Driving me dotty

In last week’s blog I explained how updating the operating system on my PC to Windows 10 caused all sorts of problems for the specialist software I use to run my braille transcription business.

In particular, I had to re-install JAWS, the text-to-speech program which I use to read aloud documents on my computer. After we’d finally sorted that out, I hoped that would be the end of my problems, but it wasn’t, because I soon realised that Duxbury wasn’t working properly either.

Duxbury is the program I use for braille translation. When all is working as it should, I open the document to be transcribed, usually a Word or text file, run it through Duxbury, and what comes up on my braille display is a pretty good braille document. Pretty good, but not perfect, so I carefully go through it and create the appropriate layout and correct any braille errors.

I can do this because the braille is coming up under my fingers on my braille display. This is a tablet which sits in front of the keyboard and produces what is known as refreshable braille. This is formed by tiny pins which can rise and fall to create braille symbols under my fingertips as the screen cursor is moved along the line of text and down the page. It is a brilliant piece of kit without which my job would be very difficult.

I can edit in braille on the computer because while in Duxbury, the home keys on my conventional QWERTY keyboard – that is to say, the letters S, D and F under my left hand, and J, K and L under my right – operate as a braille keyboard, allowing me to write in braille, just as if I were using my manual Perkins Brailler.

This kit is expensive, but when I first started my braille transcription business, there were no government grants or subsidies to help pay for this type of software and equipment. In those days, I had to create the document in an early word processor called Word Perfect. I would then run the Word Perfect file through a braille translation program, print it off in hard copy, read it, note any errors, and then go back into the Word Perfect file to make my corrections. After that, I had to run the corrected document through the braille translation program all over again, and finally print it off for the customer.

Looking back on that era, I think, “What a waste of time and paper!”

You can also see why I value Duxbury and why I was so keen to get it back up and running again after I installed Windows 10.

The first thing we needed to do was uninstall the previous installation of Duxbury. That’s where the fun started.

We couldn’t do it.

The installation process kept asking us for codes we didn’t have. We urgently needed to contact the manufacturer.

Two problems there.

Duxbury Systems, who make the braille translation software, are based in Westford, Massachusetts, in the USA. That means that they are four hours behind the UK at this time of year.

And the other problem? It was a Sunday.

On Monday, I allowed them time to wake up and then emailed Duxbury Systems. They emailed back that all would be well now.

It was evening by this point, so my brother in Leicester was back home from work and able to help me out. He used a program called TeamViewer to remotely access my computer and together we tackled the Duxbury installation process again.

We were soon asked for our licence number. This was printed on the side of the box the software came in, which is fine if you’re sighted, but left it absolutely inaccessible to me.

I used my mobile phone to contact my sister-in-law on Messenger (is this sounding familiar to regular readers?), and held the software box up in front of the camera on the phone so that she could read the number aloud to my brother, who was sitting next to her, operating his computer.

It took a lot of fiddling about with the phone camera and the box, but we got there in the end.

So, that was well, best beloved (a Kipling reference there), but then we were asked for a reference code. Fortunately, the good people of Massachusetts were still awake and at work, so I was able to email them. They wrote back and, guess what, we should have de-activated Duxbury before uninstalling it. No one I had spoken to had mentioned this before.

Oh dear… Return to Go, do not collect £200!

We did manage to get Duxbury back up and running eventually. Did everything else run smoothly after that? Hah! I’ll tell you the rest next week.

Rescue from the death of JAWS!

If you’re a PC user, you’ve probably been running Windows 10 for ages but I have come to the party rather late in the day. It had to be done, though, so a couple of weeks ago my brother kindly helped me load the operating system onto my PC. It all seemed very straightforward and I thought at first that everything was running normally.

Ha! I wish! It turned out that JAWS wasn’t working properly.

JAWS, which stands for Job Access With Speech, is the software which runs the speech and braille applications on my computer. In theory, the program converts everything on the screen to speech. So, as I move the cursor through, for example, a Word document, JAWS will read it aloud to me. I can also navigate through a document letter by letter so I can find errors and correct them. JAWS will even read punctuation if I place the cursor over the relevant symbol. I also use it for reading emails as it is quick and easy and saves my joints, which get a lot of stress while reading braille.

