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!)

Braille production

I promised in my last blog that I would tell you a little bit about the practicalities of my work as a braille transcriber and proof-reader. Here’s a brief overview of how I do what I do.

Organisations and individuals commission me to convert conventional print documents into braille. They would like the braille version to work for a visually impaired person just as effectively as the printed version works for a sighted person, so I need to have a detailed knowledge of not just the content, but also the layout and format of the printed original. My visual impairment is pretty severe, however, so I can’t see or read the print version. I therefore work with a sighted personal assistant (PA) and it’s part of her job not just to read print documents to me, but also to describe how they are structured.

Most of my work comes to me in the form of email attachments. When a new piece of work arrives, I print a copy off for my PA and save the file. We then go through the document together and she will describe the layout, with particular emphasis on the types of headings that it contains. In print, those creating documents can use a whole battery of tools and techniques to emphasize particular lines and words, including colours, different fonts and font sizes, underlining, italics and emboldening.

Braille is more limited. There is a hierarchy of headings, such as centred, justified on the left with a blank line above it, and indented with or without italics. I have to decide which will be most helpful in a particular document. This means thinking about how it will be used.

Will it be read at home, or in a business meeting?” Does the customer need to find certain items quickly?

If the print version uses lots of different coloured headings, is this just for the sake of a pleasing appearance or is there some other significance? Can this be simplified in the braille version?

Once I understand the layout of the original, I run the file, usually a Word document, through a translation program which produces a braille version I can read and edit on my computer.

I read through the translation line by line on my braille display. This is a tablet in front of the keyboard with pins which come up to form braille signs which I can feel with my fingers as I move the cursor through the document. I can edit the braille cells using the A, S, and D keys under the fingers on my left hand on the qwerty keyboard, and the J, K and L keys under my right, which become equivalent respectively to each of the six braille dots.

Technically, I should produce the braille document to correspond exactly with the print version, otherwise I am in breach of copyright. However, there are sometimes errors in the original and these become a complete nonsense if translated into braille. For example, there is a braille sign for the conjunction “and”. If the print version misspells this word as “nad”, a sighted reader will usually be able to recognise that this is a mistake and work out what the word should be. If you feed “nad” through a braille translation program, though, the output will not resemble the sign for “and” in the slightest and the resulting pattern of dots simply won’t make sense to a braille reader. Where there is this kind of error, I will correct the braille version, though I never change grammar, however poor it might be.

Once I am satisfied that the braille is correct and that it is a faithful representation of the original print version of the document, I run off a hard copy on a braille embosser. This is a noisy machine which embosses dots on both sides. I then collate and tag the document, or my PA comb-binds it, if required.

Another part of my job is proofreading material produced by others. I am the proofreader for  a charity called the ClearVision Project which produces children’s books in braille. They take print books and interleave the braille on clear plastic. This enables a visually-impaired child to read with a sighted adult and vice versa. I loved reading these books with my nieces when they were young. ClearVision also produce chapter books for slightly older children which my assistant and I thoroughly enjoy proofreading together. She acts as “copyholder,” reading the print while I check the braille. To make sure we keep as alert as possible, we take turns to read a page each aloud.

And that’s pretty much it. Do get in touch at info.swindonbraille@gmail.com if you have any questions or if there is a braille job that you would like me to carry out for you or your organisation. Over the years, an interesting variety of work has come my way, including transcribing into braille for a PhD student the communications between Mission Control and one of the Apollo space flights, and proofreading the braille version of the Little Oxford English Dictionary in a mere 40 volumes!

Joining the dots…

As this is, after all, the Swindon BRAILLE Services blog, I think it’s probably high time that I talked a bit about braille. I’ll tell you next week about how I actually do my job as a braille transcriber but let’s start this week with a quick explanation of what braille is and how it works. 

Braille is a tactile system of six raised dots arranged in different ways to form letters, contractions, word-signs and symbols. It was invented to help visually impaired people to read and write by the Frenchman Louis Braille, and there is a good Wikipedia article about him here, as well as a general article on the braille system itself. (As you can see, the modern convention is to use an initial capital “B” for Braille, the name of the man who invented the system, and a lower case “b” for braille, the writing system that he invented.)

