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How I learnt braille as a child

A friend recently asked me to write about how I learnt to read braille as child, so here goes!

I started to lose my sight when I was six and by the time I turned seven I couldn’t read print. I had to leave mainstream education and in the summer term of 1968 I started at an institution for the blind in Wimbledon called Linden Lodge School.

I came into a class of boys and girls of approximately my own age, some younger, some a little older, of mixed ability and with varying amounts of sight loss.

The boy who sat next to me in class was a very fluent braille reader. Sometimes, when we couldn’t go out to play due to rain, or when our teacher was in a staff meeting, he would read to us. He set an early benchmark for me, so I knew what reading speeds could be achieved.

I was desperate to read again, having only just discovered the joy of reading print before I lost my eyesight, so I was very motivated to learn braille. Our teacher at Linden Lodge, Miss Garling, was great. She stimulated our imaginations and was always encouraging us in our studies. Initially, I had some one-to-one tuition with her and then she gave me some simple braille to practise reading on my own.

My first book had just a few letters on each page. Braille uses a group of six dots to represent each letter of the alphabet, but it can also use one of these six-dot groupings to represent certain groups of letters or commonly occurring short words. These short-cuts are known as “contractions” and work a bit like shorthand or “text speak”. Once you’re used to them, they greatly speed up the process of reading and writing braille. Being young and enthusiastic, I soon got the hang of it and once I started to read words with contractions in them I was given a little book with a few words on each line.

I lapped it up! I believe it took me around half a term to get to the point where I could read simple stories on my own.

Linden Lodge was a boarding school but, back at home, my parents were encouraged to learn braille too so that they would be able to write letters to me. They were issued with a device called a Perkins Brailler, which is a sort of braille typewrite that embosses dots onto thin card, and a braille primer to read. My dad in particular threw himself into the project and did his best to learn simple braille. He did very well and continued to be able to identify numbers and some words for the rest of his life.

The first weekend I came home after they had begun this process, they showed me the Perkins and I started to pound away on it. I gather that they were mortified. They had bene so proud of their progress and were taken aback by how fast I could read and write!

I still remember the day when I graduated from a book with rows of words to a proper storybook. We used a series called “Gay Way,” which, if it still existed, would be renamed now. The first book was called Little Red Hen and the second, Joe the Cat. I think it was the Red Hen book which contained the word “scissors.” I don’t know why I remember this and I can no longer recall what the hen was doing with the scissors – possibly cutting the cat’s hair – but that first encounter with the braille representation of the word has stuck in my memory. I know that the next two books were about pigs and rabbits. The latter obligingly did a lot of hiding in hedges in order that we could learn the sign for “ed”.

There was a bigger book once you had read all the little ones and this had a story involving swans and jelly. I’ve no idea where they came up with these storylines. I don’t think the swans were made into jelly. That would have been cruel. (And illegal!)

After this, I moved on to the Beacon Books. These had more complex stories and a few still linger in my memory. My favourite was about a monkey who escaped from a fair and caused havoc in a little girl’s bedroom.

After that, I was a proper braille reader, and the world was my oyster.

The Gay Way books were what was known as “half-size,” so they were manageable for children to hold, but once you got on to the Beacon series you were dealing with the big chunky volumes that most braille books are made up of. These were very hefty for children to carry around. In fact, I still find braille books a bit heavy and unwieldy. My brother helped me to reorganise my books this weekend and it made so much difference to have someone there who could pick up piles of books and move them around easily.

I don’t recall whether I was specifically taught how to follow along a braille line although I understand that, these days, children are taught this skill before they start learning letters. I was taught to read braille with both hands, which is the “correct” way to read. As well as enabling you to cover more ground, it means you can be finding the next line with one hand while still reading with the other. It is the fastest way to read but most of us develop bad habits early on and tend to read with only one hand. Most of us have a dominant hand and mine is my left. I read with two hands or my left only and can’t read very well at all with just my right hand.

I have heard of people trying to learn braille in later life and finding it difficult to detect the dots with their fingers. I suppose at the age of seven my fingers were quite sensitive. I certainly don’t remember being able to feel the dots ever being an issue.

There is an ongoing discussion among those with visual impairment as to whether braille is simply a representation of print or a language in its own right, like sign language. I think it is, in a way, both. I suspect that reading braille is a different cognitive process to reading print and uses different parts of the brain. When I am reading poetry, for example, which includes a strongly emotional component, I sometimes try to imagine myself reading it in print and I have a strange feeling that the print letters would get in the way. Somehow, reading braille allows my imagination to run free. This probably sounds a bit odd, and I can’t demonstrate whether it is true or not, but it is an interesting question to ponder.

