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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!

What it felt like to lose my sight

I don’t think I have ever tried to describe what it was like to lose my sight. This will be a challenge. It was a long time ago and I was a child. At the time, I didn’t analyse what was happening to me. Still, I’m going to have a go.

When my Still’s Disease (juvenile rheumatoid arthritis) was first diagnosed, the doctors told my parents to watch my eyes carefully for signs of inflammation because the disease could affect the organs of sight as well as my joints. At a subsequent hospital visit, they discovered that I had lost all vision in my right eye apart from light detection and the ability to see some hand movements. The hospital told my mother that she couldn’t have been checking my eyes but she said firmly that she had.

I don’t recall any of this. I was told about it much later. I was six and all I knew was that doctors were looking into my eyes with lights. It was not long after this that I passed a sight test at school and, on learning of my impaired vision, the embarrassed optician said I must have memorised the chart or peered round the card they were holding over my left eye. I remember the test but not the conversation between my mother and the clinician.

At this point, I don’t recall anything changing. My left eye must have taken over and I was unaware that anything was going wrong.

My first experience of sight loss occurred one day when the headmistress took us for a lesson because our usual teacher was otherwise engaged. We had been given some writing to do and I asked the spelling of a word. The teacher wrote it on the blackboard. I couldn’t make any sense of it. I could see white marks on the blackboard. I could see that they were in groups so I knew they were words but I could not decipher the word she had written for me to copy. I thought I was being stupid and kept quiet.

I continued to do the same work as everybody else and don’t remember having any further problems for a while.

At some point I was given NHS specs. In those days they were round with pink plastic frames and were not the height of sartorial elegance. I don’t remember minding very much. I don’t think I was teased. Mind you, the girl who sat next to me wore specs as well so perhaps there was safety in numbers.

Coil spring spectacles, pink plastic, National Health Service issue, 1955-1969. This photograph is taken from the Science Museum Group website and is reproduced here under a Creative Commons licence. You can find the original here: https://collection.sciencemuseumgroup.org.uk/objects/co151632/pink-coil-spring-spectacles-national-health-service-issue-1955-1969-spectacle-frames )

A while after this I started to experience a strange phenomenon. I would be reading and the print would suddenly go very small. Sometimes I would see flashing lights or coloured spots in front of my eyes. At some point someone opined that it was probably migraines brought on by my struggling to read. No one suggested any treatment or showed any particular concern. It was just one aspect of losing one’s sight, apparently.

Eventually, I moved up to the “Transition” class, the class between Infants and Juniors. I did sit very close to the blackboard, so I’m guessing that the teacher had been told that I had a problem. Otherwise, I carried on as before. I read, wrote, and did sums. Somehow, I managed to see the blackboard. The big excitement was getting a descant recorder and starting to learn to read music. That made me feel very grown-up.

I do remember the teacher asking me one day about the book I was reading. I struggled to answer her question. She said she thought I didn’t always understand what I was reading. She was probably right. Looking back, I think that the sheer effort of making out the words meant that I didn’t always take in their meaning. I still sometimes found the print shrinking away before my eyes.

In time, I got a new pair of NHS specs. The lenses were very thick, but they had red frames, which was a big improvement on the pink. I got very excited about this and I think they must have helped me for a while.

It was while I was in this class that we had the school trip during which a duck psyched me out of half my lunch. (For more details, see my post “Duck Terror!” from 16 June 2020.) I know my mother was concerned about me going. She felt it was asking too much of the staff to take responsibility for looking after me but I pleaded and got to go. I still had quite a bit of useful vision and didn’t think of myself as different from anyone else, whatever my mother (or the duck) had to say about it.

Then something happened.

At some point over the summer of 1967 I lost a lot of sight very quickly. As I recall it, when I went home for the summer holidays, I still had a lot of sight, but by the time I went back to school in September, I was really struggling.

I remember that I had  a brand new pen – not a biro, but a fountain pen. I was very proud of it. I could write with it, but I couldn’t always read back what I had written. I remember quite clearly one day trying to write the date. An image of the word “September” is firmly fixed in my mind, but after that the letters I wrote got smaller and smaller and started to slope down towards the corner of the page. The words weren’t neat, and they weren’t intelligible. I couldn’t read them, and neither could anybody else.

I could no longer trust myself to be able to submit legible written work.