I said that, in theory, JAWS can read everything on the screen. To do that, though, you have to be able to move the cursor onto every part of the screen and I have often found that this is easier said than done.

Sometimes, for example, when I have a problem reading a document, I ask my sighted PA what is on the screen and she says, “You need to get to the column on the left.”

Documents like that pose two levels of difficulty for me. How do I know that there is another column on the left and, even if I do discover its existence, how do I get to it?

I’m not saying that someone with more technical expertise than me couldn’t make JAWS reach the parts that other programs cannot reach (which, for those of you too young to have been watching UK TV ads during the 1970s, is an oblique reference to a famous beer commercial), but it can be very frustrating when I can’t do what a sighted person viewing the screen could manage so easily.

That said, JAWS is a great asset and, despite its annoying robotic voice, I find it invaluable.

So, how to get JAWS up and running again following the belated arrival of Windows 10?

First, my brother and I had to uninstall JAWS. That was interesting because it was at that point that we discovered that I already had not one but two versions of the program on my computer, so one had to be deleted.

We then re-installed the other version and restarted the computer. We waited with, literally in my case, baited breath, to see if JAWS would start again.

I shouted “Alleluia!” when the robot voice announced “JAWS Professional,” and we all breathed again.

So that was it, then? Everything running perfectly on the new operating system?

You’ve got to be joking! After that we had to sort out Duxbury… But I’ll tell you about that next week.

Just like the Queen

You may recall that late last year, I spoke about visual impairment to a local cub pack in readiness for them to take their disability badge. Louise Kutzner from Vision West of England and I returned last week to help them through the steps required to earn the badge.

Once again I entered the lions’ den. I don’t know quite what was going on when I arrived but, as far as I could tell, between twenty and thirty small children were involved in some kind of noisy game entailing a lot of running about and shouting. Louise and I sat down at a table and eventually the children were corralled into groups and brought over to work with us eight or so at a time.

One of the activities was for them to demonstrate that they could write their name in braille. At home, I use a manual device called a Perkins Brailler to generate printed sheets of braille, but although it is portable in theory, it is also incredibly heavy, so I had decided not to bring it with me. Instead, I gave each child a card with the braille alphabet on it and encouraged them to make the patterns of the dots with pen and paper. Some got quite proficient and were writing their first, middle and last names – and, in one case, the names of their siblings – in no time at all. Others took a little longer, but they all had a good go at it.

After that we talked to them about guide dogs, explaining what they do and how you mustn’t approach them if they are working. Then I showed them my long cane and demonstrated how to use it.

I also told them how to approach a visually-impaired person and did my best to make it clear that you shouldn’t just grab them without warning, but should ask nicely if you can help!

The children asked a lot of questions, although it was very hard to hear their high-pitched voices against the considerable background noise in the room. This is something I may have mentioned before. Sighted people unconsciously lip-read to some extent. Those of us with little or no sight don’t have that advantage. In a noisy environment it can be hard to hear what people are saying. Despite all that, I think I managed to answer all the children’s queries.

After we had done our bit, the leader asked us if we would like to stay to the end. We had been intending to pack up and go but when we discovered that the cubs were going to be given their badges that very night, we agreed to remain. We were duly given chairs in front of the stage. Once the cubs had lined up in their sixes, a boy was brought forward to be sworn in. Then the leader announced that they should all come forward “and shake the lady’s hand.”

What???

Apparently I was going to give out the badges!

This was, in many ways, the highlight of the evening for me. I was handed a pile of badges and twenty-four small hands were thrust into mine. I’m sure they would hate me to say it but they were so cute!

It was quite a routine. Handshake, “Hello, and here’s your badge.” Handshake again, “Hello, and here’s your badge,” and so it went on. By the end I had begun to appreciate a little of how the Queen must feel when she is handing out honours!

It was an evening well spent.

