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Wed, Feb. 27th, 2013, 11:28 am
How Braille Turned Me Into a Purse Junkie

I wrote the following article for the NFB of Oklahoma newsletter. I
like how it turned out and it's better than the nonsense I usually
write here, so I decided to share. Enjoy.

How Braille Turned Me Into a Purse Junkie
By Audrey T. Farnum

January 4, 2013, was what would have been Louis Braille's 204th
birthday. As I read many comments on Twitter and FaceBook about the
occasion, I started thinking about how much Braille has impacted my
life over the past few years. Although I have been legally blind since
birth, I was a very high partial who mainstreamed in public schools
and got by with reading print. I occasionally relied on large print,
and as I got older and my reading load increased, I turned to audio
books to help me keep up with my sighted peers. No one ever suggested
that it might be beneficial for me to learn Braille, and to be honest,
had it ever been suggested to me, I probably would have fought against
it with every fiber of my being. I was young, insecure and trying to
hide my blindness so I could fit in. I have no doubt that I would
have been horrified by the idea of using Braille at school. Looking
back on it, I probably would have received more acceptance in school
had I embraced my blindness. At least then, my peers would have
understood the reasons for the behaviors for which I was frequently
ridiculed. Instead, I largely kept to myself and clung to a small
group of friends who accepted me without question or need for an
explanation. I always felt awkward and out of place and ashamed
because I was different but, I survived and made it through school. I
went on to college then law school. While the pressure to fit in
decreased with age, I still did everything I could to cover up my
blindness.

Then, in 1999, my retina in my left eye detached and I lost all my
vision in that eye. I was 25 at the time and fresh out of law school
looking for my first job as an attorney. When I lost the eye, I
remember thinking that I was probably on borrowed time with my
remaining eye and learning Braille would be wise. But after the
initial shock wore off and I got used to working with my one eye, I
reverted to my old ways and stuck to print and some audio. Finally,
February 2006 rolled around and I had just had a second vitrectomy on
my right eye to try to repair a detached retina. I went to the doctor
the day after surgery to have my bandage removed and get some post
surgery follow up. This second vitrectomy involved putting some
silicon oil in my eye to hold the retina in place, so there was no
waiting for a gas bubble to disappear with the hope of my vision
returning to pre-detachment quality. When the patch came off, I knew
that was the best things were going to get. I thought I was ready for
it, but when I opened my eye for the first time and all I could see
was distorted wavy shapes, light and colors that were all wrong, I
came to the terrifying realization that I was no longer going to be
able to glide through life acting like I was sighted. I was blind,
anda lot of things were about to change.

Of all the things that I could no longer do, the thing that was most
upsetting to me was the inability to read. I could no longer read
print and I had never learned Braille. With all my education and the
fancy degrees hanging on my wall at work, I was functionally
illiterate. It was a soul crushing development for me. While I knew
that the other blindness skills I was learning in rehabilitation were
important and essential to independence, I needed Braille most of all
to restore my self worth.

I was scheduled to go to a rehabilitation center for 12 weeks of
training to learn Braille, among other skills. When I went to this
center for a 2 week evaluation in June of 2006, I was told all the
usual nonsense about how hard it is to learn Braille as an adult and
not to expect too much from myself. Basically, the vibe I got from
this place was that I should focus on learning to use audio for all my
reading needs. Fortunately, the best way to get me to do something is
to tell me it can't be done. So, I went home and resolved to get a
head start on Braille. I was told It would take the whole 12 week
training program to learn uncontracted, grade 1 Braille. That wasn't
goodenough for me. If that's all they wanted to teach me, then I
decided I'd learn uncontracted Braille before I went back to the
center in September so I could force them to teach me more. I found a
Braille teacher in Oklahoma City who got me started and in 4 weeks, I
was reading uncontracted Braille. I couldn't read fast, but it was an
encouraging start and it was proof to me that the rubbish that had
been fed to me during my evaluation was wrong.