The six dots are arranged in a block known as a cell and are numbered in two columns, top to bottom, so that the top left dot is 1, the middle left dot is 2, and the bottom left dot is 3. The right-hand column is then numbered as top dot 4, middle dot 5, and bottom dot 6.

Louis Braille was French and so developed his system to work in the French language. Today, there are many different national variations and, because I live and work in the UK, I will describe the version we use here in this country.

There are two grades of braille. Grade 1 is the alphabet plus punctuation. Grade 2 incorporates other signs as well.

For instance, in Grade 2 braille, there are combinations of dots representing frequently used words such as and, with, the, of and for. Each letter of the alphabet also stands for a word if written spaced from other words. Thus “B” stands for but, “C” for can and so on, through to “Z” which stands for as.

In addition, in Grade 2 braille, if you put a modifier in front of various letters, other words are formed. For example, “dot 5 W” stands for the word work. Dot 5 isn’t the only modifier, either. For instance, there are a series of words formed by placing dots 4 and 5 in front of a word. In fact, dots 4-5 in front of W create the word word!

Combinations of dots in the lower part of the cell often stand for punctuation. Thus, when all the dots used in the pattern which normally indicates the letter “f” are lowered by a row, the pattern instead becomes an exclamation mark. If, in addition, you put a dot 5 in front of this lowered “f” pattern, you get a plus sign.

I hope that this brief whistle-stop tour gives you some idea of how braille works. If you would like more information on Grade 2 braille, read the Wikipedia article on English Braille. It is mostly concerned with the version of Braille used in the United States, which is slightly different from that used in the UK, but some of the differences are briefly explained.

As a child, I was desperate to learn to read again, having lost my sight just at the point when I was discovering the joy of books. Thus motivated, I learnt the basics fairly quickly. I think I was reading age-appropriate material within a school term, possibly a little sooner. I was only seven years old, so my fingers were very sensitive. It can be much harder for older people or those with conditions such as diabetes, which affect sensitivity, to learn braille. When I taught at the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) vocational training college, I found that people who had done manual work often had calloused fingers and found it almost impossible to feel the dots with which braille cells are constructed.

Sport and Drama

Learning to ice-skate and stepping out onto the stage for the first time… Judith Furse continues her account of what it was like to be a young child living away from home at a special boarding school for young people with visual impairments.

We had the opportunity to participate in a number of sporting activities at Linden Lodge School. I learnt to ice-skate.

At my first lesson I was too terrified to let go of the rail until the teacher left us and my friend Debbie, who was a proficient skater, persuaded me to go round with her. She skated backwards, encouraging me step by step until, without realising it, I found I’d skated round the entire rink.

After we came off the ice we were allowed to spend our pocket money in the café. We sat at the tables, chatting over cold drinks and biscuits and feeling very grown-up.

Perhaps my most vivid memories, though, are of doing drama . The headmaster at Linden Lodge, a Welshman called Mr. John, had a true thespian’s voice and always made good use of it. He loved drama and put on a play each year, with the scripts written out for the cast in braille.

My first role was quite humble. I played a fairy with very few lines.

My big break came in a play entitled “The Magic Seashell.” My friend and I starred as two girls who, while playing on the beach, find – guess what – a magic seashell. This leads them into an underwater adventure in which they rescue Neptune and his daughter.

I loved it!

I loved being in the imaginary world created by the scenery, costumes and lights. Oh, and Mr. John played a Welsh whale who came from that village with the very long name*. I suspect that he created the part just so that he could say the name!

Of course, it wasn’t all fun and games and it wasn’t easy having to leave home, but the braille education I received at Linden Lodge School enabled me to read and learn again, and that meant the world to me.

* The village is called Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. According to Wikipedia, this means “St Mary’s church in the hollow of the white hazel near to the fierce whirlpool of St Tysilio of the red cave” in Welsh.

Linden Lodge

Feeding mulberry leaves to silk worms, waving a dried snake skin around to frighten the other children, and sneaking out after dark… Judith Furse shares her memories of being a small child living away from home in a special school for those with visual impairments.

I thought I would return to my schooldays again…

After it became too difficult for me to remain at my mainstream school, I spent seven months at home. Unable to read, bored and frustrated, one day I cracked. My mother phoned the Essex Local Education Authority (LEA).