So, all these years later, I use braille every day. Respect to its inventor, Louis Braille!

The Recycling Maze

So you think that sorting all your household waste into different containers for recycling is complicated? You should try doing it when you can’t see the objects you’re sorting… Or the containers you’re supposed to put them in!

Perhaps you are one of the lucky ones who can chuck all your recycling into one bin. That must be lovely. Meanwhile, the rest of us obediently separate our glass, metal, plastic and paper recycling and put each type into a different container as stipulated by our local authority. And it’s a two-stage process, which for me means endless bags in the kitchen and plastic boxes in the front garden.

I sometimes feel as though the only thing that grows in my front garden is recycling boxes!

I fill a carrier bag with glass and tin and, when it is full, carry it out the front of the house to empty into the orange box the council provided for the purpose. I also have a clear plastic bag hanging on my back door into which I put plastic recycling. The bag has to be transparent because the refuse collectors won’t take it if they can’t see what is in it. This I have to place on the street outside my front garden wall on the night before the collection.

Because all this is not enough, in addition I have a box in my office into which I put used paper and cardboard. When it gets so full that paper is spilling out all over the floor, I empty the contents into two boxes in my front garden. I have two boxes because I generate so much paper recycling, and this is partly because braille magazines are so big and bulky. They account for at least half my paper recycling output each fortnight.

Oh yes, and there is a wheely bin for everything else, plus a green plastic bin for garden waste.

Some years ago, I brailled a leaflet for Oxford City Council. This document gave information about what to put into which recycling bin and which days to put said bins out for emptying. I wasn’t asked to braille sticky labels to go on the bins and I wondered at the time how the visually-impaired recipient was going to distinguish the blue bin from the green and orange ones.

You might think, “Well, that’s easy, you just have to make sure you know which bin is which and keep them in the same position each week.”

Sadly, it isn’t that straightforward.

I have “assisted collections”. This means I don’t have to drag all my bins and boxes onto the pavement. The refuse people come into my garden and collect them. They are supposed to put them back where they found them.

You can guess what’s coming next, can’t you?

Do they put them back where they found them? Is the Pope a Baptist?

On a good week, the recycling crew put my recycling boxes neatly one inside the other and prop the lids upright inside the top box. This is when I’m profoundly grateful that colour coding plays no part in the process in Swindon. I only have to worry about separating the boxes, marrying them up to their lids and placing them in a row in front of my house.

Sometimes, though, the recyclers don’t bother to put the boxes together in this handy configuration. Instead, they sling the lids anywhere they take a fancy to and I have to walk gingerly round the garden, trying to locate them. Then I play “hunt the boxes” and, only then, can I put everything back in place ready for the next time.

I have to trust that the wheely bin and garden waste bin have been put back in their allotted spots as I have no way of knowing which is which.

Another slightly irritating issue is that, because my general rubbish bin is placed quite near the low wall between my front garden and the street, people passing by have a habit of throwing their pizza cartons and other rubbish into my bin. Now, this is better than them throwing their litter on the pavement, but the waste disposal crew won’t take anything that’s not wrapped up in a bag and I can’t tell what is lurking at the bottom of my bin. I can’t see it, and I have such short arms that I couldn’t reach in to find it in a month of Sundays. Fortunately, I have friends and family who can see and who reach in and remove the rubbish for me. They bag it up as required, though why rubbish has to be contained in this way when all the collectors have to do is tip the bin up remains a mystery to me.

I wouldn’t want you to think that I agonise over these matters day and night. I certainly want to protect the planet and so will continue to diligently separate the recycling into its constituent parts. Worrying about the boxes and bins is just another little niggle that stops my life from becoming too predictable and boring!

Invisible Numbers

There is a brilliant programme on BBC Radio 4 called “More or Less”. It is presented by Tim Harford, a financial journalist, who probes the numbers bandied about by the media. For instance, he recently delved into the UK Covid stats to get to the true picture. He explains everything so well that, for the half hour that the programme lasts, I actually believe that I understand numbers.

Occasionally he poses puzzles for the listeners. A recent puzzle went something like this: add 28 to 50-something (I’m sorry, I can’t recall the exact sum). The point was, people wrote in with what seemed, to me, to be unnecessarily complicated solutions. There was talk of carrying numbers over and other technical terminology. Surely, I thought, you just add 20 and then 8?

I remembered then that, when I was at school, my parents were told that children without sight thought of figures differently to sighted children.

So: is this true?