Under pressure

When a visually impaired persons opts to have their letters sent to them in braille, it turns out that they’re reducing the amount of time they have in which to respond. When the letters concerned are from a landlord or a government department, the consequences can be serious.

Let me explain.

Just before Christmas, I had a phone call from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). They told me that my £10 Christmas bonus, (an annual “gift” to those of us who claim benefits here in the UK), would be in my account by the end of December. They asked me if, having had a phone call, I still wanted notification in braille. I said I was quite happy with the phone call.

This came up for discussion on one of the online groups for visually-impaired people that I belong to. I ventured to say on the group that I didn’t need a letter as well as a phone call. Then other issues came to light.

Many people with a disability in the UK have claimed a benefit called Disability Living Allowance (DLA) for some years now. It is supposed to compensate us for the additional living costs we incur due to our disabilities, such as paying for taxi fares for those who find public transport difficult or inaccessible.

A few years ago, DLA was replaced by Personal Independence Payments (PIP). You are not automatically transferred from DLA onto PIP. You have to apply. You get a letter telling you that you can apply for PIP and if you do not do so within a certain time your DLA payments will stop. After you have applied, you then go through a protracted process of telephone interviews, form filling and face-to-face assessment.

Let me return to that initial letter telling you that you can apply for PIP. As I have indicated, it is time sensitive. You have to respond within a certain time frame. The clock starts ticking from the moment the print letter goes into the postal system.

If you have indicated that you would like your correspondence in braille, the print letter will be sent to a third party to be brailled. That person then has to return it to the DWP, who will then send it out. Time meanwhile is slipping away. To add to an already difficult situation, the DWP send the letter out by second class post. They could send it “Articles for the Blind”, in which case it would go first class and free but, no, they pay to send it out via second class post.

So, by the time the applicant gets it, there is little time left to respond.

I have also encountered this issue in my role as a braille transcriber.

Suppose I am transcribing a letter regarding a tenant’s failure to pay rent. Time may be of the essence. The customer may ask me to return the letter to them. I reply, “Wouldn’t it be better for me to send it directly to the person in question? I have the right packaging, I can send it Articles for the Blind, it will save time and, also, each time the braille goes through the mail, the dots get a little more squashed, making it harder to read.”

Sometimes I win this battle, sometimes I don’t.

However, I do feel that government departments in particular should be taking this on board. They shouldn’t be penalising people who are already disadvantaged by taking so long to send vital letters in a format the recipient can read. And why waste taxpayers’ money by paying unnecessarily for postage which takes longer than the free alternative?

I suspect this is a case of a lack of joined-up thinking among civil servants and a lack of understanding of the material they are dealing with. It could all be so much more streamlined with a bit of forethought. Wouldn’t it be nice if they asked the people on the receiving end for their thoughts. What a wonderful world that would be!

Dispensing with the EU

Now that the UK has left the European Union, I thought that I would ponder on the benefits visually-impaired people have derived from the EU.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to get on a political soapbox! I’m just giving some thought to specific issues affecting the visually impaired which won’t have been covered in the mainstream media.

The most obvious benefit has been the EU directive requiring medication to be labelled in braille. I have mentioned before how much this has helped me. For those of you who haven’t read every single blog since the beginning (Really, you haven’t? What have you been doing with your time?!), I take a lot of prescription drugs. I have a strong painkiller that comes in two different strengths. The stronger capsules are in a pink box and the weaker in a yellow one. I cannot see the difference and for years I had to ask someone which was which. I would then put an elastic band round the box of stronger capsules. The EU directive solved the problem far more neatly and restored my independence. Once all medication was labelled in braille, I could tell which box was which for myself.

It is true that even now there are occasions when tablets are dispensed without braille but, generally, the rules are adhered to and I am sure I’m not the only person to be grateful for this.

Of course, if we hadn’t joined the EU, the UK Government might one day have decided to bring in a law stating that all medicines should be labelled in braille but I somehow doubt it and as many of our drugs are imported, it might have been difficult to enforce the rule even if they had.

What else?

I believe the EU was involved in changing the rules on copyright, and this made life a lot easier for those who, like me, depend on braille.

Let me explain.