“I have a child here who is sobbing her heart out because she can’t go to school. What are you going to do about it?” she demanded, or words to that effect.

It worked. The LEA pulled themselves together enough to do their job and get me into a special school.

This was Linden Lodge School in Wimbledon, which took boys and girls from the ages of 5 to 18, all of whom had a visual impairment and some of whom had other disabilities such as learning difficulties. It was housed in a purpose-built, light, airy building with lovely grounds and had its own heated indoor swimming pool.

I started there at the age of 7 and ¾. I recall that the “three quarters” was very important to me at the time!

I threw myself into learning braille. At last, I could read again!

Many of the staff were young and forward-looking, though there were some exceptions, such as the scary house matron who taught me to do hospital corners when making my bed.

My first class teacher was a kind lady called Miss Garling. She encouraged us to use our imaginations and write stories and poems. She had a beautiful speaking voice and I loved it when she read us stories.

One of my most vivid memories is of the Nature Table. This contained, among other items, a snake’s skin, and we delighted in chasing each other round the classroom whilst waving this natural artifact. We also had silkworms which would cling onto your finger if you put it anywhere near them. There was a mulberry tree in the grounds and we collected its leaves to feed them.

The grounds were wonderful. There was grass, trees, flowerbeds and play equipment, including swings, slides, climbing frames and a see-saw.

A gap in the trees led to a round lawn, also surrounded by trees, which I seem to recall was known as “the Bowling Green.” The Scouts camped there, but we Brownies never did. Perhaps they thought the girls wouldn’t want to rough it, but my friends and I thought it would be fun to find out what the grounds felt like in the dark.

One night, after lights-out, we crept downstairs, opened the door into the junior playground and made our way into the grounds proper. I have no idea how long we stayed out there but it was quite magical being out in the deserted school grounds in the middle of the night.

When I told my parents about this adventure, some time afterwards, they were absolutely appalled!

Early Days

Judith Furse gives a moving and occasionally funny account of what it was like to lose her sight as a small child.

I have already alluded to my schooldays and, from time to time, I will tell you more. In this blog post, though, I’m going to go right back to the beginning.

I started to lose my sight when I was six. I lost all the sight in my right eye without anyone noticing. My left eye simply took over. I was aware that I couldn’t always read what was on the blackboard but thought that in some way it was down to my own stupidity, so I didn’t mention it. When my sight loss was finally recognised, I was given glasses and was able to continue for a while at a mainstream school.

There was an amusing but worrying incident during this time.

In those days, (I don’t know if it happens now), Local Education Authorities (LEAs) arranged for eye tests to be carried out at schools in their catchment areas. This involved a healthcare professional of some variety holding a card over one of your eyes while you read a chart and then swapping over to test the other eye. The professional in question carried out this procedure on me and informed my mother that my sight was fine.

My mother said, “But she has no sight in her right eye!”

Much embarrassment ensued. The poor lady said I must have been peeping round the card or perhaps I had memorised the chart. I don’t recall how I did it but some might think it shows initiative, or perhaps sneakiness, to pass an eye test with such a serious sight problem!

I loved most lessons, but especially reading, painting and drawing, and I carried on managing quite well until I was seven.

Around that time, I remember having headaches during which I saw flashing lights. The print on the page would go very small and I would be unable to read. My mother told me the headaches were called migraines, but I don’t recall whether I was officially diagnosed as having these. I suspect that these effects were linked to deterioration in my eyesight and the gradually increasing stress that this caused me as I continued trying to read.

Eventually the time came when I couldn’t see to read. In those days there was no official policy of integrating pupils with visual impairments into mainstream education but my school, St John’s Church of England Primary School, were very accommodating and they did their best for me. They had no spare staff and no knowledge of teaching visually-impaired children so I just muddled along. I wasn’t allowed to go out in the playground in case I got knocked over but a few wonderful school-friends stayed in and read to me in playtime.

After I was registered blind, though, the fight to get me into a special school started and I spent seven long months at home unable to read and getting my education through listening to schools programmes on the radio. I will talk about my first experiences at a special school another time.

Three cheers for the postman!

Working out who’s at the door can be difficult when you have a visual impairment. Some callers don’t make it easy! Thankfully, though, Judith’s postman is a shining example of how to get it right.

