On a Friday in 2006, I lectured at an undergraduate class in Occupational Therapy at University of Florida. One of the questions I received from a student and, coincidentally later in the day from a professor wondered if Braille would go obsolete now that we have all of these cool electronic reading systems. I know a fair amount of things about blindness but, especially at that time, I was expert in the technology used by blind people, I could describe in detail how one might implement a braille driver for a screen reader but, the question if braille could be replaced by audio isn’t well studied and I won’t pretend to be an expert in literacy or neuroscience and both of these are essential to providing a well informed answer to this often asked query.
I didn’t reveal any of my personal struggles and triumphs with Braille as my skills remain fairly poor and I’m a bit embarrassed about this fact. Today, though, for World Blind Herald readers, I’m including an essay I wrote in 1999 for a writing competition about how Braille changes one’s life. It didn't win the competition but I and our editorial team thought it would be a good story to run on Louis Braille's birthday.
I must say, though, that all of these years after I started to try to learn to read braille, I’m still very poor at doing so. I get my information online, from audio books, podcasts and other media that does not include braille. I can read a label very slowly or a room number in a hotel but, if you gave me a braille menu at breakfast, it would be dinner time before I’d be ready to order.
I retain no memories of the first time I learned to read. Intellectually, I know I did not enter the world with this ability but it seems as though words, books, characters, authors and the actors inside my head have been with me since birth. I first noticed my possession of this skill when, on my third birthday, I read a book by Dr. Seuss aloud to my maternal grandmother who had brought me Green Eggs and Ham as a present.
The actors jumped to life, from where I do not know, each taking on the role of a different character. Each of them speaking in a voice that only I could hear. Their characterizations were always perfect; their voices, phrasing intact, remain embedded as my memories of all I read in my first thirty years.
My actors, the voices of my imagination, portrayed, in those early years, humans and creatures, trees and trains, ballplayers, lumberjacks, monsters and villains, mommies and daddies and little engines that could. My private remembrances of children’s literature sound like Babar’s francophonic accent, Pooh’s soothing calm, Lancelot’s deep chivalrous tone, the man with the yellow hat’s adult concern and the anthropomorphized sounds of Kipling’s critters.
As I grew older, the actors took on more challenging roles and more complex characters. My high school years filled with the voices of Kilgore Trout, Billy Pilgrim and the rest of the Vonnegut gang; the delicate, delicious and dangerous Holly and others created from capote’s genius; Myra Brekinridge and Abraham Lincoln, Gore Vidal style; Juliet, Iago, Ophelia, Richard and, my favorite, Falstaff; various breathy voices of slutty women from my adolescent fling with pornography; Betsy Smith as described by Albee; others, familiar to all readers – Emma, Ahab, Oliver, Odysseus and Bloom. My actors, in their wonderful costumes, provided friendship and comfort as my low light vision faded to black.
College brought on a new set of mental thespians to join the older and familiar. This group traveled from throughout the globe to enrich my understanding and concept of literature previously foreign to me. Gabriel Garcia Marquez challenged with the surreal but always beautiful Erendira, Naipaul brought the west Indies to life, Paul Theroux brought me to all corners of the planet and my actors sampled tastes of Asia and Africa, Neville Shute brought me to Alice Springs without ever going there himself and Anna Kerinina, Raskalnokov and others taught me about life in a former incarnation of Russia. The actors helped me, through loud debates inside, to understand everything from Alexander Berkman’s experience as an anarchist in prison to differential equations and astronomy. The voices of thought matured, grew and instructed.
Throughout my twenties, as my vision deteriorated, my personal theater company fell on hard times and most of the actors slipped into early retirement. Their last performance, as least to my recollection, came in Marianne Wiggins’ John Dollar, a sort of Lord of the Flies for girls. Likely the last item I read visually was a label on a bottle of beer, scotch or gin.
My love of literature did not deteriorate with my ability to read visually. My actors, however, found they had been replaced by the voices of my wife, performers hired by Books on Tape, Incorporated, a handful of friends willing to spend the time reading to me and classmates at Harvard who would record our reading assignments. Finally, the voice I heard most frequently was that of Eloquence for JFW, a soulless computer generated reader which stumbled through the beautiful poems of Wallace Stevens, Raymond Carver and several of my poet friends.
My memories of Jamaica Kincaid’s angry voice will always sound like the Ukrainian woman who recorded her essays for me. An Eastern European accent attached to the pain and rage of a colonial West Indian subjected to the racism of a dying imperial nation. Natalie Kusz’s painful “Vital Signs” will forever sound like my wife sitting in the comfort of our Cambridge living room. Walter Mosley’s E. Z. Rollins has had so many different voices that he and Mouse seem like they have multiple personalities.