I don’t remember much of the maths we did at my infants’ school. We did do some but I can only really remember sheets of numbered squares. To help us learn our times tables we had to colour in, say, every third square or every ninth square. I loved colouring and all that stays with me now is a memory of the fun I had choosing the colours to use. The numbers were a secondary matter as far as I was concerned.

I also remember buying a Ladybird addition and subtraction book which taught you to do sums by putting numbers above and below lines. I know I enjoyed learning how to do this and completing the book but I can no longer recall how to do sums in this way.

I first went to a school for the blind when I was seven and three quarters. (I was very proud of knowing my precise age!) I still had residual vision and was given something called a Colour Factor. This was a box with bars of different colours and lengths representing the numbers from 1 to 12. The figure one was a small white cube rather like a sugar lump. The number two was pink and twice the size. You played around with these bars until you discovered that pink and light blue equalled yellow. Again, as I loved colours, I really enjoyed playing with the Colour Factor. I don’t think many of my classmates had enough sight to make use of this piece of apparatus. It had limited educational value but it looms large in my memory.

After that I moved on to sums brailled on red card. When you finished each card, you went to the teacher and got the next one, thus getting a good feeling of making progress. There must have been some teaching involved. I can’t have magically known how to do all the types of sums on the card, but, again, the cupboard is bare. I can’t recall the teaching, I just remember the cards.

It was at this point in my education that I started missing lessons through having to spend long spells in hospital and in sick bay.

When I went to Chorleywood College, my secondary school, I got on all right with numbers to start with. In the days before electronic talking calculators, we used abacuses. I loved mine and still use it for addition and subtraction although I have forgotten now how to do division and multiplication. Incidentally, when I visited Russia in the 1990s and stayed in a town on the Russian-Chinese border, I was delighted to find that many of the shopkeepers still used abacuses to tally amounts rather than electronic tills.

Another fun maths activity at school was creating geometric shapes. We had tactile graph paper laid out on rubber mats. Following the teacher’s instructions, we would count, say, five squares along the bottom row and, say,  six from the left edge, and then fix a drawing pin at said point. We would follow further instructions and determine the location of the next pin. When all the drawing pins were inserted, we joined them up with an elastic band and, hey presto, there was an interesting shape!

At some point we tackled matrices, which involved writing figures in squares on our Perkins braillers. I don’t recall what we did with said figures but, whatever it was, I did manage to do it.

I wasn’t too bad at algebra in the beginning but at some point it left me behind.

We didn’t have to take O-level maths because it was understood that it was a difficult subject for visually-impaired children and I never sat the exam. Some girls did go on to do A-level maths and even studied it at degree level, but they were few and far between.

I left school with the conviction that I was useless at numbers. Looking back, I believe now that, at some point, the gaps left by my earlier absences from class had undermined my ability to keep up.

As an adult, I did get some confidence back by doing the numbers problems on the TV game show “Countdown”. Using the four stand arithmetic operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, you have to make a specified large number from a random collection of six small numbers, none of which is larger than 10. I couldn’t necessarily do the sum in the 30 seconds allowed on the show but I started to get there if I gave myself time and didn’t panic.

So, back to my original question: is it true that children without sight think of numbers differently to sighted children?

My considered answer would be yes, but it depends on what age you were when you lost your sight.

My experience was that children who lost their sight after or around the age of 11 still thought of calculations in terms of carrying numbers and putting numbers above and below lines. But if you lost your sight at a very young age, like I did, you almost had to start off all over again and relearn arithmetic from scratch.

I don’t know for sure but I think there is something inherently visual about Maths and you have to have a certain kind of mind to overcome this if you can’t see. I expect that if I Googled enough I would find learned research papers on this very topic…

…But life is too short and, besides, it’s time for a tea break. (Yes, I can tell the time – with a tactile watch, of course!)

Shelf Space

Braille books are huge! They take up so much space!

Braille users reading this will know exactly what I mean, but sighted readers used to conventional printed works may have little idea of how big the braille equivalents of those books may be. They tend to be large format, and the braille version of what may be a modest paperback in print can easily run to half a dozen spiral-bound volumes.

The Gideons can conveniently slot a print bible into the drawer in a hotel bedside table, but the braille bible requires at least 40 encyclopaedia-sized volumes.

Finding shelf space for even quite a small collection of braille books can be quite a challenge.

When my father was alive, he used to custom-build shelves for my books in the family home. Sometimes, he would even extend the shelves to make space for new volumes, although I still had to throw a few out from time to time if I wanted to add new ones.

When I moved to my current home, I was thrilled to find a walk-in cupboard in my bedroom. I already had free-standing wardrobes so didn’t need it for clothes. What could I use it for?

Books, of course!