This week I should like to tell you about my postman. You may think this is a strange topic for a blog but bear with me.

Over the years, many postmen have trudged up many paths delivering bulky, heavy braille packages to me. Most have done this with a good will. Recently, my regular postman has called out, “Hello, it’s Posty!” to identify himself when I have opened the door in response to his ringing on the bell.

Occasionally, a less cheery mail delivery person has simply grunted and pushed the packages at me. It is impossible for me to know whether he is naturally grumpy or just doesn’t know what to say.

Anyone who announces themselves when I open the door gets a metaphorical gold star from me. Having to guess who is calling at your door is very unsatisfactory! However, my current postman gets several gold stars. Not only does he announce himself by saying “Hello, Judith, it’s the postman,” (and yes he did ask my permission to use my name), but he also describes the post to me.

For instance, he told me recently, “You’ve got two parcels labelled ‘Articles for the Blind’, one white A4 envelope, an NHS letter, and a pizza leaflet. Shall I put that leaflet in the recycling for you?”

We generally have a brief chat and then I go back inside feeling cheered.

Lately, he has taken in interest in braille itself and so I wrote out the word “postman” for him with the print letters underneath. He read it as he walked down the road and called back to me, “I notice A is one dot. Does that mean B is two dots?”

It is, but it isn’t quite as simple as that! The letter C isn’t three dots, so I am going to write the whole alphabet out for him.

I don’t expect every person I interact with to instinctively know all my needs. Not everyone will have had disability training. It is exciting though to find someone who has thought about what my needs might be and goes about meeting those needs in a cheerful and friendly manner.

The Missing Braille Documents

Braille is incredibly useful to the visually impaired but, to Judith Furse’s great frustration, there is still a lot of information which is not available in this format.

I have written before about how much I rely on braille for quick, easy and independent access to information. It’s really valuable and important to me. Braille makes my life so much easier, so why, WHY is it still so difficult to get some information in this format?

The fact is that only a tiny percentage of the information that’s available in ordinary print ever finds its way into alternative formats such as braille. So while I receive bank statements and energy bills in braille, I am still fighting to get medical letters in this format.

Yes, that’s right. My doctor sends me letters in print which I can’t read because I am visually impaired. I have to get someone else to read them to me, thereby immediately compromising my confidentiality.

It’s humiliating and it’s frustrating, and it’s only one example among many.

In an age when sighted people have easy access to printed descriptions of products and directions on how to use them, it is maddening not to be able to read cooking instructions on food packets, or easily distinguish shampoo from bath foam. I mean, could you tell the difference just from feeling the bottle or smelling the contents?

I’ve mentioned previously that I’m a member of a book group. One of the things we like to do is read plays together, with each one of us reading a different character. My friends do their best to include me, but that means we can only read plays that I can get in braille. You’d be surprised how many aren’t available in this format.

It’s a similar story with my poetry group. There’s a theme each month and each of us chooses a poem related to that theme and reads it aloud at our next get-together. It’s nice to read other people’s choices in advance so that you’re familiar with them, but friends often choose poems from collections which, because they are so large, are unlikely ever to find their way into braille. Poetry in braille is a niche market. The choice is limited.

And then there is question of how I get to read newspapers.

Yes, most newspapers and many magazines are available on line these days, and I’m grateful that text-to-speech software means that I can access them on my computer, although navigation can be slow and clumsy. What I really miss, though, is just being able to pick up a paper and glance through it. I don’t think sighted people realise how much general knowledge they quite casually pick up in this way.

Braille newspapers and magazines exist, of course, but so much that is available in print never finds its way into braille.

Braille Education

Should visually-impaired children be taught in special schools or in mainstream education? Judith Furse weighs up the pros and cons and decides that, despite all the disadvantages, when it comes to literacy, special schools had the edge.

I lost nearly all useful eyesight while I was a still very young. I had been registered blind by the age of seven and sent off to board at Linden Lodge School, a special school for the blind. It broke my parents’ hearts to see me go, but they’d been told by those who knew about these things that it was for the best. They cried when they left me there. I cried too.

Linden Lodge took children from the ages of five to eighteen, but a few boys and girls were put forward each year for selection for the “grammar schools” for the visually-impaired. In those days, the boys’ school was at Worcester and the girls went to Chorleywood College. I passed the selection process and at the age of eleven started at Chorleywood.

