Visually Impaired: Now What?

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Part 1: VisionAware Peers Demonstrate the Relevancy of Braille in the 21st Century For People Who are Blind or Visually Impaired

Photo of person using a 4-line slate and stylus.

Caption: Writing Braille with a Slate and Stylus

Trina Bassak

Trina is a physical therapist. She described the results of a 3-way call between herself, Jeannie Johnson, and myself on the use of slate and stylus. "It came up because of my dismay in braille labeling and lack of options," Trina said. "I really was never taught formally the slate and stylus…" After discussing a few suggestions with Jeannie and Lynda, Trina decided to give it another go. "It turned out to be amazingly more convenient, efficient and useful for making all types of labels. I love it! I see its usefulness as a portable tool," Trina continued. "Hard to believe it sat in my desk untouched for this long--more than a decade! When it could have made my life so much easier!"

James Boehm

At age fifteen, James, entrepreneur and professional counselor, began a career in automotive restyling and restoration. By the time he finished high school, Car dealerships were contracting with his business Custom Effects to personalize their own automobiles and James's creative handiwork as a unique incentive for customers who purchased vehicles from their dealerships. This young entrepreneur would find new outlets for his creative drive in 2009 when he lost his vision. His energy would be redirected from one means of getting around through an automobile to another—a mobility cane used by people with visual impairments, which he parlayed into a thriving business.

Three days after waking up blind in the hospital James tells that he realized he had two choices. "I could either be a bump on a log and have others take care of me, or I could face this head-on and move forward.” One tool he immediately realized would be necessary in his future was braille. He asked his sister to google the braille alphabet, and by the time he left the hospital two weeks later, James had begun teaching himself braille! For the rest of this amazing story be sure to read "From Customized Automobiles to Customized Canes: James Boehm's Story".

DeAnna Quietwater Noriega

DeAnna, author and professional in the field of vision loss, speaks for many braille users. "Braille makes learning math much easier as well as subjects that require nonliterary accuracy such as scientific symbols, formulas, diagrams, etc." For reasons like these, and his own frustrations while earning a PhD in mathematics, Dr. Abraham Nemeth, sometimes called the Louis Braille of mathematics, blind from birth, developed the braille math code adopted in 1951. All peer advisors agree that Braille just makes learning easier at times than relying on audio alternatives.

Kerry Kijewski

Could there be a stronger endorsement for braille than the one given by writer Kerry? She's so taken with braille that visiting Louis Braille’s birthplace Coupvray, France, is on her bucket list. It would probably be easy to put together a tour group of the VA Peer Advisors to join Kerry on her trip!

Elizabeth Sammons

Elizabeth, an author, is currently on a tour promoting her latest novel. She finds braille invaluable for notes when giving presentations, labels on her credit cards for reading the number easily, and braille on her Sunday hymnal.

Sandra Burgess

Sandra, a social worker, began learning Braille in public school in 1957. In time, Sandra became proficient in reading and writing it. Today, braille is incorporated into all facets of her life. When she serves as reader at church, reading Scripture, prayers and announcements, she uses technology. But Sandra's technology is not audio; it provides text in braille. Standing at the lectern, her hands and Braille display are invisible to the congregation, creating the debate of whether Sandra has an amazing memory or is reading braille. "This task, and many others, would not be possible for me without the use of Braille," Sandra remarked.

Jeannie Johnson

"I often tell people that I use braille as sighted people use print. "It is that important to me," commented Jeannie, long-time successful braille instructor. Jeannie uses index cards in all three standard sizes to write contact information, shopping and holiday gift lists; schedules and reservation details for hotels, airline, or bus trips; recommended local restaurants near home or in areas she'll be visiting; and the list goes on and on. Jeannie stores some books on a refreshable braille note taker, but her bookshelves contain the Holy Bible, song books, cooking and craft books, print/braille books to share with children… Aside from reading pleasure books in audio format, more often than not, if the option is available, Jeannie prefers braille!

Other Uses of Braille

Several VA Peer Advisors mentioned their love of playing games with family and friends. Specifically mentioned were Monopoly, Scrabble, Clue, and a variety of card games that can be purchased through specialty companies. With a slate and stylus or braille labeler any game can be adapted with braille. Once while on a weekend outing at the beach with some sighted friends, I labelled four decks of playing cards with my slate and stylus for a Canasta marathon!

Another popular topic during the VA Peer discussions was brailling recipes. Almost every VA Peer mentioned recipes either brailled by hand or in recipe books. Jeannie Johnson admitted that she has several long file drawers full of 5 by 8 inch index cards that contain recipes she's brailled over many years. I too love to cook and without braille letters on my digital oven panel, I don't know how I could use all of the options—bake, broil, raise and lower temperatures, and use auto-clean after the annual Thanksgiving turkey.

