My journey with Braille began 50 years ago, in the autumn of 1966. At the tender age of four, my parents were forced to send me to Sunshine House Pre-School Nursery in Northwood, Middlesex, where I spent my first 18 months away from home. “It will do your daughter good to learn to be away from her family before she starts boarding-school proper,” the authorities unceremoniously informed my distraught parents.
I still have a vivid memory of my first day, when staff lured me to a wooden doll’s house that stood on the landing at Sunshine House. “You promise to be here when I come back mummy?” I pleaded tearfully. But when I returned to the play-room downstairs, my mum had gone, shoved out of the door sobbing her heart out as the institutional regime I was to face for the next 12 years tried to pries us apart.
I came to accept life away from home, though I never liked it. But one positive aspect of boarding-school was learning Braille. For me, it was exciting, addictive and, of course, a necessity given the limited resources available to blind people back in the 1960s. I tackled it with fiendish enthusiasm right from the word go. I remember that my journey really began with a set of dominoes with raised dots on them. I clearly recall a teacher at Sunshine House showing me how to play the game, and allowing me to explore the number of digits on each domino. While a set of tactile dominoes doesn’t reflect Braille at all in a formation sense, I think the teacher wanted me to get used to feeling dots, and being able to count them so I could pair them with other dominoes containing the same values.
From dominoes, I moved onto small cards with a few Braille cells on them that I started to remember as being A, B, and C. By the time I went to Linden Lodge School in Easter 1968, I knew what the first 10 letters of the Braille alphabet were. And it was then that my happy association began with the Perkins Brailler. The school asked my parents if they would consider buying me one to help with my learning development. They paid £14 for the same Perkins Brailler that now languishes silently in a corner of my computer room, still in perfect working order and ready to go! It was a lot of money to cough up in those days.
By the time I was eight or nine, I had a full command of the Braille language, and was able to read the grade one and two code. From the early days of reading simple books like House On The Hill, and the Tin Pot House, I ventured onto the Wide Range Reader series, and became completely hooked on reading and writing Braille.
Braille became an integral part of my life from then on. My parents bought me a Braille watch, various games with a Braille dice, and tactile wooden puzzles. We had a large collection of 45s, so I set about slipping the cover of every record into the Perkins so I could identify each single by writing the name of the song and the artist in grade two Braille.
Having mastered Braille proficiently, I then learnt to touch-type on a manual typewriter. I was a good speller, and excelled in written communication in both Braille and print. By the time I left Linden Lodge at the age of 16, I was considered by staff and pupils alike to be one of the very best pupils ever to be taught Braille at the school, (their words not mine.)
After that, I divided my time between reading Braille books and magazines, or typing letters to sighted family and friends in print. I also taught my mum how to read and write grade one Braille because she became fascinated with it too. It also meant we could exchange private letters and notes when I went onto attend the Royal National College in Hereford.
When I began working as an audio-typist, Braille still featured prominently in my life. I would take Braille magazines to work to read during my lunch-break, and I had my Perkins Brailler on my desk beside me when I needed to take down a telephone message. Looking back, it was a noisy and cumbersome way of taking down names and phone numbers for my colleagues, that I would then type up in print and pass onto the staff member concerned. And as my responsibilities in my working life increased, I would keep a Braille appointments diary for my boss, inserting a print page on top of each Braille sheet, so we could both access it. No electronic calendars, reminders and Emails in those days!
It was while I was working for Social Services as a Clerical Assistant in the 1980s that my first introduction to electronic Braille came about. My boss wanted me to go with her to meetings to take minutes, but it wasn’t practical for me to walk into a room full of people and start bashing away on a noisy Perkins Brailler. I had heard of something called Eureka, a device with a Braille input keyboard and synthetic speech output that could read back all data being entered. The difficulty was the cost, £1,595 I think at the time. But when the then Manpower Services Commission showed me one, I was completely hooked, and vowed to buy one of my own to use as it contained so many exciting features.
