Learning Braille the Hard Way
by Leonard Tuchyner
Barboursville, Virginia

I had gotten down to the smallest and most powerful hand-held magnifying glasses on the market, which would only encompass a single syllable of print at a time. Definite cracks were breaking through my denial system, which insisted that I would always be able to read with my eyes.

This was back in the days when the Library of Congress was recording books, not on tape, but on flexible, 8-1/3 rpm recorded discs. I had never even heard of the Internet in those days, so screen readers were only a dream. It wasn't until years later that there was a scanner and character recognition program that worked. I understand it cost about $20,000, off the shelf.

To say I had been an avid reader since I had been old enough to read would be a gross understatement. I consumed books by the gigabyte. But by the time I was in my mid-40s, eyeball reading had become so difficult, slow and uncomfortable that it was confined to that which was absolutely necessary.

The availability of closed-circuit TV systems had not yet penetrated my awareness. Looking back on it, I am actually grateful to have been ignorant of them. A CCTV would have rendered it unnecessary for me to learn braille. In that case, all my reading would have been confined to one place and would have been totally reliant on a working electrical outlet. Further down the road, when my vision deteriorated below the level when even a maximally magnified text could not have been easily read, I would have had to start all over again. That is, of course, if I had wanted freedom to read sitting under a tree, riding in a car or sitting in a dentist's office. Actually, today I read braille while the dentist is working on my teeth.

So there I was, with the writing on the wall, "You'd better learn braille," but how? Somehow, I found myself in the possession of a braille bookmark that had the basics of Grade 1 braille. I tried to learn and was rather discouraged. My fingers are stubby and not particularly sensitive. How could anyone make sense out of those dots, which hardly seemed separated? Nevertheless, necessity is the taskmaster of persistence, and eventually I could discern the bumps into meaningful patterns. What next?

I contacted the Virginia Department for the Visually Handicapped and asked if they could teach me to read braille. After I qualified for services, a counselor came to my home and gave me three volumes of cloth braille books designed to teach the tactile reading method. She offered me words of encouragement and left. I was on my own.

Again, I was discouraged. It was bad enough to discover that discerning one line from another was beyond daunting, but feeling where one character ended and the next began was impossible. Then too, it wasn't simply a matter of learning the alphabet. That was hardly even the beginning of knowing all the characters, abbreviations and symbols. But the eyesight wasn't getting any better, and the years weren't rolling backward. So I got down to work. Thank God I am a stubborn person.

Eventually, I was able to read the first primer and decided to call the agency again to make sure I was doing it right. For heaven's sake, I didn't even know whether the left index finger of a right-handed person was the proper reading sensor. But the counselor informed me that I already knew more about reading braille than anyone they had on staff at that point. So again, it was fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants time.

I decided to go whole-hog and bought an ordinary print book off the shelf, NECESSARY LOSSES. It was an appropriate tome, since I am a psychotherapist. I ordered the same book in braille from the Library of Congress. My method was to read as much as I could in braille, and then consult the print text to check out my accuracy and to help me over the sticky parts. The ratio was 1-to-10 in favor of the sticky parts. Bottom line, it took six months to complete that first book, devoting at least an hour per day to the project. I went through the same process with a second book which only took three months to complete. Wow!

Today, at 68 years old, I am a very slow braille reader. But I can read twice as fast as I can with my remaining eyesight using a CCTV or magnified words on a computer screen. Of course, I have most of the bells and whistles of modern computer technology, thanks, in large part, to the Virginia Department for the Visually Handicapped. OpenBook allows me to scan whole volumes quickly and read them at my leisure. I can even use a remote earphone system that permits listening as I go about daily chores.

There are books on tape that facilitate listening anywhere. I do all those things and am grateful beyond measure for them. But my favorite mode of reading is braille, and I will tell you why.

There is something so satisfying about the tactile experience. I can't explain it fully. Finding words and meaning by touch is primordial in its nature. It is absolutely grounding, providing a direct contact between the word and the reader. Listening to someone else's interpretive voice, even if it is a machine's, imposes a separation between the listener and the writer. It is sort of like listening to someone else singing a song or singing it yourself. The other singer might be an artist and, as such, might be able to lift my spirit or make me cry, but it is a different experience. In the same way, I enjoy a skilled reader's presentation, but there are times when I need to feel the words directly, with nothing between me and the page. That is the way it is for me. I wonder if there are others who feel similarly.


The Hadley School for the Blind offers free correspondence courses for individuals interested in learning braille. For information, contact Hadley Student Services at 800-526-9909 or  www.hadley.edu . To request a free braille alphabet card, contact the National Braille Press at 888-965-8965 or  www.nbp.org/ic/nbp/braille/cards.html .

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