This is a very small sample of the value of braille to the lives of those who use it every day carrying out daily chores and professional duties. These individuals and all other braille users teach school, perform scientific research, serve in Congress, travel using credit cards; label correspondence, insurance policies, household receipts; wash clothing, prepare meals, clean bathrooms; play games, listen to CD's and DVD's; most of which need labels and a system for organizing and retrieving. None of these tasks can be done with audio devices. Braille users ride elevators, wait at a bus stop for public transportation, stay in hotels, eat in restaurants, and occasionally take a cruise. This list could go on and on. When braille is absent in any of these areas, the braille user is forced to depend on a sighted person for information, interfering with the independence that most people take for granted.

Happy Valentines! Check out our suggested braille gift items.

A white line on a red background extends to the right and curves into the shape of a heart. Inside the heart are the words - Cultivate love, for love is the light that gives the eye to see great and noble things. - Helen Keller

Caption: Helen Keller Quote: "Cultivate Love, for love is the light that gives the eye to see great and noble things."

No Limits! Braille and Print Relevancy in the 21st Century

empish reading braille sign on bathroom

Caption: Peer Advisor Empish Thomas Reading Braille Bathroom Sign

There has been considerable discussion in recent years about the relevance of braille in the digital age, in an age when computers will talk and audio files are everywhere—podcasts, books, broadcasts, etc. As the VisionAware (VA) Peer Advisors began preparing articles to celebrate Louis Braille's 210th birthday, this topic surfaced and stimulated a vigorous discussion among the VA Peers who have personal experience in using braille.

After all, everyone, sighted and blind people, uses audio formats, and who is more popular than Siri and Alexa? In light of these developments, Steve Kelley, peer advisor and author of articles on assistive technology posed, "Why read the Bible, Shakespeare, or Mark Twain from large volumes of embossed braille on paper, when you might just have the computer read the text, or play a narrated audio book?" My follow-up question to Steve's query is, "If everyone is using audio texts, pod casts, and talking information managers like Siri and Alexa, why not eliminate print along with braille?"

A History Lesson

Let's start with a history lesson: "Louis Braille was not the first to realize that fingers were to the blind what eyes were to the sighted, but he was the first to work out a practical method of employing the fingers to do the work of the eyes" (Koestler, 2004). Braille's tactile system was not the first reading system designed for blind people, but it was the first system that could be read and written without the use of vision. You might think these wonderful inventions that could improve the literacy of the students at the School for the Blind in Paris would be readily embraced by the faculty. Official recognition of his genius, however, came only after his death in 1852.

Around the time braille was adopted at the Paris School for the Blind, one of the founders of the Missouri School for the Blind was traveling in Europe and learned about the braille code. When he brought it back to the Missouri school, the students and blind faculty "seized it with delight" (Koestler, 2004(, but the sighted faculty resisted for four years, refusing to learn the code and read it with their eyes. Eventually, the Missouri School for the Blind officially adopted braille as its reading and writing system in 1858, as the first American school to do so (Koestler, 2004). Obviously, resistance to braille has not been just an issue of the nineteenth century, or we would not be discussing its relevance almost two hundred years after Louis Braille developed the code.

Exploring Both Sides of the Question

Both blind and sighted people recognize the absurdity of eliminating print, but it's necessary to explore both sides of the question in order to recognize the equally absurdity of eliminating braille. The immense majority of the population who depend on print for 99.9% of their information and communication never imagine what it would be like if they didn't have it.

What Would a World Without Print or Braille Be Like?

Expanding on another comment by Steve Kelley, I think that any inquiry into the relevancy of braille and print should include putting that question to braille and print users, who both enjoy all forms of literacy: reading, writing, and conversing; a greater chance of employment; higher education on average; and the many opportunities that reading and writing provide whether it's print or braille.

This question will be explored in two parts. In Part 1, several VA peers who are blind or visually impaired and who are of different ages and backgrounds describe various ways they use braille in their daily lives, showing why it is essential to their lives. In Part 2, several sighted people describe various ways they use print in their daily lives, showing reasons they could not function without it.

Stay tuned for the next post in this series and be sure to read Braille Awareness Month, the Starbucks Example of Relevance.

Also, with Valentines Day upon us, check out our suggested braille gift items.

Braille Awareness Month--The Starbucks Example of Relevance

Louis Braille's birthday was January 4th, and the month of January each year is Braille Awareness Month. There have been the usual discussions and articles about the relevancy of braille in the digital age. After all, what need is there for braille, when computers and other gadgets talk to us? Would those of us who regularly read print on paper, ask the same question? In the digital age, is print on paper relevant?