You’re probably wondering what was it like, being educated in those special schools.

I certainly didn’t want to go to boarding school, but that’s the way things were done in those days. It meant leaving home and having the emotional wrench of saying goodbye to my family at the start of every term. I made wonderful friends among my contemporaries at Chorleywood, but there were still times when I was desperately lonely and unhappy, especially in the early years. After all, I was just a child. The staff at both schools were professional but distant. Discipline was strict and the ethos, especially at Chorleywood, highly academic. Some of the teachers unbent a bit as we got older but we certainly didn’t have the sort of relationship with the staff that I get the impression kids have today. It was a “them and us” situation.

Looking back, were there any advantages in attending a special boarding school?

Yes, there were, and one in particular stands out: I had an education immersed in braille.

I remember how desperate I was to learn to read again after I first became blind. I had just discovered the joy of books only to have it snatched away from me when my sight deteriorated. To make matters worse, I had also missed seven months’ schooling as I waited at home while Essex Local Authority dithered and dawdled over getting me into a special school.

Despite all the emotional upheaval of leaving home, I learnt to read braille at Linden Lodge School and it was a precious thing. We used it for all subjects and were encouraged to use it to read in our leisure time. Thanks to braille, I could enjoy books again. And because I had the ease and fluency that comes with good training and abundant practice, I was able to do well at school and later go on to complete a degree in Law.

Visually-impaired children in mainstream schools do not get this privilege. Compared to ours, their access to braille is limited and their teaching assistants sometimes lack the detailed knowledge of braille that our teachers and instructors had. As a result, their reading speeds often fall short of the speeds we were able to attain.

With stretched resources there is a temptation to use audio more and more, but this is not literacy. Try it for yourself. Listen to a book and then see how many characters’ names you can spell correctly. See how much of the sentence structure and punctuation you can reproduce accurately.

You wouldn’t say to a sighted child, “I’m going to take your books away and from now on you will learn spelling and grammar by ear only,” so why would you do that to a visually-impaired child?

Braille versus Audio

Has modern audio technology made braille redundant? “Very definitely not!” says Judith Furse. In her experience, braille is still essential.

I need to be able to access information quickly, easily and quietly to get safely and effectively through my day. As someone with a severe visual impairment, that means that I rely on braille.

Let’s start with getting up.

The first thing I do is take my medication. I have two different strengths of a strong painkiller. These are colour coded. I used to have to ask someone to identify which was which and then put an elastic band around the stronger one. Since the European Union issued a directive, however, all medicines are now labelled in braille. Because I can read braille, I now don’t have to involve anyone else in administering my medication.

Next, I may need to take food out of the freezer for later. I shop at the Co-op and they label their ready meals and other own-brand products in braille. No more guessing or finding myself eating lasagne when I fancied cottage pie!

I start work. I am a braille transcriber and proofreader. I have speech access software on my computer but I also have a braille display. It is invaluable. Without it, my work would take at least twice as long and I would waste a lot of paper printing out proofs for checking.

If I want to find out what is on TV or radio, I turn to the braille guides. The audio versions available on line take forever to search through! The braille versions are much quicker.

I often chair meetings at church and at the local Amnesty International group. Without braille agendas, minutes and other necessary documents I would not be able to do this.

Braille enables me to participate in poetry and book groups where we read poetry and plays aloud. I can read the lessons in church and sing the hymns thanks to braille bibles and hymn books.

Besides reading for pleasure I also have a diary, recipe books, and address books, all in braille. I label CDs and tapes in braille. And I continually write notes to myself in braille.

Now you might ask, why do I still rely so heavily on braille when there is so much available in audio formats these days? After all, you can get audio labelling devices, you can listen to books on disks or streamed from the Internet, and you can Google information on your smartphone and listen to the results through its speech function.

You can do all those things with audio – and I regularly do too! But I couldn’t chair meetings without having the agenda actually under my fingers. Even if I wear an earplug so that others don’t have to listen to the distracting chatter of an audio source, I can’t read, skim or search minutes or discussion documents nearly as quickly as I can with braille.

Braille enables me not only to access information swiftly and independently, but to actively participate in life. I wouldn’t be without it.