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!