A teacher leans over her student to check his work on the braille embosser

Caption: Student Learning to Write Braille

Starbucks is not having this discussion about the relevancy of braille. They recognized several years ago that some of their customers are braille readers and added braille to their gift card line up. I make a point of looking for the braille gift card whenever I'm in a Starbucks. If one is not on display, I ask if one is available. The Starbucks at the Maine Mall in South Portland had one on display the day I walked in with one of my clients. It was a great ice breaker. Please don't tell Starbucks that braille is less relevant, because nothing seems as relevant and useful as identifying the name of a gift card, in braille, for braille readers!

A statistic I heard recently on a Tek Talk podcast, reminded me that this whole discussion of braille relevancy may be interesting academically, but totally absurd. In an interview with Tek Talk, Allison Hilliker, Customer Specialist with Bookshare mentioned that there are over half a million book titles for subscribers to download in electronic braille format. Think about it this way, instead of downloading and opening the electronic book on their Kindle, a braille reader can download the book and open it on their device with an electronic refreshable braille display.

Half a million books is very relevant.

This year, I'm just going to smile when the subject of braille's relevancy comes up and take the Starbuck's approach--there are plenty of braille readers out there, and some of them are our customers. More of them will be our customers if we reach out to them in the reading medium they prefer, braille and if we offer braille training to people who are losing vision and can benefit from learning it. Simple!

I love you in braille

Caption: I Love You in Braille

More About Braille and Braille Relevancy

Stay tuned for our next article on the relevance of braille in a post-Louis Braille era and be sure to read the other parts in this series:

Finding Braille in Everyday Places

Braille Gift Items

Review of National Library Service Graphic Novel "The March Trilogy"

Editor's note: With the observance of Martin Luther King Day on January 21, this post by Empish Thomas is particularly relevant. It is part of VisionAware's ongoing book review series.

Book cover of March Book One, the first book in the graphic novel; copyright held by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell

Caption: Book Cover of March Book One

I don’t typically read graphic novels. As a matter of fact, the book that I am reviewing is my very first. For those who are not familiar with the genre, a graphic novel is a written story presented with cartoon-type drawings in a panel format. These novels are similar to a comic book but much longer and with more text. I have been told they are very popular and many people love to read them. The Library of Congress National Library Service (NLS) recorded their first one entitled "The March Trilogy" by Congressman John Lewis. Although Lewis has published an autobiography in the past, the idea to make his story a graphic novel came from the time he was 15 years old when he first learned about Martin Luther King through reading a comic book on King's life.

Initially Excited to Read the Book

I was excited to read this book because it is about the life of US Congressman John Lewis. He is an icon in the civil rights movement, more popularly known for his beating while trying to cross the Edmund Pettis Bridge during the March to Montgomery in 1965. Moreover, he is an outspoken politician in my hometown of Atlanta. These reasons made me even more interested in reading this book.

The overall story of Lewis’s life was educational and fascinating. Without giving too much away, I learned a great deal about his life that I didn’t know and was inspired by his passion and zeal to create change despite some incredible difficulties. His childhood growing up with parents who were sharecroppers gave him firsthand exposure to racial inequality. He attended college while participating in sit-ins at lunch counters and bus boycotts. He later extended his civil rights activities into a career in politics.

Challenges to Reading the Book

Unfortunately, after I downloaded the book and started to play it on my NLS talking book player, the challenges and some disappointment began.

  • The first challenge I noticed is that my mind began to wander from the story and I had to rewind my player. I realized this was because I was having a hard time figuring out when the description of the graphic started and stopped, not because the story was not interesting or that I was tired, sleepy or distracted! Terminology and phrasing such as "zoom in," "zoom out," "next panel," "we see," "in the frame," and "the next three panels show" give you an indication that the reader is describing what is in the panel and then going back to the text. However, if you are not listening carefully, you can miss what is going on. The cues are done very seamlessly. This is not necessarily a bad thing but just an observation. For years I have tuned my ears and my brain to read an audio book and thought that I had become quite proficient, but reading this graphic novel challenged my audio reading ability. I had to really pay attention to visualize the scene and pictures to keep them separate from the actual text. There were times when I thought I might be trying too hard and should just let the story flow and not be concerned about it. Perhaps that is the best way to read an audio format of a graphic novel?
  • The second challenge I had with reading this book was the detailed audio description. I love audio description and have written about it many times on the VisionAware site, but I found it to be a little overwhelming in this book. The description of the illustrations were very detailed and lengthy. I shared my thoughts with a sighted friend who had a printed copy of this book. She listened to the NLS version and we reviewed it together. She understood my concerns and thought that in some ways the descriptions could have been shortend. But perhaps that is just personal preference. Some people like a lot of information when it comes to audio description and some like less.