I couldn’t read any of the textbooks, either, but strangely enough I could still draw. In fact I continued to do so on into my teens, even when I had to press my nose right against the paper and could barely see what I was doing. But back in my primary school, the teachers finally began to take my visual impairment seriously. I wasn’t allowed to go out at playtime in case I got knocked over. Kind friends volunteered to stay in and read to me.

I went into Moorfields Eye Hospital in the October of that year but they were unable to restore much of my sight. After that, the hospital recommended that I be registered blind so that I would get the help I needed.

A social worker came to visit with a £20 voucher from the RNIB. With it, I bought something called Unilock letters. These were plastic squares with print and braille letters on which you could join together to make words. I also bought a tactile draughts game and a game of “Beetle.”

But, being registered blind, I couldn’t go to school any more.

I was at home, then, for seven months while Essex County Council twiddled their thumbs and did nothing about my education until, one day, in anger and frustration, my mother rang them to tell them I was in tears because I was bored stiff and wanted to go to school. Finally, things began to move and eventually I was sent to Linden Lodge, a special school for the blind – but that’s another story.

All this happened a lifetime ago and it is difficult for me to get everything in the right order now. As you can tell, my memory of those days is patchy. As far as I can recall, though, I don’t think that I found the process of losing my sight especially traumatic. In my own childish way, I took it in my stride. On the other hand, when it finally sank in, the realisation that I could no longer read was absolutely devastating. I couldn’t wait to learn braille and get back to reading.

I also remember gradually losing the ability to see the television. This was nearly as frustrating as not being able to read. My family were good audio-describers, but some programmes were just too tricky to explain. Cartoons became impossible and describing what was happening in fast-action films and detective shows was sometimes beyond the powers of even my valiant family.

Looking back, there were other things that I minded, too, such as my inability to participate in games at Girls’ Brigade or to read aloud in Sunday School. The gradual realisation that I was not the same as everybody else did have an effect on me. I did mind and I did have nightmares about it but I eventually learned what all of us who have disabilities and have spent time in hospital as children and away at boarding school have learned, and that is stoicism.

I learned to put up with it.

In fact, a friend and I were talking about this recently. Maybe I’ll write a blog about that too.

Is it better not to be able to see the audience?

I am a star of stage and screen!

Well, no, of course I’m not, but I did have a boost to my ego recently. You may recall (well, you probably don’t, because you’ve got better things to think about) that I spoke to student nurses at Oxford Brookes University last year about what it is like to be a patient with a visual impairment. Apparently it turned out to be the most popular lecture on the course, so I got a repeat booking this year.

The format was the same. Helen Foord-Warren, the trainer, played the interview she did with me last year and then I came “live” onto Zoom to do the Q&A. As before, the students were really engaged and asked some great questions. After the students had left, one of the staff present said, “There were over 200 people on that call. That just shows how popular you are.” I was staggered. I think I was imagining around 20 – 30 participants.

I’m not saying this to make any claims that they were all queuing up to join because I was one of the acts on the bill. There are lots of reasons why people join Zoom calls. It did make me reflect on something, though.

I never go to the participants list when I’m on Zoom calls. This is partly because I am concentrating hard on what is being said and partly because I’m not confident that I would ever find my way back, so to speak. This means that I have no idea who is there unless they speak. As, generally, only a few of those present actually speak at any meeting, I don’t have a very clear idea of how many people are really there. What I wonder is, does it help not to know?

My father was a clergyman and, despite preaching all his life, he still got nervous before services. He would deliberately only wear his reading glasses when preaching so that the first few rows were a blur. It made him nervous to look into the faces of his congregation. My mother was always telling him to look up from his papers more when he was preaching.

My sister is a lay minister in the Church of England, my niece is a Baptist lay preacher, and I always seem to be addressing church meetings of one kind or another. It seems to be in the genes of our family to be able to stand up and speak in front of church congregations. I do wonder, however, if it helps if you can’t see your audience.

I particularly wonder this because my first appearance in a play was a disaster. I was six. I was dressed up in my beautiful fairy outfit. I was supposed to put a scarf round a snowman’s neck and say something profound like, “Here is a scarf for you.” When it came to the dress rehearsal I got stage fright and another girl got the gig.

I could still see at this point. The only audience at this rehearsal was my school class, but seeing them was obviously enough to put me off.

By the time I got to play an angel in a church play at the age of about 8 or 9, I was starting to lose my sight and I had no difficulty uttering the lines which completely escape me now. I could still see that there was an audience there, but I couldn’t identify individual faces.