I went back to the center in September, 2006, for my 12 weeks of
training. One of the biggest highlights of the experience for me was
sitting down for my first Braille lesson. I was paired up with one
other student who had no Braille experience and a bad attitude to
boot. As the teacher was handing us uncontracted Braille lesson books,
I spoke up and told her that I had learned that over the Summer and
wanted to move on to contracted Braille. My declaration was met with
stunned silence. After a few moments passed, she flipped open the book
to a lesson at the back and told me to read it. I oozed arrogance and
confidence as I accepted her challenge and read the passage she
indicated. It was all I could do to keep myself from doing a victory
dance on the table. My fellow classmate with the bad attitude dropped
out of the program the next day and I conveniently found myself in a
one on one Contracted Braille class. I was the only client at the
center who learned contracted Braille during my time there.

About 10 weeks into the program, my Braille teacher gave me my first
Braille book to read, "Horton Hears a Who". she was very excited about
my progress and told me that in her years at the center, she had never
had the opportunity to teach contracted Braille to someone. She had
done some touch up with people who had learned Braille in school but
were rusty from non-use, but she had never taught a newly blind adult.
I was stunned by this and questioned her more about it. She said that
most of her students never even finished uncontracted Braille because
they thought it was too difficult and preferred relying on speech. I
found this revelation to be disheartening and depressing and I
couldn't imagine why, barring some other condition or medical
complication, someone would choose to not read Braille. It seemed to
me that the expectations for newly blind adults were very low and it
made me sad. It would be a couple of years later before I would find
the
NFB and discover that there were people with higher expectations and
people who truly believed in the capacity of the blind. I left that
rehab center with the false belief that what I had accomplished in my
Braille training was unusual. I later learned from my NFB family that
it was not and that I could do more.

So, I learned Braille and read a children's book. Big deal. I couldn't
read very fast and it was useless to me except for labeling and
writing short notes to myself. It was a start, but not enough. I
wasn't using it at work. I was devouring audio books but I wasn't
really reading Braille. At my first NFB National Convention in 2009,
there was a panel discussion about Braille literacy. Anil Lewis talked
about his experience with learning Braille and how he came to the
realization
that he needed to learn it. He read his remarks in Braille and
commented that he had been inspired to learn Braille after stumbling
through a speech a year earlier. Much of what he described sounded
eerily familiar to me. Suddenly it dawned on me that memorizing a code
does not make me literate. I couldn't read Braille enough for it to be
useful and I couldn't write more than a label or or quick note. I was
still functionally illiterate and that center I went to did me no
favors by giving me the false belief that I was somehow special. I
resolved then and there that I would make more of an effort to read
Braille.

I went home and ordered myself a Braille book. I tried to read for at
least an hour a day. Because of working full time and other stuff
going on in my life, I didn't always make that goal, but I kept
reading and getting faster. I finished that book, and another one
after that, while my speed gradually improved. Eventually, I decided
to get a refreshable Braille display to use with my iPod Touch. I
found the experience of reading refreshable Braille to be more
satisfying since it removed the extra distraction of trying to keep my
place on a page. I turned off the speech on my Read2Go Bookshare
appand read. Later, I discovered that reading newspaper articles with
the NFB Newsline app was a great way to practice since I could read a
short article and feel like I was accomplishing something every time I
finished an article. I would also read Twitter updates as a way to
make myself read but keep things short so I could manage my
frustration level. My efforts paid off and I started to feel
comfortable reading. I was reading well enough that I could now go
into a restaurant and read a Braille menu in a reasonable amount of
time. This was encouraging and I was starting to feel better about my
skills.

