WBU-NAC (Senior group) Excellent Work
Off My Butt with Braille
U.S.A Tara Briggs (33, Female)
“Well, how is the Hobbit going?” The question came from my brother. We were in the local University library. He was studying and I was supposed to be studying too, but I am afraid I was making patterns on the Brailler.
“The Hobbit?” I hedged.
“Yes, you know the Braille book you are supposed to be reading.”
“Oh yes, that book! It's really great! I just love it! It's really …”
“So,” he interrupted my babbling. “What have you liked about it?”
“Umm, I really liked the part where Bilbo says good morning to Gandalf. And Gandalf, you know, goes on about what Bilbo means by the words good morning.”
My brother offered a polite courtesy laugh and asked, “What else have you liked?”
“Well I haven’t exactly read anymore yet.”
“What?” he said incredulously. “You have had that book for over a week and you haven’t gotten past the first chapter.”
What could I say? I was, and still am, an audiobook addict. I might never have learned to love Braille if it hadn’t been for the trip I took to Washington D.C. with the National Federation of the Blind. My mentor was a college student who loved Braille books as much as I loved audiobooks. She didn’t preach about the importance of reading Braille. All she said was, “Some of these talks and meetings can get a little bit boring, so here is a Braille novel for your Braille note taker.” And she left it at that. Maybe it was because I was a teenager, but I found she was right. Some of the speeches were less than entertaining. The Braille novel was a big help. As a matter of fact, Braille novels were a lot of help in many boring situations. Not having much fun in math class? Well, just break out that long neglected Hobbit book. I found my brother had been right. It was a great book!
By the end of high school, I had become as addicted to reading books as I was to listening to them. Perhaps this is why I ended up teaching Braille to newly blinded adults. For me Braille had become a source of delight, and I wanted to pass it on to those who had lost their sight. My most remarkable Braille student never learned the complete code. With his permission, I am going to tell his story and what he taught me.
Our relationship did not begin well. My new student, Ray, stood in my classroom doorway, “Hi Sugar!” he said enthusiastically.
“Let’s get one thing straight," I replied irritably. "My name is Tara and you will address me by that. Do you understand?”
His voice was subdued as he replied, “Yes ma’am.”
Over the next several months I got to know the 79 year-old Ray very well. He would tell stories of his life as a dentist and of his humanitarian work in Africa. Although he had a knack for distracting the entire class, and me most of all, with these fascinating tales, he worked harder than any student I have ever taught.
During my time as a teacher, I was given some good advice by my mentor; the same friend that gave me my first Braille novel. She told me you need three things to learn Braille. First, you need to have the desire to learn it. Second, you need the ability to remember what you are learning. And third, you need to have the ability to feel the Braille with your fingers. Ray nearly had all three.
Ray had the desire to learn. Like I said, he worked harder than anyone. As an example, when he came back from a week-long vacation, he brought me 40 pages of slated Braille. Ray was good at memorizing the code by making up little things to help him remember. He taught me “O” was an easy letter to remember because it was the “odd one”. After his time in my class, I shared his memorization trick with my students.
Although Ray loved learning Braille and was able to remember it, he struggled with increasing neuropathy. Despite this, he kept reviewing lessons over and over. Reading Braille became more difficult as his fingers were less able to feel it. I was disappointed when Ray didn’t finish my Braille class. Even though he had been a blast to teach, I supposed his time learning Braille had been a bit of a waste.
Several months later Ray stopped by for a visit. He told me something I have never forgotten. "Before I started taking your class,” he said, “I tested positive for the beginning signs of dementia. I went to the doctor after I left your class and those signs are gone. I love Braille because it has gotten my mind off its butt!"
During the three years I taught Braille, I got to see firsthand the impact Braille had on my students. For some, Braille became a way to access their spices and CDs. For others, it was a way of writing a grocery list or keeping track of phone numbers. Like me, some students discovered there is nothing quite like reading a good book. One student went on to be a Braille proofreader. But the student who touched me most was the one who never learned the complete code.
Ray will never read a novel in Braille, and he uses a Pen Friend to label household items. However, his mind is no longer on its butt!