When I got to my first school for the blind, I thoroughly enjoyed drama and that pleasure continued through to my secondary school, Chorleywood College.

These days, I am happy to speak in church and chair meetings and no longer get stage fright. Some butterflies sometimes, but that is normal.

So perhaps seeing the faces of your audience does make a difference. Perhaps not being able to see who you are declaiming to is actually a positive advantage.

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!

Hunt the milk bottle

Doorstep milk delivery is an old and honourable British tradition, and one that, as a person with visual impairment, I particularly value. So why has it proved so difficult of late to get the dairy to leave the milk in a place where I can actually find it?

I have had milk delivered to my front door for many years. It is convenient. I can’t easily get to the shops so it suits me to have the dairy bring milk, fruit juice and yoghurts to my house.

When I first moved to my current home in Swindon, the milk was generally left on top of the gas meter by the front door. This turned out to be an invitation to passing milk thieves, however, especially when I was late rising on Saturday mornings, so I purchased a lidded box for the milk to go in. I put it by my front door with a label on it clearly stating that it was for milk and postal deliveries. This worked well. The person delivering the milk knew where to leave it and I knew where to find it.

Last week, though, my milk delivery person started to do his or her own thing. One day, they left the milk by the gate, where I couldn’t find it. Fortunately, on this occasion, a friend saw it and brought it in for me. On another day, the milk was left behind the box, where I could find it but, thanks to the restrictions placed on me following my hip and leg bone replacement, I couldn’t bend down to pick it up. In the end I had to call my neighbour for help.

Frustrated by all this, I emailed the dairy and complained. I explained yet again that I am blind and have limited mobility. I cannot go crawling round my garden hunting for the milk, especially as I can’t pick it up even if I find it. (I should mention that my box stands on another box, so I don’t have to bend down to get the milk out of it.)

The next time, they left the milk on top of the gas meter. I hadn’t expected it to be there and so didn’t find it. Later in the day, my kind postlady rang the bell. She didn’t have to. The letter would have gone through the mail flap but she was worried about me as the milk hadn’t been taken in. I thanked her profusely.

By this point, though, I had already emailed the dairy again. “I imagine my milk is somewhere in my garden,” I wrote. “I haven’t found it yet.” I stated that I expected an apology for the inconvenience.

Instead, they phoned me back.

The gentleman from the dairy said, “Have you found your milk?”

“The postlady found it, thank you,” I replied.

He then asked, “Do you leave your empty bottles in the box?”

“Yes,” I replied, “and there are about a dozen in there now because no one has been taking them away.”

“Ah, but the milkman can’t put his hand in the box in the dark in case there is broken glass in there,” he said. “It’s a health and safety issue”.

Now, what chump has been putting broken glass in their milk container? When did this rule come in? And why didn’t someone tell me the first time I emailed?

Unfortunately, all these questions only came to me after I had put the phone down.

I did say I would stop putting empty bottles in the box.

On Saturday, all went well. I put the empty bottles on top of the gas meter and the milkperson left my milk in the box.

On Tuesday, I stepped outside to take in the milk and promptly kicked one of the bottles over. It was on the ground right outside my front door. I was incandescent with rage. Fortunately, it didn’t break. I had to break my surgeon’s rules and bend down to pick the milk bottles up. I didn’t want to bother my neighbour again.

I did email the dairy, though, for all the good it did.

Today, the milk was on the gas meter. I only found it because I put my hand there to check that they had taken the empty bottles.

This is getting ridiculous.

What is particularly irritating is that there is a space on the account to put delivery instructions. I have, of course, entered instructions, but what is the point if they don’t read them? I am following their instructions. Why can’t they follow mine?

I wait to see what reply I get to my latest terse communication, but I’m not a happy bunny.

Good news: I do have something to be cheerful about. I have had my second post-op X-ray and I am finally allowed to bend my legs now! I am writing this today wearing shoes which I have done up myself. I can’t tell you how exciting that is!

Bats

For my birthday a week or so ago, I received some rather splendid bat jewellery. My sister and brother-in-law (the editor of this blog) gave me a jewelled necklace with a long-eared bat in the centre. My niece gave me matching earrings.

Just to avoid any misunderstanding, I should emphasise that this wasn’t because they didn’t like me, or because they were hinting that I’m a bit batty. No, it’s because I love bats – they are my favourite animals – and they know that I collect bat-themed objects.

