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Brilliant braille: much more than a dot on paper

The beauty that is the braille language and how it benefits many visually impaired people around the globe
Two hand reading braille on a white background

#blog by Kristina Misiunaite

No day without Braille' was the title of my winning entry in the EBU ONKYO writing competition in 2009. Now, more than ten years later, I can still confirm this, perhaps even more so. In this piece, I compared what it would be like with or without Braille for various situations, in which this dot script proved indispensable. Even then and perhaps even more so now.

Read it yourself!

Although they may seem small, (especially if printed double-sided) much less text fits on a page in Braille. For example, a paper book of a few hundred pages easily consists of ten to twenty parts in Braille. With two staples you get stacks of Braille tapes. Although in other countries I have seen books with a nice cover, ring binder and reading ribbon, which you can borrow physically from a library. I can fully understand that reading on paper is nicer than reading digitally. The thickness of a book is a consideration for me. Apart from the fact that sometimes an entire warehouse seems necessary to 'house' books, it feels like a bit of a waste of trees. Reading books yourself is better for your vocabulary and your overview of the text, besides the fact that it's nice to be able to leaf through a book. Being able to turn the pages yourself and having your own interpretation of a text is worth a lot. Reading to someone else is also only possible in Braille. Being able to continue reading that exciting book at night without any light almost has something of an advantage. Putting a book in my suitcase on holidays would be far too little reading material. Fortunately, Braille mail is free, so I let books travel ahead of me. With a shipment of several boxes, my reading material is far overrated. The fact that it all ends up in the paper bin after reading also regularly produces surprised reactions. "That's a waste of those expensive books!" Or people who return discarded tapes or tapes deliberately left behind somewhere under the pretext of: "You'll probably want to read that again". Keeping them is, unfortunately, simply impossible!

In the brailleroom

How do children learn Braille? I asked Gyntha Goertz, my braille teacher twenty years ago. She has been teaching Braille with creativity and enthusiasm for over twenty-five years now. She teaches Braille to the very young, but also to older children whose eyes are getting worse and who can use Braille to take the strain off their eyes. The most important thing is to convey and maintain the pleasure of reading: Braille should be fun, not boring! In fact, it is not much different from sighted children learning to read.

‘Bal’ (Dutch for ball) and bak (Dutch for bin) were the first words I learned. All those letters can be formed with the three left braille dots. Through all kinds of tactile materials, we got used to following a line from left to right with our fingers and to understanding the abstract of Braille. All those dots are very small to feel at first, especially for children's hands. Pin blocks or a doll's house with a separate room for each Braille dot offered a solution. They were taught letter by letter. The 'difficulties' came with the ‘i’ and the ‘e’. These letters are formed by two dots diagonally across from each other, but exactly the other way round. Guessing the letters was not easy, so you had to try to keep them apart. I rolled a sheet of paper in the Braille machine and wrote my first words, sentences and texts on it, rattling around. Until the bell rang, and I knew it was time to move on to the next line. You could immediately feel back what you had made and, just like writing with a pen or pencil, you remembered it better. This can be compared to a typewriter in the past, with separate keys for the six Braille dots. I used to write on stacks of Braille paper and read countless books. In the beginning, the stories were easy, with short sentences, not printed on both sides and sometimes not all punctuation marks were included.

No braille letters around

Sighted children who are learning to read, encounter letters all day long all around them: in a leaflet or a street sign along the way. With Braille, this is different and doesn't happen automatically, unless someone literally puts it under your fingers. Remembering letters therefore takes longer. Fortunately, more and more braille books are now being made. Unlike other Braille books, these do contain pictures with all sorts of textures and words in Braille, or even objects that replace pictures. I still like to come across Braille in unexpected places, such as in lifts, on stair railings, medicine boxes, models and more. Nice touch: just that little bit of extra information.

Braille letters

My grandmother used to prick the letters dot by dot into the paper using a pricking pen. This tool was used to write Braille, with the paper sandwiched in a sort of mold, so to speak. Braille alphabet next to it, completely mapped out how much would fit on her sweet note. That was always a very special gift to receive! Handwritten and tangible. Now there are tactile greetings cards available in which you can write a Braille text. For all kinds of occasions and also nice to look at with tactile pictures. Nice to send and to receive.

Braille sheet music

Not only letters, numbers and punctuation marks, but also musical notes can be formed using the six dots. Reading and playing a piece of music at the same time literally leads to a shortage of hands. But knowing the relationship between notes in bars helps you remember it better and play it by heart. The writing is not to be confused with the letters, because otherwise it sounds like nothing. Singing along with a song can also be done in this way, by being able to read the lyrics.

The world at your fingertips

The Braille display or, braille computer, brings Braille to wherever there are letters on the screen, converted on a line-by-line basis. This amazing equipment comes in many shapes and sizes and is constantly evolving. For example, a 14-cell unit for travelling or with 80 cells for a workplace or home and everything in between. At this point, I have 'worn out' a lot of different ones. Just one dot doesn't come up, or doesn't come up as well as it should, and you end up with a completely different letter. After all, broken pixels on a screen are no fun either, are they? Eight instead of six Braille dots per cell offers more possibilities than on paper, for example to know information about the layout. Often these devices have a lot of functions on board besides Braille cells, so that they can also be used independently from a computer or smartphone. For example, note-taking functions for writing down something quickly or being able to store many books and literally take them with you to read on the go. It is highly recommended to try out as many different (types) as possible to discover what works best for you. Nowadays, they are no longer only connected via USB, but are often equipped with multiple Bluetooth channels. Fortunately, it also makes much less noise than a Braille machine. I have sometimes thought that you would like to be able to put together a personalised braille reading line with all the handy functions of the various brands and models. The already high price tag would then make these devices even more expensive. As with paper, the convenience of quickly reading back what you have written and being able to read at all is also important. If you are looking for very precise data or for programming, for example, that would be a real advantage!

No contractions (any more)

It sucks to be abroad and not always be able to read the Braille signs in a museum. Apart from the fact that you don't speak the language, this is often due to the fact that they use contractions. In that case, several letters are encapsulated in just one Braille sign. It's a pity we don't have that in the Netherlands (any more), because it would save a lot of space and increase reading speed! I hope to learn it one day. But which language do you pick? That's easy for me to say, because learning Braille is more of a luxury. Those who only learn Braille at a later age have their hands full, both literally and figuratively. Fortunately, there are possibilities such as a self-study course. Well worth all the time and effort.

The future of Braille

When asked about her dream for the future of Braille, Gyntha hopes to see more fun books, also for older children, with pictures or something else fun to encounter while reading. While still reading slowly as a child, that really feels like a reward! We are both very much in favour of the choice of Braille on paper or digitally and that Braille should not be forgotten in technological developments. I'm already quite sure that in the future I won't be able to do without Braille either!

Sources:

  • https://www.passendlezen.nl/iguana/www.main.cls?surl=voeljeboekje

  • https://www.leesbutler.nl/categories/Overig

  • https://www.dedicon.nl/productie/braille/braille-bladmuziek

  • https://www.visio.org/nl-nl/home/webshop/publicaties/tast/zelfstudie-braille/zelfstudie-braille


Tuesday, 16 March 2021