A random series of events caused me to seek employment at Henter-Joyce, Inc. in St. Petersburg, Florida. Prior to moving the Florida, I had little contact with other blind people. My pride prevented me from seeking help with activities like crossing streets – I had bought a cane years earlier and figured it out myself. In my mind, I didn’t need help. Learning to read Braille seemed like an absurd and antiquated idea. Why learn a different writing system? Why read with my fingers?
A peculiar series of events, increased exposure to other blind people and a bit of meddling in the love lives of a new and old friend resulted in my obtaining a desire to learn Braille, “Just to label my record collection and things like that. That was 1999, I owned roughly 2000 CDs so at least having the album title and artist name on labels was very helpful.”
I retain no memories of the first time I learned to read. I am, however, intimately aware of my struggles, at age 38, to learn to read all over again. Braille has not come easily to me but the rewards were far greater than expected.
When Rosey gave me my first Braille lesson, coincidentally the first Braille lesson she had ever taught, I felt stupid and experienced embarrassment. I enjoy the work of Umberto Eco and other challenging authors but can only stumble through my A B C’s. My pride held my tears inside until she left.
The first words I read in Braille could only contain the letters A through J, without punctuation.. I was approaching my thirty ninth birthday and I cannot yet read such classics like Cat in the Hat – I didn’t know enough letters. I remembered Sister Anna, my Nazi-nun second grade teacher; teasing some poor child who hadn’t at age seven learned all of the letters. I remember that I couldn’t understand how anyone could possibly struggle with a concept as simple as reading. I felt ashamed.
Nightly, I reviewed my page of words: dab, deaf, jab, cab, ice, did, hedge, Bach, bed and started to hear voices from within. “Is this some dadaist poetry?” asked one of the actors, groggy from years of sleep.
“No, I think it’s William Burroughs playing with Gyson’s cut up technique,” replied another.
“Sorry guys, I’m just reading a set of words containing the letters A through J,” stated the voice of my conscious.
My actors wanted to go back to sleep. I couldn’t blame them as the next page, added to my Braille repertoire a week later, contained only random words built with the letters A through T. A week or so later I could do all of the letters and started on punctuation. The actors still complained.
The entire crew inside my head eagerly anticipated my first whole book embossed in Braille. The Life of Louis Braille sounded like it might be interesting. I had never heard of an author named, L. T. Rodenberg but I often enjoy adding new writers to my collection.
I sat on my sofa, Louis Braille on my lap and started, slowly reading the little book. “The Story of Louis Braille by L. T. Rodenberg” proclaimed my title page voice. I turned the page and continued.
After a few pages, the voice reserved for union leaders, guys from Brooklyn and other unsavory types piped up, “What the hell is this?”
“A story about the man who invented the writing system used by blind people,” I replied in my kindest tone.
“No, it’s crap,” shouted the thug.
“What do you mean,” I asked.
“Allow me,” entered the professorial voice, “This author misses all of the fundamental principals of writing in the English language. He tells you everything while showing nothing and he seems to hold the irrational belief that ‘to be’ is the only verb available to him.”
“He doesn’t seem to think that characters add any value to a story,” added the female poet, “It’s all narrative and poorly done at that.”
“I think it’s for young readers,” I said, defending my choice of books.
Fear started to overwhelm me as I heard the voice of my seventh grade English teacher, Mrs. Larouque, shout, “Christian David Hofstader! I’ll accept no excuses for this drivel. If you wrote this I’d have given you a C- or maybe even a D+! We ought not be subjected to such dreck.”
Scathing literary criticism is not new to my actors. The joy of having them back far out weighs the annoyance of their complaints. Learning Braille has reawakened the theater of my mind and its return is entirely welcome.
As in the preface, I never fully learned to read braille. When I was working hard to do so, I read exactly one novel (*Double Whammy” by Florida weird genre author Karl Hiaasen) and a single short story by a South American author of literary fiction called “Our Behavior At Wakes.” I read both of these on an old Blazie BrailleLight in Grade 1 and never learned literary braille (Grade Two) or any of the specialty braille systems used for math, other sciences and braille music has been described to me but it seems like it would be incomprehensible.
I once asked Ray Charles how he could read braille music while practicing with his hands on his piano, he said with a big laugh, “I practice with my pants off.”
I do, however, know a lot of other blind people who benefit greatly from using their braille skills. We're celebrating Louis Braille's birthday and International Braille Day as well and we thought an essay about my own experience trying to learn braille, wishing I knew it better and sharing it with our readers would be a good way to commemorate this bit of blind history.