My former neighbour was a carpenter by trade. He made me some shelves to go in the cupboard and my new braille library was born.

That was great but I have now filled all the space and am having to use the floor as an impromptu bottom shelf. What should I do when even this is full?

Good question.

I gather that many people have taken the opportunity to give their homes a thorough clear-out during lockdown. Some, apparently, have even been getting rid of unwanted books. I feel I should do the same, but which ones should I dispose of? I generally only buy braille books that I really want, so the number I can part with is tiny. If I want to buy any more, though, I’m going to have to free up or create some space.

My house includes a loft conversion. When I was being a theatrical landlady, the actor playing The Big Bopper in “The Buddy Holly Story” at the Wyvern Theatre stayed there and christened it “The Penthouse,” which is a splendidly exaggerated name for the room at the top of all those stairs. I am not sure how much room there is for shelving up there but I’m sure something could be done. It would be a lot of work carrying the books up there, of course, but the real issue is that, sooner or later, even that extra space would be filled.

I keep buying poetry books without thinking where I’m going to put them. I’m not at total capacity yet but someday soon I’m going to meet my Waterloo.

So it looks like I’m back to throwing some books out. But what should I do with them? I can’t just toddle off down to a local charity shop with them. They really wouldn’t want something so bulky and so specialised.

Fortunately, there are solutions to this question. In many countries there is a scarcity of braille material and, if English is one of the languages spoken, there are people ready to pass pre-used braille books on to an appreciative readership. I understand that you have to send customs documentation when you mail braille books overseas these days but, still, it is good to know that they are not just ending up in the recycling. When you think of the time and resources that go into producing braille, you want it to go to a good home.

Of course, I approach friends and e-group members as well, to see if they’re interested in any of my unwanted titles.

In fact, an e-group dedicated to circulating braille books has recently sprung up in response to a new RNIB policy. The RNIB library has miles of shelving containing hundreds of braille books. Many of these are no longer read. It costs money to maintain this facility, so the RNIB have decided that, from now on, books advertised for loan will be printed and bound to order and the recipient will be allowed to keep them.

This makes me smile. It solves the shelving problem for the RNIB library but simply passes it on to their readers!

Horrified at the prospect that these unwanted books might eventually be thrown away by readers unable to find space to store them, braille users have formed an e-group to keep them moving around the visually impaired community.

I hope the scheme works.

Meanwhile, I still have my own book storage issues to grapple with. I remain optimistic. I’m sure that if I explain to visitors why they are having to climb over a mountain of volumes in order simply to get into my house, they will be perfectly understanding about it!

Autumn

I have just been walking round my garden with my trusty Zimmer frame, getting a little exercise and soaking up the sunshine.

I love these autumn days when the sun is bright and there is even still a little warmth to be had but there is that wonderful sharp tang in the air.

I associate this time of year with fresh beginnings: starting a new school year, starting college, starting my first job, and now, of course, recommencing activities that I had to suspend for the summer.

It’s great!

There are two aspects of this time of year that I don’t like, though.

The first is the drawing in of the days. I hate putting on the lights and drawing the curtains at six o’clock in the evening. Interestingly, some of my friends who can’t see at all feel the same so it isn’t just to do with actually seeing the approaching darkness outside. There must be something more fundamental to do with feeling the days are growing shorter and we are living more enclosed lives. This may take on an even deeper significance now that we are living with coronavirus and the spectre of local lockdowns.

Once the winter has truly arrived, I can start to enjoy being cosy indoors, but right now I am still lamenting the end of summer.

The other thing I don’t like about this time of year is the coming of the cold. I have poor circulation and arthritis so the chilly air really doesn’t agree with me. Some days I can actually feel myself slowing down. More problematic still is having cold hands. Cold fingers lose their sensitivity. I find it more difficult to feel things, and particularly to read braille. It doesn’t help that my office faces north and can be quite chilly, even on otherwise warmish days.

And the truth is, I have a little of Scrooge in me.

We have had some relatively warm Octobers in recent years and I have been able to put off starting the central heating until we were nearly in November. This has become something of a challenge to myself. How long can I hold out?

Meanwhile, I put on my fingerless gloves in the office. Sometimes I find I just have to put the electric fire on but I let the room warm up and then switch it off again. I tell myself to put more layers on. Eventually, of course, the elements will win.

Just between you and me (please keep it a secret!), I have already put the central heating on a couple of times this year. It was just to warm the house for a short while in the mornings and evenings you understand. Not cheating at all…

I probably won’t win the “Can you keep the central heating off until November?” challenge this year. The forecast isn’t great but I’m going to hang on for as long as I can!

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!