I have rings, a bracelet, and now a necklace and earrings based on bat designs. I have rubber bats of various sizes, and furry bats too. One of these is enormous. He hangs on my wardrobe door in what I like to think is quite a regal way. He was also a present from my relations. He was given to me one Christmas and I spent Christmas Day stroking his beautiful furry body and elegant wings.

It doesn’t stop there. I have bat keyrings and fridge magnets. I even have a knitted bat which laughs squeakily, and somewhat manically, when you press its tummy. And I have a splendid bat door-knocker, given to me as a house-warming present by my brother. (One lodger thought it was an ironic comment on my disability.)

So, why bats?

I may have mentioned that I fell in love with Dracula whilst watching a TV adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel back in the 1970s. I was probably around 15 or 16 and a soon as Louis Jordan, who was playing the title role, said, “I am Dracula,” I was smitten. When the actor died a few years ago, I hoped one of the many TV channels would show the film again, but none did.

I don’t, however, just love mythical bats. I think bats are amazing creatures. I love their furry bodies, their pointy ears, and their little fingers at the ends of their wings. Sadly, of course, I can’t see them, although I’m told that some have been spotted in my garden. I can’t hear them, either, as the noises they make are at frequencies beyond the range of human hearing.

I must have seen them at one time, though, because the picture in my mind of what a bat looks like is so vivid.

When could I have seen a bat? I don’t recall the occasion. Perhaps I saw them at a zoo or on television when I was little, before I lost my eyesight. Perhaps I am just drawing on memories of pictures. Still, I know I have seen bats somewhere.

As I think about this, I wonder how many animals I actually have seen. Have I pictured some in my mind for so long that I mistakenly think I have seen them in the flesh?

I can remember the blue whale in the Natural History Museum in London. It was so huge that, as a small child, it gave me a slightly edgy thrill to stand in the gallery alongside it. I know I saw penguins swimming underwater at a zoo or wildlife park. There are other creatures, too, that I remember seeing in the flesh and whose images I can still conjure up, including elephants, giraffes and bears.

But what about aardvarks?

I don’t think I have ever seen one. Does this mean that the image of an aardvark that I see in my mind is just something that I have conjured up from scratch, or was there a description in a book somewhere that wormed its way into my brain?

I thought about this a lot when I encountered a tactile picture of a wildebeest recently. I realised that, before I touched the graphic, I couldn’t have told you what one looked like.

I don’t know much about the working of the human brain but it does make me wonder how accurate a picture anyone can create who hasn’t seen an animal for themselves. I expect you all know the story of the four blind men who each feel one part of an elephant and conclude from that small area that they know what the animal looks like. Imagine, though, how difficult it might be to conceive the size of a whale or picture what a rhino’s horn looks like if you have never seen either in the flesh.

There are many more tactile images around now than there were when I was a child, and plenty of furry toy representations of wildlife are also available. I have quite a collection myself. A cuddly octopus, a velvety raven and a plush duck-billed platypus all adorn the back of my sofa. Despite their unusual shapes, I have pretty good idea of what they all look like because I have been able to feel them.

Size, though, is difficult to convey. After all, what do you use for comparison?

“It’s the height of this house.”

Okay, so how high is that? I know I’m being a bit pedantic now. You can walk to the top floor of a building and get an idea of its height but, still, I’m sure you take my meaning.

It is said that no two people see colour the same. I expect it is true that perception in general is very individual. So, perhaps, it doesn’t matter if a blind person’s idea of an elephant is different from that of a sighted person but I can’t help feeling that there is a great research project for a keen student somewhere, exploring how our brains manufacture images without having a picture to look at.

But, be all that as it may, I think I have a pretty good idea of what a bat looks like. And I think that it’s a beautiful creature.

Woodwork

As I have mentioned before, at the age of seven-and-three-quarters, I was sent to a school for the blind. Linden Lodge School in Wimbledon was a light, airy, modern building. There was also a modern approach to teaching children with sight loss. By the age of ten I was already being taught a wide curriculum including biology and French, as well as craft subjects such as pottery. There was a great emphasis on music and drama and we even had an indoor heated swimming pool.

We also had woodwork lessons.

(Yes, you read that correctly. They actually taught visually impaired children how to use hammers and saws.)

I am not a very practical person but I loved woodwork. We had a wonderful teacher called Mr. Grenfell who was a descendant of Sir Wilfred Grenfell, the celebrated medical missionary who was sent to Canada in the late nineteenth century and founded clinics and hospitals in Newfoundland and all up and down the coast of Labrador. In his own way, our Mr Grenfell was a marvel too. He seemed to be able to keep order without ever raising his voice. I think we were all so engaged in what we were doing that playing up never entered our minds!

