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Stephen Jolley: My life with Braille

03 January 2017

At the time other children were introduced to pencil and paper I was feeling dots and using a small stylus on paper fixed in a metal frame to make them.

Before I was six I was using Braille to read story books. By the age of seven I was using contracted or Grade 2 Braille, which involves word abbreviations and dot patterns for letter-groups. This reduces the content to about 60% of that for the simple or Grade 1 Braille.

Invented in the 1800s by Frenchman Louis Braille, Braille became the preferred tactile literacy method early in the 20th century. It consists of a sequence of cells, with each cell comprising six dots in two columns of three. It is a brilliant application of binary arithmetic that allows for 64 possible dot combinations.

Throughout my schooling Braille was the predominant literacy tool and the gateway to text books and recreational reading. It is by far the best method of comprehending mathematics and can even be used for reading music. Only in my late secondary and tertiary education did reading by listening become significant.

Unlike audio, Braille teaches and reinforces spelling, paragraphs and formatting.

There were two components to my career, both immeasurably enhanced, if not completely dependent on Braille.

For 20 years, I worked in the IT industry in programming and systems analysis. Computer printouts, personal notes and associated documents served me best in Braille. In the early days, thanks to the pioneering ingenuity of blind computer programmers from across the world, I was able to produce readable Braille by programming printers to crudely impact patterns of full stops onto sheets of paper supported by soft backing.

In 1994, I left IT to head up what is now Vision Australia Radio and then later lead the organisation’s client communications initiatives. Again, Braille was essential.

It allowed me to produce notes for one-on-one or group meetings, presentations, radio scripts and interview prompts.

For most of its history, Braille content has been limited by the availability of skilled individuals, usually volunteers, to painstakingly transcribe from print to all those dots. However, with today’s stored data and online links to content, Braille translation software and display and embossing technology, Braille content can be as plentiful, diverse and timely as print or electronic formats.

The barriers of the past are no longer there. The key to Braille availability is the will of the providers.

Over the years, Braille has been downplayed by service professionals.

It is a challenge for teachers and rehabilitation professionals to grasp. It is not easy for adults who are blind to learn, though they will say it was worth persevering with as they reach a level where it assists them in daily living.

While not everybody will use Braille for getting into novels, it can find its place helping people with everyday essential tasks, such as labelling medication.

In my personal life, Braille is my pencil and paper. It is the easiest way to work with a phone number, credit card details or other everyday information.

My Braille Cricket and AFL fixtures reside on the lounge coffee table. Who wants to have to go to the computer or even get out the phone to find out who is playing?

I use Braille to label boxes, records and CD/DVDs. Many people use Braille to label food items.

Braille is an option that should be offered to every person who is blind. For me, braille is the key to my literacy, while audio is the gateway to a vast universe of content. Braille is the most effective way to absorb written information. It is direct. It is spacial. The memory stores pictures of words and phrases on a page.

Audio provides quick and straight forward access to online and recorded content, but it is single dimensional and can be hamstrung by the intervention of a third party, perhaps tainting the intent of the original source.

I like to see Braille in public places such as lifts, hotel room doors or railway stations. Not only is such availability of help but also it enables the public at large to appreciate that Braille is not a mere optional extra and for those who use it, but a key aid to independent daily living.

I am fortunate to be one of the millions throughout the world who uses Braille as an integral element of daily living. Countless others can relate their particular story of how Braille has enriched their lives. It would be tragic if it was overlooked in equipping young children who are blind with the tools for fulfilling, high achieving and independent lives.

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