Under my fingers

04 March 2021

By Tess Herbert

When I was younger, if anyone talked about my blindness it was always in relation to whether or not I could move around independently or make tea without spilling it. No one ever talked about what is was like being unable to read the books I wanted to.

Whether I’m immersed in the world of Jane Austen, or laughing along with Ben Elton, nothing relaxes or engages me as much as reading.

When I started school in the mid-1990s, eBooks were unheard of and it wasn’t easy to get audio books. For most of my school years, the majority of the books I read were in braille.

My first braille book

Twenty-five years ago when I was four, I was handed a five-page braille book and my teacher took me through it letter by letter.

It was called “Where’s Tessa” and it had been written especially for me. Until then I’d mainly had book read to me by my family. I particularly enjoyed Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree books and would pester anyone to read them to me.

 “Where’s Tessa” was the first book I could read myself. Even though Tessa was found disappointingly quickly, it was still exciting.

After finding Tessa, I progressed to longer books about triangles, farm animals and very hungry caterpillars and, eventually, short novels.

The ups and downs of braille

Braille came with other benefits. Unlike my siblings, I could keep reading after lights-out.

At age 11, I was absorbed in “Looking for Alibrandi” and towards the end. As the main character was in the process of being left by her boyfriend, Dad told us we had to turn the lights. While my younger sister slept, I read the rest and went to sleep, with the contentment that always comes after finishing a good book.

Reading braille wasn’t always easy. I wasn’t the fastest braille reader as I had a tendency to read with one finger instead of both hands.

Because of the thickness of braille pages compared to print pages, braille books were heavy and often came in multiple volumes.

On family holidays, I found it hard to cram all the books I wanted in my bag. Reading in the car was difficult as braille books had double sided pages which took up a lot of space.

The magic of braille

Despite the challenges, there was nothing more thrilling than when new braille books arrived at school or home.

I’ll never forget the day when at least ten volumes of the first Harry Potter book turned up at school. I couldn’t carry them all on the school bus and had to take home a couple of volumes at a time. At nine-years-old, it like all my Christmases had come at once.

Harry Potter had been read to me before, but I wanted the experience of feeling much loved words and sentences under my fingers. I spent a solid fortnight reading and re-reading them, laughing along with the different characters said and loving every word.

Waiting for each new Harry Potter book to be available in braille became a common theme of my childhood. It was always a little hard to deal with the fact my friends could read them as soon as they liked, whereas I was forced to wait.

A reader's lament

Even with expansion of audio and ebooks, there are still books I’d love to read but can’t because they aren’t new or popular enough to be produced in accessible formats.

For someone who loves books as much as I do, being limited as to what I can read has always been the hardest thing about being blind.

Thank goodness for braille.

As a child, with braille under my fingers, I learnt a lot about the world around me and I can’t imagine what my life without it.