It was all interesting but I particularly enjoyed planing wood. I found the repeated arm movements soothing and it was deeply gratifying to feel a rough wood surface gradually becoming beautifully smooth.

When it came to banging nails into wood we used a gadget rather like a small bottle. There was a narrow neck which you fitted round the nail. You then held the bulbous end with one hand and hit hard on the end with a mallet. This too was highly satisfying and it was a system that meant we could hammer nails with reasonable safety.

But we weren’t only taught how to wield simple hand-tools like planes and hammers. We were also instructed in how to use more sophisticated devices and I well remember how much fun it was to use the jigsaw. The one we used had a mechanism that allowed you to pre-set the length of wood you wanted to cut. There were holes in it that equated to inches. You counted along to the length of wood you wanted, put a peg in the corresponding hole and put the wood under the saw. It would then cut your long piece of doweling to the required size.

The sensation of sawing wood was wonderful. You could feel the vibration and hear the blade cutting through the wood. You could even sense when you were getting to the point when you were just about to cut right through.

We made a variety of different objects in woodwork and when we had finished the carpentry part of each project we then got to paint our creations. I made a box for my father to keep his shoe-cleaning materials in which he used for the rest of his life. Inspired by the moon landings that were happening at the time, I also made a spaceman puppet. I painted his body silver and Mr. Grenfell attached strings and added felt hands.

I know of many visually-impaired adult men who are very good at woodwork and DIY in general. I don’t know if any of the girls I was at school with carried on developing their woodwork skills. Once I left Linden Lodge I never had another opportunity to indulge myself with a plane or a mallet. Looking back, though, it gives me immense satisfaction that, for a few years during my childhood, I positively revelled in hammering, smoothing and sawing wood.

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!

Progress report

I thought this week I would bring you up to speed as to how I am now.

I’m pleased to say that I’m doing quite well. I am walking with just one stick now, though when I try and walk without it I perform a horribly jerky motion that resembles a robot with dodgy joints! Still, at least I feel stable on my feet, which is a great improvement on my previous post-operative experience.

When my personal assistant Mary was living here to look after me while I convalesced, she was able to pick things up for me from the floor or other locations. I am still not allowed to bend at all so, before Mary left in May, we re-arranged items in the kitchen, office and bedroom so that I could find and reach them comfortably.

It is frustrating that I can’t do my shoes up, but I am learning to use my ingenuity to overcome some obstacles.

One day recently, for example, I knocked the TV remote onto the floor. Whilst I am quite nifty at picking things up with my feet, the TV remote poses problems. For one thing, it is almost impossible to pick it up without pressing buttons with your toes and thus messing up whatever you are watching or recording. I wasn’t going to wait twenty-four hours for someone to come in and get it for me so I had to find a way round the situation. I soon formulated a cunning plan. I got one of the waste paper bins from the office, dropped it on its side, kicked the remote into it, picked up the bin, and got the remote out. Voila! The bin is very tall so I don’t have to lean too far to grab it.

When I drop my walking stick, which I do from time to time, I get it between my feet and flick it up to a position where I can reach it.

Other people are being wonderfully helpful.

My cheery regular postman, who has always looked out for me, is careful not to push mail right through my letterbox so that it doesn’t fall on the floor.

My kind neighbour is watering my garden for me. I miss doing this, as I love to walk round the garden in the evening, inhaling all the scents that rise up from the flowerbeds when you pour water on them. However, I don’t see me trundling round with a walking stick in one hand and a hose in the other. I am not very co-ordinated and the potential for tripping over one or the other would just be too great!

Another issue which I will have to address as lockdown ends is that I can’t use a walking stick and a long cane at the same time. This makes travelling on my own potentially difficult. It’s not just that I can’t use a long cane in the approved manner right now, it’s also the fact that a long white cane acts as an important signal to other people, including taxi drivers, that I can’t see and may need help. My experience is that, most of the time, taxi drivers are very helpful, but it may be a challenge to explain to them my double disability of visual impairment as well as poor mobility, especially as English is often not their first language.

I will have to work on another cunning plan…

Anyway, I had my original fall on 19 June 2020, so it is already well over a year since my accident and, at last, I do feel as though I’m finally making progress.