From then on, Eureka A4 became my main tool for many years. I carried it to case conferences and took minutes silently, then typed them up on a BBC Master computer. My little office had suddenly turned into what we all called the Tardis: wires and plugs everywhere; speech synthesis robotically reading data back to me that I had entered on the computer; my newfound friend Eureka with her quirky Australian accent … you couldn’t make it up!
As the years flew by, my hunger for assistive technology grew, my love of all things Braille never waning for a moment. As the development of access kit went from strength to strength, so too did my desire to learn how to use it. And it was in 2001 that I finally managed to purchase my first Braille display. Yes it was second-hand, and yes they had already been around for several years in one guise or another. But I was so excited when I unboxed my Alva ABT380 unit. At that time, I was using Windows Millennium, JAWS version 4, and Word 97. I attached the Alva ABT380 to my computer using its serial port, and couldn’t believe what I was feeling as the electronic pins went up and down to form Braille beneath my fingers. So as well as relying on the speech synthesis of JAWS to read the screen, I could also move about with the buttons on the Braille display to read a line at a time of Braille text. It was like all my Christmases and birthdays had come at once, I was so excited and liberated to have refreshable Braille at my disposal as well.
This new experience coincided with the start of my HND in Practical Journalism at a mainstream college near to where I lived. It meant I was now able to proofread documents and assignments at home. But I needed to take notes at college too, so funding from Disabled Students’ Allowance enabled me to purchase a BrailleNote Classic. My dear friend, Eureka, was now past her best, and had become outdated for many of the tasks I needed to perform. BrailleNote offered me the opportunity to have a small machine with 32 refreshable Braille cells for reading, and a Braille input keyboard for taking notes during classes. And because shorthand was a mandatory requirement of my HND, I asked the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) if they would accept Braille shorthand instead of the Teeline method my classmates used. It was agreed that provided my tutor could dictate passages to me at the required speed levels, and I could read them back to her before printing them off for submission to the SQA, I could continue with my studies. And this is what happened. My tutor dictated passages at 70, 80, 90 and 100 words per minute that I rattled down in Braille on my BrailleNote. Using the 32 Braille cells, I could read them back to her verbatim before printing them off for submission to the SQA. I passed both my shorthand exams with merit!
As Windows has moved on to the current version 10, and screenreaders have become more sophisticated, so Braille has undergone a revamp of its own. We now have what is known as Unified English Braille (UEB.) This overhaul has been designed to make learning the code easier, and to enable those working with Braille transcription to adopt a more standard conversion. Many of us who have been Braillists for years don’t like UEB at all, and can’t see the need to change what we have all grown up with and learnt to love. Would sighted people let you change what they know as print?
The current state of play is that there is now a greater choice of Braille displays, though cost is largely prohibitive. With the huge rise in the use of Smart devices, many portable Braille displays now pair with your Apple or Android peripheral to give you Braille in addition to VoiceOver or TalkBack. This year has seen the launch of the world’s first certified Google Braille tablet, and the world’s first truly affordable reader for under £500. Newer Braille embossers also allow you to print contracted Braille from them directly. In addition to using refreshable Braille, these days, I too have an Index embosser for producing hard copy Braille when I need it.
Parents get much more of a say today in whether they want their child with a visual impairment to be integrated into mainstream education, or taught at a specialist school. With the use of computers and Smart devices still on the increase, there is more emphasis than ever on using voice recognition and speech synthesis, and less urgency on teaching Braille.
This has prompted many to believe that Braille is on the decline, a terrible indictment for someone like me who was reared on it as my first language. The thought that blind children could one day go through education never having learned Braille at all just fills me with horror. But as the current generation dies out, this might be a very real prospect unless Braille is still on the curriculum, and the technology to use it becomes more affordable. The critics argue that Braille is bulky, costly to produce, and past its sell-by date now that speech synthesis has become so sophisticated. Advocates like myself argue, however, that Braille offers independence and an extra skill, is more immediate than speech synthesis, and is incredibly important in literacy for teaching children spelling, grammar, punctuation, capitalisation, and numeracy.
While being apart from my family was often torturous for them and for me, the one saving grace is that I was able to learn skills that have so far enhanced my life, and given me those much needed experiences over my 50 years with Braille!