Friday, August 16, 2013

Relish the Silence: An Homage to Braille

I lie back, closing my eyes. It feels awkward at first, but I soon get used to the rhythmic movement of my hands. The words come slowly—I have not been doing this long—but they come silently, each building upon the other until the images forming in my head, a movie reel of the story unfolding before me, becomes so real it feels almost like a dream. Around me, there is silence. No voice chattering in my ear or whirr of a cassette tape player. Not even the rhythmic squeak of my video magnifier's tray.

At age 18, for the first time in my life, I am reading in bed.

I had read before bed for years. But for me, reading before bed had never meant reading in bed. Even with large print, it was impossible for me to read comfortably while lying down. I needed bright light at close range, needed to wear uncomfortably heavy magnifying glasses, and needed to hold the print so close that I either blocked the light with my head or my arms got tired holding the book. I had tried many times before, and each ended with me sighing, turning off the bedside light, and stumbling over to the desk where my video magnifier sat. There, I would often read for hours, the only sound after everyone had gone to sleep being the squeak of the reading tray as I scanned words underneath the camera. As a teenager I would read well past midnight, until my eyes got so bleary I could no longer focus on the words. But I'd never been able to read in bed, words filtering through a half-conscious mind as sleep crept in. Reading in bed had always meant listening to an audio book, which wasn't the same.

Contrary to what many people assume when they see me reading braille, I did not grow up reading the code. I grew up reading print. Although I learned a fair chunk of the braille code as a child, I was never truly a braille reader. Braille was an adjunct skill, a backup in case I ever needed it in future. Although I learned the basics of reading and writing, I never made it through the entire code. It wasn't a tool I ever used in the classroom, and in fact I hated the extra work of it, having to sit at home in the evenings reading a few pages of braille when I wasn't using it for any practical purpose. To this day, I am thankful for learning those basics: the muscle memory of two-handed reading and using a braille keyboard made it possible to pick up the skill again without any formal instruction as an adult. But I am regretful that my teachers didn't encourage me to use the skill in the classroom, because doing so may have made me see the value of it well before my young adult years.

I didn't even become a "reader" at all until I was in grade four. Before that, I couldn't read much. My primary teachers in the 1980s used a "whole language" approach where students were sort of expected to pick up reading on their own, just by being surrounded by and exposed to books and stories. This didn't work so well for me, not being able to see a majority of the print plastered on classroom walls nor the books available in the classroom or school library. By grade three, when I was a full two grade levels below expectations in reading, terms like "learning disability" were beginning to be tossed around.

That summer, my mom decided that enough was enough and that (since I didn't enjoy doing it on my own) I would be made to read. She hired a girl a few years older than me to sit with me in front of my black-and-white video magnifier as I read aloud for half an hour each day. She told the girl to just tell me any words I didn't know. She let me pick the book (Karen's Witch by Ann M. Martin), and every day that summer I sat, tethered to my desk, reading for at least half an hour. Some days, as the summer neared an end, I chose to read for longer than the requisite 30 minutes. But, by the end of that summer I could read. In fact, when I received academic testing in grade four, the school staff were startled by the results which pegged my reading level a full two grade levels above expectations.

After that, I never looked back. I loved reading. I devoured books. I loved days with inclement weather when we were allowed to stay inside during lunch hour, where I could read, instead of having to go outside. Libraries were (and still are) one of my favourite places to be. When the after-lunch silent reading period came to an end in class I would often try to continue reading, hiding behind the bulk of the video magnifier. Sometimes it worked, and I managed to sneak in an extra five or ten minutes before the teacher realized I was missing. In high school, I had to give my parents books I bought for safe-keeping, telling them not to let me have them until I was done my homework. As they fell asleep in an adjacent room, my parents could often hear the squeak of my video magnifier tray long after my bedtime. On weekends, they sometimes had to ban me from reading just so that I would get out of my bedroom.

And that, my bedroom, highlighted the only downside to reading for me. I couldn't do it, at least not for long or with comfort, without a video magnifier. Nowadays there are portable units (although they are still not the best for extended reading), but back in the 1990s it meant that I was limited to one single location at home where I could read. At school, too, I was limited to the two video magnifiers stationed in various locations in the school. I envied people who could read on the bus. I especially envied my brothers during road and camping trips. I always brought a large print book with me, but even the print in those required me to wear my glasses and read, squinting, with my nose skimming the page and my head tilted at odd angles so as not to block the light. I often persisted despite the headache and muscle cramps that set in with time.

Near the end of high school I attended a summer camp for teenagers with visual impairments, which kindled my interest in braille. That year, I dug out my old Perkins brailler. which had sat in my closet untouched for nearly ten years, and re-learned the braille alphabet. In grade 12, I wrote a children's story about a blind girl attending regular school, and as part of that creative writing project (and, yes, partly to impress my teacher), I produced a braille copy of the story.