It used to be the case that, if you gave me a print book and I scanned and brailled it, even if it was for my own use, I would technically be in breach of copyright. This was frustrating and it took a lot of negotiation to change but now an individual can transcribe printed material without the author’s permission provided it is for their own use and not for profit.

You might be surprised how difficult it has been on occasion for the RNIB to get permission to transcribe certain books into braille. I think this is due to a fundamental misunderstanding. I don’t think people operating in the world of print realise that no one makes any serious money out of braille production. The RNIB, who are probably the biggest producer of braille books in the UK, subsidise the cost of those books so that people like me can afford them. If they charged the true cost of production they would be prohibitively expensive.

I’m pleased to say that there are authors who positively embrace the idea of having their books produced in alternative formats. One of these is J. K. Rowling and the RNIB managed to publish the Harry Potter books in different formats at the same time they were published in print.

Why is this important? Because when your friends are talking about the books they’ve read, you want to join in the conversation and not have to wait years to read the book in question.

Of course, now, with the Internet, streaming services, and companies like Audible, it is easier to keep up with the latest best-sellers. However, I still maintain that we miss out on the special experience of browsing a bookshop and buying whatever takes our fancy on the day.

Never mind, I’ve just received my latest batch of six books from the Talking Book library and am enjoying Pepys’ diary. I have no need to feel I’ve missed out on anything because 1660 was a long time ago!

Cubs!

When you aren’t around children much you forget how noisy they are en masse! So why were my PA and I venturing into the lions’ den?

It’s because we were invited to speak to a local Cub pack. They will be working for their “Disability Awareness” badge in January and they wanted an introduction to braille. So we set off in search of said Cub pack…

We arrived at the front entrance of the school where they meet. We spoke to a couple of people who re-directed us to the back of the school. We walked round the perimeter, across the car park at the back, and eventually we found them.

When we entered, we encountered around twenty 8-10 year-olds. I think exuberant would be a good description!

I started by saying a few words about Louis Braille and handed out cards with the braille alphabet on. I then showed them some children’s books in braille which I borrowed from the ClearVision Project for whom I proofread.

Two of the books were print books with braille interleaved on clear plastic. I heard one child pipe up,  “I think I’ve got the hang of it now!”

My PA went over, and turned back the print pages so they could only see the braille. Then she brought some Cubs over to hear me read.

They also loved the tactile books made by volunteers who sew and embroider to embellish the pages. I love these books too, and particularly like the page in Little Red Riding Hood with a door that actually opens and closes. (Little things amuse me!)

They enjoyed trying out my talking kitchen scales. I had provided two clementines for them to weigh.

I then got them to pair up. One child had to close their eyes, take the arm of their partner and let them guide them round the room. I was impressed by the enterprising ones who took their “blind” charges up the steps onto the stage.

They asked lots of interesting questions. One observant girl noticed I was wearing glasses so I tried to explain that I have a tiny amount of sight. She also noticed I was wearing a necklace and wondered how I got dressed and put on jewellery. Another shared his grandmother’s experience of using a liquid level indicator. I’m afraid I just put my finger in the cup when I want to know how full it is!

At the end I was given a rousing chorus of “Bravo!”

We waited to hear them sing “Jingle Bells” and then sallied forth again into the car park.

It was a lively evening. we enjoyed it and hope they did too!

By the way, for those who read my blog regularly: the John Lewis Christmas ad is audio-described. Thought it would be!

Election

You may not have noticed but we are in the midst of an election here in the UK. If you are reading this from outside our borders, be grateful it isn’t happening to you!

The impending election made me start to think about whether we, visually-impaired people, are disadvantaged in the electoral process.

One year, the RNIB made a point of advertising the fact that the three main parties had had their manifestos put into braille. They made it easy by giving you the numbers to ring so I rang and obtained all three documents. There was quite a lot to read, (I think Labour’s was the longest) but I did read them all the way through.

The RNIB haven’t, so far, mentioned any braille versions of the manifestos this year. I’m not sure I can muster sufficient enthusiasm to chase all the phone numbers this time but I suspect the same could be said for a lot of sighted voters. How many people do search out all the relevant manifestos and read them? I’m guessing it’s only a small percentage of the electorate.