I was in store for yet another humbling experience when I attended a
Leadership Seminar at the NFB Jernigan Institute in the Fall of 2012.
I was asked to write a brief assignment and my work could be hand
written or written in Braille. I have no confidence in my hand writing
anymore, so it was Braille or nothing for me. I had the option to have
someone braille the assignment for me, but I'm stubborn and decided it
would be a good experience to do it myself. I started out with a slate
and stylus, but it was taking forever and I knew I'd never get any
sleep if I kept that up. I had used a Perkins Brailler a couple of
times during my rehab training, but I didn't even remember how to load
the paper correctly. Fortunately, my NFB family is a helpful and
encouraging bunch and one of my fellow seminarians gave me a refresher
course on the Brailler basics. Then I began the process of laboriously
typing my essay. I discovered that while I could read contracted
Braille, I apparently had been picking up a lot of what I was reading
from context. When I actually had to type in contracted Braille, I
couldn't remember about half the contractions I needed. I felt like an
idiot. With help from my new friend who patiently sat with me during
the whole process to tell me contractions I couldn't remember, I
finally finished my six sentence essay. It's an exaggeration to even
call it six sentences. A third of the way through, I gave up and broke
my thoughts down into a list so I wouldn't have to write so much. The
whole thing barely filled half a page and it took about an hour to
write that little masterpiece with the Brailler. And that's not
counting the hour and a half I spent composing my rough draft on my
computer and the numerous attempts I made to write the assignment with
a slate. It was embarrassing to observe how deficient my writing
skills were and I can't imagine the patience it took for my friend to
sit with me while I struggled through my incompetence.

Shortly after my writing fiasco, the cell phone I had been using for
years finally kicked the bucket and I ended up with an iPhone. While I
was already a seasoned VoiceOver user with my iPod Touch, I had
resisted getting an iPhone because I preferred the text entry method
on my Nokia N86 and wanted to stick with it as long as possible for
texting and Twitter. I love VoiceOver on the iPhone, but I do find the
process of typing with a touch screen to be tedious at best. After
several unsatisfying experiments with different QWERTY Bluetooth
keyboards, and with my writing failure fresh in my mind, I decided it
was time to learn how to type with the Braille keyboard on my Braille
display. It was slow going at first. I recall spending about 30
minutes typing a short status update on FaceBook. But after a week or
two, I was typing at an acceptable speed with the Braille keyboard and
wondering why I hadn't tried that sooner. I can now type faster with
my Braille display than I could if my iPhone had a physical keyboard
instead of a touch screen. A fun side effect of learning to type with
my Braille display was that it helped me to read
better and made me faster with a slate and stylus.

I am now addicted to that Braille display as much as I am to my
iPhone. The two items are inseparable in my opinion and I don't go
anywhere without them. I felt so strongly about wanting my Braille
display with me at all times, that I actually went out and bought a
purse specifically to carry it. Not just any purse, mind you. I ended
up with a $300 Coach purse. I rationalized this expenditure by telling
myself that my newly treasured Braille display deserved to be carried
around in style. This may not sound like a big deal until you realize
that in my 39 years of life, I have rarely carried a purse. I'm a low
maintenance kind of girl who values comfort and convenience over
fashion and social conventions. I have never felt the need to lug
around a bunch of extra stuff. I was of the opinion that if I couldn't
fit what I needed in my pockets, I didn't need to take it with me. I
thought women who spent hundreds of dollars on purses were idiots.
Now, because of the Braille display, I not only carry a purse, but I
spent a ridiculous amount of money on a Coach and had a blast doing
it. I now have multiple purses to suit different occasions and
carrying needs and can't resist cruising by the purse department every
time I go to the mall. . Everyone who knows me well is shocked by my
sudden purse addiction. This really is a major development in my life
and it is all because Braille has become an essential part of my daily
existence.

Not only is typing on my iPhone now a pleasant experience, I also
appreciate the Braille display for giving me a way to use my phone in
noisy environments. Sometimes, at concerts or noisy sporting events, I
might as well not even have a phone because it is too loud to hear
VoiceOver over background noise. With Braille, background noise is no
longer a problem. The first time I made a FaceBook post completely
with Braille and with no help from VoiceOver, I honestly got a little
teary. I suppose it's a little silly, but using Braille at a noisy
football game so I could use Twitter and FaceBook during the game made
me feel normal. It was ironic to me, that after spending the majority
of my life trying to hide my blindness and feel normal that I suddenly
achieved the feeling of normalcy by using Braille.

