not be attainable from listening to tapes or CDs. Braille is fun, Braille is here to stay, Braille is beautiful, and Braille is and will always be a viable and meaningful means of communication for blind and visually impaired people of all ages. Thanks for keeping it around!

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Last Revision: September 1, 2010