Then there are the leaflets that come through the door. I have a sighted PA who would read these to me if I asked but am I going to ask? Probably not. It takes time that I could put to other uses. Many visually impaired people won’t have anyone to read these to them, though.

When it comes to canvassing on the doorstep, I am definitely on equal terms with my sighted neighbours. I can engage in a political argument…sorry, I mean, discussion…as well as anyone else and, provided they don’t turn up while I’m watching Ghost Adventures on television, I may do so.

The physical act of voting raises more issues. I know  a number of visually impaired people who opt for a postal vote which they can get a trusted friend or relative to help them fill in.

This is a good idea but I like to exercise my democratic right to attend a polling station.

There is a system of assistance in place for visually impaired voters who want to vote at a polling station. I can ask at the desk for someone to help me and a member of staff will take me to the booth, read out all the names and put a cross where I ask them to.

I personally have no problem with this and I trust them to act according to my instructions. Of course, if there are other voters around, it isn’t entirely private. The booths aren’t sound-proofed. As I tend to be quite open about who I vote for, I don’t mind this but I could understand others not being happy with it. There are templates produced by RNIB which you can line up with the names on the ballot paper and which enable you to put your own cross on the form. I was only offered this once and I didn’t find it very easy to use but it did, at least, mean my vote was secret.

Latterly, I have gone to vote with a friend and been quite happy to let her put my cross in the desired box for me.

I don’t know if there is a perfect system but it is certainly the case that casting a totally secret vote when you can’t see where to put your cross is a challenge. This will matter to some more than others but perhaps we should be giving more thought to this question. After all, that little cross is at the heart of our democracy.

Inclusion

How accessible are churches and other places of worship?

I’m not just talking about physical access, for all that lifts and ramps can be very important for those, like me, who have mobility problems. I’m talking about whether, once inside those places of worship, you can participate in the activities that go on there alongside able-bodied people.

I’m talking about inclusion.

One important area of my life is church. What I’m going to say may apply to places of worship of many faiths but I can only speak from my own experience here.

An important element of the Christian faith is the written word. If you happen to have a printed bible handy, just look and see how many pages it contains. It’s probably a single volume with around 900 pages. Now let me tell you about my braille bible. The New Testament alone is in five very thick braille volumes. I do not possess the entire Old Testament (I have a mere thirty volumes) because in my previous house I had nowhere to put it all. I could probably find space in my current home but a braille bible is so huge, I would still have to store it in various different parts of the house.

(An aside: years ago when I worked at the RNIB braille production unit in Goswell Road, we used to gather round a tea trolley twice a day for a break. Many people have never experienced this delightfully old-fashioned custom. It was a great opportunity to chat and we would regularly muse on various issues relating to braille and sight loss. I remember one day that we had a discussion about how much space you would need for the Gideons to leave a braille bible as well as a print bible in every hotel room. We envisaged guests having to climb over vast piles of books in order to get into bed!)

But, yes, braille bibles are really big and cumbersome, multi-volume works. You can imagine the problems this causes when I want to take a bible with me to church. When I attend bible study, I only take the appropriate volume along with me. When I take my turn on the reading rota and read in the service, I copy the reading out beforehand and just take the braille print-out with me. This is far preferable to heaving a large book onto the lectern.

Of course, this kind of participation can only happen if there is good communication. I need to know the bible passage well in advance.

I remember the first time I read the lesson at my current church. I was solemnly escorted to the lectern on the platform. It took me a while to get there! (These days I read from a lectern on the floor of the worship area.) Once I was at the lectern, no one could see me at all, because I am so short. (Neither I nor my escort realised there was a step to stand on for just such occasions.) The congregation knew I couldn’t read a print bible, so when they heard a disembodied voice ringing round the room, many of them assumed, I discovered later, that I was reciting the reading from memory! The illusion was shattered when I started reading from the lower lectern, however, because everyone could see that I actually had a sheet of paper with me.