Around the same time, I asked the public librarian if they had any children's books in braille. I was shocked when she went to the back, shuffled items around, and returned a few minutes later with about four titles. I felt it was wrong, somehow, to have the braille books shut away like that. But I took Corduroy home and read it. I sat in an armchair in the living room as I puzzled through the long-forgotten symbols. It took me an hour to get through that short children's book, but as I read it I realized that I could read this anywhere. It didn't depend on light or technology or how much visual energy I had used up earlier that day with reading or drawing or playing video games. That day was the beginning of my love of braille.

I spent the rest of my grade 12 year re-teaching myself braille reading and writing. I studied it daily, in any spare moment I could find. It got to the point that my mom told me to quit with the braille and focus on my school grades. I was shy about it at first; I thought people would think it was a bit weird. For some reason, I was scared to mention my interest to my itinerant vision teacher, and therefore never brought it up with her. By the end of that school year, when I graduated in June of 2000, I was reading multi-volume braille titles from the CNIB Library. I still wasn't fast, but I quickly discovered reading in bed, and did so daily. During my second year of college I took the plunge and asked to use braille as my preferred reading medium for textbooks and course materials. I also got a Braille Lite on loan, which I credit with catapulting me into actually being a fluent braille reader. Braille was not easy. It took daily practice and, even with that, it was years before I considered myself fast. Before I began my student teaching program in 2006, I was panicked by the fact that I couldn't read aloud fluently without halting and stumbling. For several months, I practiced reading aloud daily, sometimes into thin air and sometimes into a tape recorder, which I forced myself to listen to. That's when I went from being a fluent silent reader to being able to read aloud with fluency and expression. I had a sense that braille would allow me to excel in the future, if I could become as proficient at it as possible.

A braille display and a page of braille dotsI was right. Braille has allowed me to become certified to teach in several specializations which each involved practicums that I suspect would have been much, much harder (if not impossible) without using braille. It has allowed me to serve on boards, chair meetings, and make public presentations. It has allowed me to participate in extracurricular activities such as Toastmasters (and get compliments about my "eye contact" with the audience during my speeches). In some aspects of teaching, using braille is an advantage over using print.

The other day I played a game of concept-review Jeopardy with a group of kids. I had the categories and questions on my BrailleNote, formatted so that I could jump from category to category or question to question using the thumb keys on the device. I was able to navigate and read just as quickly as someone using print, and I was able to be much more highly engaged with the students than would have been possible hiding behind a laptop or piece of paper—something that has often been mentioned when other professionals have done formal observations for practicums or evaluations. Some tasks I have done, such as formal academic assessments that are highly scripted and timed, I think would be impossible to do while relying on audio or struggling to read magnified print.

It took a lot of effort and investment of time, but learning braille and putting in the effort to become proficient has definitely paid off. I'm still early in my career, and I'm sure it will continue to be an invaluable skill. These days I don't always use braille on a daily basis for my work, since my job does not involve classroom teaching, but I do make an effort to read before bed or while riding public transit when I can, so that I can remain fluent when the need arises. I am at the point where my braille reading speed has matched or surpassed my print reading speed.

Sometimes it truly amazes me how many blind individuals do not know braille, or how many have learned the alphabet but never develop any useful fluency. It is not an uncommon situation that I will find myself to be the most proficient (or only) braille reader in a room despite the fact that I have the most residual vision of the group. I have seen board meetings chaired by someone pausing to listen to a computer's speech synthesizer in their ear before talking. I have seen reports given via a digital player reading a pre-recorded DAISY file. I have had individuals on the phone take notes by repeating what I tell them into a voice recorder. And, while all of these strategies work, none of them are elegant or transparent. Recently an article circulated among the online blindness community about how to use a portable DAISY player as an audio teleprompter. While I appreciate the ingenuity—I love finding new, useful ways of using technology—and while I haven't yet listened to the presentation (although I intend to), I can't imagine how much effort it must take to listen and speak simultaneously. I myself take advantage of synthesized speech and recorded content on a regular basis; there are times when this is faster, or more convenient, or when I just feel like listening instead of reading. But I can't imagine having no real choice. I think back to the days where I was tethered to my desk to read, and I can't imagine going back to that.

There are nights like tonight, when I come home exhausted after a crazy-busy workweek, and just feel like doing something quiet. No computer, no incessant nattering of a voice in my ear. Momentarily, I will get my BrailleNote, sprawl out on the couch with a cup of tea, and find something good to read. And on those nights, and during those moments when doing something would be inefficient or impossible without it, I can't imagine my life without braille.

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