There’s More to Dots than Decimals!

“Aw! We thocht they wur jist a wee pattern!” This was the comment from a member of the staff in my local Co-op when I praised the company’s new policy of incorporating braille on the packaging of many of their own products. Not only would this initiative make my life easier but at last, I knew the correct spelling of houmous! Here at last was one company making an effort to reach more of its customers. As far as other supermarkets are concerned, the only products of interest to the visually impaired seem to be bleach and toilet cleaner. We must be a right messy bunch, us V.I.s! Is this what is meant by stereotyping?

As a child, I marvelled at examples of braille. Not that there were many; dots on the control switch of my Mum’s electric blanket and those afore mentioned blobs on the bleach bottles. They seemed much more difficult to distinguish than raised or engraved symbols. But back then, I could use my eyes. It’s a different matter when relying on one’s sense of touch. Suddenly, sharp, individual dots become much more distinct than the wandering, amorphous curves of lettering and digits, in all their myriad styles and fonts. Speaking as someone who has lived in both worlds, it is extremely difficult, when sighted, to comprehend coping when that particular sense has become damaged. Perhaps that explains the assumption that only visually impaired folk can recognise others by the sound of their heels or the smell of aftershave? Most of the general public could do likewise but since they don’t have to, they don’t.

In my forties when my sight became affected by a rare genetic disorder, an elderly, blind friend suggested I should learn Braille. At my age! It would be impossible! I could read, couldn’t I? Even although the process meant keeping my head, or the printed page, or both, at an neck cricking angle; my eyes screwed tight; the whole, slow and tortuous procedure illuminated by a daylight lamp. My bank gave me a template for my cheque book, the first the branch had ever issued and offered to supply my statements in braille. Although I was delighted with the template and had immediately noticed it had each slot identified by a braille caption, I resolutely refused. I had enough adjusting to do, thanks very much. However, when eventually my eyesight had deteriorated to the extent print had been converted into faint, fuzzy squiggles and squinting only achieved head splitting migraines, I finally accepted the chance to learn braille offered by the social work department. And it wasn’t difficult! Grade 1 took only a few hours to master, so it seemed daft not to tackle grade 2. Soon, I was reading silently again, not as fast as I’d done by sight but competent enough to cope with labelled items in the kitchen and instruction manuals; even those bank statements. The other evening, whilst watching the news, I was also reading a magazine from GDBA. No need for computer, headphones or any other technological palaver. Gadgets have their place and I couldn’t do without my talking books but I find braille invaluable. It contributes to my independence, whether it’s selecting a CD or gathering together ingredients for a session in the kitchen, doing some home baking.

Although I do use Braille for leisure reading, I prefer talking books. Probably because, when sighted, I was an extremely fast reader. However, as far as running the house is concerned, I’d be lost without Braille. Quite literally! A system which gives quick and easy access to the information on labels and in manuals is truly liberating. This ability has returned a huge degree of independence and even a sense of security to me. Being able to safely identify the box containing the cold remedy or set out a plate of choc chip cookies to accompany coffee with friends does a surprising amount for one’s self esteem. It is extremely frustrating, not to say time-consuming, when the completion of a once trifling task depends on the availability of a working pair of eyes.

Yet we’re told only 5% of visually impaired people in the UK read braille. How on earth do the remaining 95% manage? They cannot all be computer literate. Anyway, there are many situations when a computer would be more of a hindrance than a help. For instance, when a workman appears, unannounced, at the front door. Is Mrs. Blind Person meant to leave him to his own devices while she scuttles off to boot up the computer, scan his identity card then phone his company? Much quickerto take said card, read any brailled phone number on it and make that call. Although there will be those who, for various reasons, cannot learn Braille, I’m certain that a great deal more than 5%of the population could quickly learn the ten Braille symbols which would allow them to read any number from zero to infinity!

The silicon chip and the print to speech software it permits all have their place. However, this technology is often more temperamental than a super model. If only I’d a pound, or even a penny, for every time I’ve been reduced to tears and swearing because my computer is refusing to co-operate! And a computer, even a laptop, is unlikely to always be exactly where it’s needed. Speaking from experience, when baking, footering about with floury paws and a CD or an audio cassette is more likely to result in disaster, either technological or gastronomical, than running my fingers over the brailled page of a recipe book. Potting compost can be easily brushed off my gardening manual whereas my Daisy player is susceptible to rain, hefty feet or my guide dog mistaking it for a new Frisbee.

So, although it’s unlikely I’ll ever tackle the braille version of “Gone with the Wind” I’m eternally grateful I took the opportunity to learn ”exactly what the damned dots meant”. A sentiment echoed by many, especially those who sample my home baking!

I submitted this to the RNIB’s competition celebrating the anniversary of Louis Braille and it was one of the finalists. You can find it on the RNIB web site as well as here.

© Charlotte Bennie 2009