That’s a little about the challenges of bible reading for the visually impaired, but what about hymn books?

Many churches these days no longer use hymn books, instead projecting the words of the songs onto large screens. This solves some problems but creates new ones. It makes it easier to introduce new songs and does away with the business of handing out hymn books and tidying them away at the end of the service. Not everyone can read ordinary print, and large-print hymn books can be heavy and unwieldy, especially for elderly people with arthritic hands. The use of screens can help solve these problems and also leaves people free to raise their arms or clap their hands, if they are worshiping in churches where such practices are the norm.

The words on the screens still have to be big enough for everyone to read, of course, and the screens have to be positioned so that everyone can see them. If they are not raised sufficiently high, you may not be able to see them if you are behind someone who is much taller than you are. My brother-in-law tells me that in his church, there was a lady with bad arthritis in her neck for whom it was very painful to raise her head to look up at words on a screen. You have to choose your text and background colours carefully, too, because some combinations are very hard to read.

Frankly, though, if you are visually impaired, screens are not much help.

In our church, we have a printed order of service which is also projected on a big screen at the front. This is where I am very lucky. Not only can I read braille but I have the means of braille production. I am sent an electronic copy of the service in advance and I can braille it during the week, along with the hymns, so that I can fully participate in the service on Sunday. I do possess a braille hymn book but it is in eleven volumes so I prefer to copy out the hymns and take single sheets. I have a large collection by now so often don’t have to braille any new ones.

My ability to braille documents enables me not only to take my place on the reading rota but also to lead bible studies and chair meetings. As I have mentioned in this blog before, braille is essential for these activities. I can braille notes for a bible study and I have the agenda, minutes and any relevant reports literally at my finger-tips in meetings.

Whilst I am pleased to be able to play my part in church life – and, with access to braille and assistance from fellow church-goers, I hope to continue to do so for many years to come – I am aware that not everyone is so fortunate. What about those older people who, when they can no longer see the screen or read the admittedly large-print order of service, find themselves unable to join in?

I don’t think there are any easy answers to these questions but we should keep asking them, always making sure we consult those most keenly affected. We need to listen carefully to their answers.

Access

Not everyone was happy when the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act came into force here in the UK.

The Act states that public buildings should have “reasonable adjustments” made for the benefit of disabled people. The social commentator Rod Liddle was vehemently opposed to beautiful old buildings being mangled, as he saw it, by the inclusion of lifts and ramps. He saw no reason why someone in a wheelchair should not have to go to a back door and press a buzzer or be lifted bodily out of their wheelchair and carried into, say, a busy restaurant, in front of the other customers.

I wonder if he would feel quite so sanguine if it was happening to him but the point is this is not just about physical access. It’s about human dignity and the message society is sending out to disabled people.

There used to be a BBC Radio 4 sketch show called “Yes, sir, I can boogie” which included material by disabled writers. One skit had an able-bodied person turning up at a theatre. The theatre-goer is outraged to be told he can only see the show if he is prepared to be winched up in the service lift and sit at the back of the auditorium. It made the point nicely. This is the sort of thing disabled people have put up with for years.

Access is not just a question of physical obstacles. For those of us with sensory impairments, there are other issues as well. Someone with a hearing impairment may need a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter or a hearing loop system.

Visually-impaired people need … well, what do we need?

Some buildings thoughtfully provide braille labels on doors but if you don’t know they are there or where to look for them, you will never find them. I’m certainly not going to feel around doors in strange buildings, assuming I can find the doors, on the off-chance that there are braille labels!

If there was a national standard for braille labelling in public places, it might be made to work effectively.

If, for instance, all doors were routinely labelled and those labels appeared, say, near the door knob each time, it would help some visually impaired people to navigate their way around. For example, it might make it possible to find a hotel room independently. Because the whole building is often unknown, however, some visually impaired people, myself included, would need more help than this. I would prefer a sighted person to guide me around, certainly in the first instance, and, if the stay was short, quite probably the whole time. It can take a while to learn your way around strange premises.

A problem that particularly affects visually impaired people is large, open-plan spaces.