Positive Note

I appreciated the sound effects of the reader that were made within the audio description. That brought the book to life more and made the story even more interesting. For example when John was a child, he had to feed the chickens on the farm. The reader actually makes clucking sounds as John is doing this task. Some other sounds are phones ringing and an alarm clock buzzing. The reader also changed the inflections in his voice which I also enjoyed.

Despite these enhancements, I have to conclude that a graphic novel is probably not my type of book to read. I found the story itself to be a good one but the illustrations to be a distraction. It was just too much for me to digest in an audio format and it took away from the overall story I was trying to read and enjoy. Perhaps you will read this book and have a totally different experience.

About the Book

For more information here is the book title and NLS book number:

Title: "The March Trilogy"

Authors: John Lewis and Andrew Aydin

Art by Nate Powell

Book Number: DB87098

It is also available on Amazon.

Braille Gift Items

Continuing in our series in celebration of Louis Braille's birthday and the use of braille in everyday life, please enjoy this post with recommendations for braille gifts. Remember Valentine's Day is just a few weeks away!

Braille Related Gifts

Although the holiday season has passed, a new year has arrived with twelve months of reasons to purchase gifts for blind friends and family members. VisionAware Peer Advisors Elizabeth Sammons of Ohio and Audrey Demmitt of Georgia suggest giving braille jewelry at any time! Without any monetary compensation, Elizabeth makes this pitch for Jewelry in Braille by Kelly Fehr. "The grace and style of her designs are produced in high-quality braille and ways visually pleasing to others as well." Sighted friends and family might also like braille jewelry for a special occasion.

APH Offers Braille Gift Items

calendar with pictures of flower pots in braille and large print

Caption: APH Insights Calendar

How About a braille calendar? This full-color calendar features the artwork of visually impaired artists. It is suitable for people who are blind or visually impaired or for anyone who enjoys unique artwork.

Another unique and useful gift is BrailleBuzz, an instructional toy for young braille learners ages two to five. It encourages practice with braille characters and phonics, similar to a variety of audio-based toys that teach print writing.

Additional Websites for Purchasing Braille Items

As she so often does in VisionAware posts, Audrey shares some websites where braille jewelry and other items can be found:

  • ‘BRAILLE’iant offers customized jewelry, t-shirts and other gifts in their braille boutique, to increase braille awareness and provide useful and readable items for people who are visually impaired.
  • Braille Design sells custom braille products made by experienced braillists.
  • Jewelry in Braille has unique and custom pieces created by a professional jewelry maker, inspired by a family member who is blind. Even Etsy and Amazon have braille jewelry and other gift items.
chain bracelet with braille charms

Caption: Bracelet with Braille Charms

Braille Gift Cards

Speaking of gift items, Peer Advisor Steve Kelley from Maine, reminds us that several years ago Starbucks recognized that some of their customers are braille readers and added brailled gift cards to their lineup. Steve further comments: "The Starbucks at the Maine Mall in South Portland had one on display the day I walked in with one of my clients."

Wine with Braille Labels

Braille has been present since 1996 on all M.Chapoutier labels. The labels provide the following information in braille: M. Chapoutier, the appellation and the name, vintage, and color of the wine.

Beauty Products and Fragrances

L'Occitane candleSince 1997, L'OCCITANE has included on the labels of all its products explanations in braille to make its cosmetics accessible to all. It is also one of the first brands to have implemented braille labels and through their foundation, they support services to help people who are blind or visually impaired.

Braille Refrigerator Magnets

Peer Advisor Jeannie Johnson made this suggestion for an inexpensive, yet meaningful gift for a friend or family member who is blind. The National Braille Press sells refrigerator magnets in rectangular, square and cube shapes with the quote inscribed in both braille and print. You can find them by putting the word "magnet" in the search bar on their site. They are small enough to be easily slipped inside any special occasion card. Jeannie describes her magnet as rectangular with the words: "Be the person your dog thinks you are," adds, "It is on our fridge right next to the head of a poodle that looks like a miniature poodle I once had named Prince."

More Quotes from the Magnets

  • "Good friends are like stars. You don’t always see them, but you know they’re always there!"
  • "Anyone can be cool, but awesome takes practice."
  • "We do not remember days, we remember moments."
  • "Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over it became a butterfly."
  • "Life isn't about waiting for the storm to pass; it's about learning to dance in the rain."
  • "The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart." by Helen Keller

Wouldn't Louis Braille love that sentiment by Helen Keller!

Color photograph of Helen Keller seated in front of a window. She is reading a book in braille, 1960.

Caption: Helen Keller Reading Braille Book

Other Gifts to Consider

Make Valentines Sensory

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