I was amused to come across one of my college admission essays while sorting through some of my adolescent writings recently. The prompt asked, “What invention do you feel is most important and why?”
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In 1829, a young Frenchman published a remarkable book about his invention, which would help the blind soar to heights they could only have imagined before. At last, the ability to read and write was no longer an impossibility, but a tangible reality—literally. Louis Braille's self-titled writing system, which he invented at age fifteen, has enabled millions of blind people to realize their potential and achieve their goals. I am one of those individuals.
Memories flit through my mind—of a timid five-year-old whose insatiable desire to learn helped her master the Braille code quickly and easily under her instructor's tutelage; whose passion for literature and vocabulary later materialized into rows of enthralling novels that crowded her bookshelves and often figured in her childish conversation. By age eight, she was indulging in clandestine nocturnal forays into other worlds with no need of light to guide her. Talking books were delightful, and were devoured with almost equal voracity, but the little girl preferred to see the words in front of her, the better to learn them—an advantage that tapes could never provide.
Meanwhile, she distinguished herself in class with her ability to spin outrageous yarns of considerable length for a youngster whose friends were still perfecting their penmanship. She would spend nights on end with her word processor or Braillewriter, even through junior high, experimenting with the feel and the music of the words before her until the combination was absolutely perfect. The acquisition of a portable notetaker with a refreshable Braille display during her sophomore year in high school was a dream come true. It was an improvement over her speech-based equipment and facilitated writing as well as reading novels.
I have grown older and left that girl behind, but Braille is still essential to me. Reading for pleasure is now a luxury, as reading for class consumes most of my time; and instead of composing stories and poems, I write expository essays. The Braille code also helps me do complex math and communicate in French. It enhances my study of music, my other great passion, by allowing me to read flute and vocal scores rather than learning them simply by ear. I will always be grateful to the French teenager who invented the system so long ago, little knowing how it would shape my life and the lives of so many others for generations to come.
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Fifteen years on, as sentimental as those reflections seem, the central point still resonates with me, even though I spend the vast majority of my waking hours listening to screen readers. Braille is no less essential; I just have even more versatile uses for it now. For instance:
It enhances my marriage and home life. A typical Friday morning finds me texting my husband privately and efficiently with Braille input on my iPhone. In the evening, I come home and use my Braille measuring cups and spoons to create a favorite meal we can enjoy over the weekend. Then we may decide to read a book together, which I sometimes do aloud on my Braille notetaker. Even if a book is available in audio, we feel more engaged reading differently once in a while.
Braille also keeps me organized when I travel. Before a trip, I print out my various boarding passes and label them with Braille post-Its to distinguish them. I believe I look more competent when I can pick out the right ticket to hand over for each flight.
Finally, I encounter Braille most often in my job, typically in indirect ways. As an assistive technologist working with teachers of blind children, I help them troubleshoot and learn how to use Braille notetakers and embossers. I present at inservices that my department organizes for parents and teachers, blending my personal experience and technical background to emphasize the importance of Braille literacy in situations where print is too unwieldy. And sometimes, Braille pops up in unexpected places: A sighted colleague who doesn’t read it just came to me today with a sheaf of paper and asked me to double-check which documents she had embossed before she sent them out.
So much of life is about change. I’ve moved far beyond the schoolgirl of yesteryear—gained new friends and family members, explored broader interests and surroundings, and experienced important rites of passage. At this point, there aren’t many things that I can look back on as constant or dependable in my life, but it occurs to me that Braille is certainly one of them. The ways I use it have changed along with me, but I’ve never abandoned it altogether. I look forward to encountering this latest essay in the detritus of my past another fifteen years hence, and pausing to reflect on the role Braille plays in my middle age.
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