At Swindon railway station, for example, there used to be a taxi rank virtually outside the front entrance. You now have to cross an open area to get to it. This is not helpful and is potentially dangerous as cars are coming and going all the time. I always book assistance and so have a member of staff with me but more mobile and independent visually impaired people who would have been able to get a taxi without official help in the past are now more dependent and at much greater risk.

Even the RNIB (Royal National Institute of Blind People) comes unstuck sometimes. I attended a course at their headquarters in London a few years ago. When the course was over, I was put in a chair in reception while, supposedly, a taxi was call for me.

After a long wait, I decided to approach the reception desk to ask what was happening. Where was it though? I had to cross a huge open area, head for the general sound of talk and hope for the best. I was not impressed.

I feel, therefore, that when architects, developers, building managers and whoever else this responsibility falls to, are thinking about access, they should consult with a wide range of disabled people. They will need to be flexible and to understand that we are individuals. What suits one visually impaired person may not suit another and they may need to include a variety of solutions.

Of course, no one is expecting every building to perfectly fit the needs of every single disabled person, but more could be done.

We should continually strive for inclusivity, even if that means doing things differently sometimes or taking a leap of imagination to try to understand how it feels to be treated as a second-class citizen. After all, no one wants to be consigned to the service lift of life.

Spelling – what a capital idea!

I went to a school for the blind when I was 7 and started learning to touch type when I was 8 or 9. It was considered so important that everyone learnt it, because it was one of the ways in which we would need to communicate in the sighted world.

(And, of course, in those days, many visually-impaired people did become audio typists.)

I loved it. We often typed to music to ensure we got a good rhythm going. I remember typing “All the dancers had red dresses,” and “Cut the flowers for the wedding,” as well as many other finger exercises.

One of the things we had to learn was where to put capital letters. In those days, UK Standard English Braille did not use capitals. (US Braille always did, as far as I know.) This was, I imagine, to save space. Braille is very bulky and the number of dots you would need just to indicate capitals would have added to that bulk.

In the beginning, capitalisation was not difficult. We learnt to put a capital letter at the start of each sentence and at the beginning of proper names.

I don’t recall if having read print when I was still sighted helped me with any of this. Given my age, I suspect it only helped up to a point.

After capitalisation, the next problem was spelling. Braille has many contractions. That is to say, lots of words aren’t written out in full. There are signs for simple words such as “and”, “with” and “for”, but there are also more complex contractions. For example, the letters “rcvd” stand for the word “received”.

Both Linden Lodge School and my senior school, Chorleywood College, taught spelling as a lesson in its own right. In fact, at Chorleywood we had weekly spelling tests in the lower forms. But as I’ve tried to show, learning braille creates ambiguities it comes to spelling. What is the right way to spell “received” when, in different contexts, “rcvd” and “received” are both correct?

If the standard words you find in a dictionary are difficult enough to spell, then brand names introduce a whole new level of complexity for the visually impaired. Sighted people see these words all around, on adverts and shopfronts and in social media. We don’t.

Let’s take a simple example.

There used to be a chain of electrical retailers called Comet. Or was it Kommet, or Commet, or Kommit?

It was hard for me to tell. I might guess they would use an initial K to stand out from the crowd, but it would only be a guess. And it would be wrong.

It gets even more complicated with the current trend for inserting capital letters in the middle of brand and trade names, such as ClearVision.

Then again, there are some new words, such as the Japanese import “emoji”, which I have never seen written down in print or braille. This came up when my brother-in-law edited my last blog. I had no idea how to spell “emoji” and I got it wrong.

Now, you might think that this is no big deal, but actually, it is. If you are trying to give the impression that you are an educated professional, it doesn’t look good if it turns out that you can’t spell.

There is no easy answer to this. I am pleased to say that contemporary Unified English Braille does use capitals, but spelling is still a challenge.

This is one reason why braille is still so important. Literacy is about reading. You don’t learn how to spell through listening to a text.

(Disclaimer: Of course, sometimes my errors are just good old-fashioned typos, so perhaps you shouldn’t give me too much benefit of the doubt when I get things wrong!)