After observing how Braille has improved my quality of life and
changed the way that I think about myself and my blindness, I often
wonder how my life might have been better had I learned Braille as a
child. It was assumed by teachers, my parents and even by me that
since I could read print, that was the best option for me. But looking
back on it, I think about all the eye strain, the neck and back pain
from hunching over my books and the extra hours it took me to read
because my low vision made reading slower for me. I also think about
the shame and embarrassment I felt when I had to give presentations
and would have to hold my notes a few inches in front of my face. I
was always self conscious of the fact that my audience was seeing the
back of my notes and not my face. I'm not pointing fingers or placing
blame. I do believe that I had enough vision to warrant learning print
and it was a tool that I needed. But Braille would have been a nice
extra weapon to have in my arsenal of skills. I have no doubt that had
I started as a child, I would have ended up reading Braille as fast as
my sighted peers read print.

When I think of all the times Braille could have helped me, the first
situation that comes to mind is an experience I had during law
school. I had to do an oral argument in front of a mock appellate
court. I spent the whole semester preparing my case and the trial
would determine my grade for the class. I showed up to the oral
argument in a spiffy new suit thinking I was prepared and ready to wow
the judges with my brilliance. I thought I had planned ahead to deal
with my note reading issues. I knew I would be too nervous to rely
solely on memory, so I put all my notes in large print on index cards
and was certain I would be able to look down at the podium to read
them. I don't know if it was nerves, different lighting from my
practice runs or both, but when I looked down, my notes were a blur. I
didn't want to hold the cards in front of my face so I tried to go
from memory. Ultimately, my oral argument was a complete disaster. I
got trounced by my opponent and looked like a stammering idiot. I got
a C minus in the class, the lowest grade I would receive in law
school. It was one of the 3 low points of my law school career, all of
which had direct ties to my blindness. It was also the exact moment I
decided I did not want to be a trial attorney. In hindsight, I
understand how valuable Braille would have been to me in my oral
argument. My Braille notes could have rested comfortably on the podium
while I read them, likely unnoticed by the judges or anyone else in
the courtroom who witnessed my debacle. I would have appeared more
normal by embracing a blindness skill instead of trying to rely on
vision as the only answer and I know I would have received a higher
grade.

On more than one occasion, I have heard statements like, "Don't make
that child look blind and force him to read Braille. Print is more
normal". My experience is a classic demonstration that this belief is
wrong and harmful. It teaches a blind child to be ashamed of blindness
and is a sure fire way to cripple confidence. Braille should not be
thought of as something that only totally blind people use. It is not
an inferior alternative to print that should only be taught if there
is no other option. Braille is a tool to attain literacy and
independence. We should teach our blind children to be proud of
Braille and see the value of literacy. Studies have shown that there
is a strong correlation between Braille literacy and employment. Blind
children have enough obstacles to deal with as it is. We shouldn't rob
them of an additional tool to overcome educational and employment
barriers just because they can read large print by straining and
taking extra rest periods. While a low vision child is resting his
eyes so he can start reading again, his peers are leaving him behind.

My journey with Braille is still in it's infancy. I have made
tremendous progress over the past couple of years, but I know that I
can still do better. I still find myself regularly falling back to
audio alternatives because I am in a hurry and want to get things done
faster. There are going to be plenty of times when audio is simply
more efficient for me and it will always be a part of my life. But, I
have found ways to make Braille useful to me by using it in practical
situations that are interesting and meaningful to me. I will likely
never be a fast Braille reader, but I cherish Braille. I am so
thankful that it is a daily part of my life. I still need to practice
but I am glad that I made the choice to learn and put forth the
effort. I am thankful to my NFB family who humbled me and encouraged
me to embrace Braille. And mostly, I am thankful to Louis Braille,
who as a teenager, created this life changing code because he rightly
believed that literacy and knowledge were essential to independence
for the blind.