Braille for Beginners

This week we shared our tips for beginner braille learners.

October 3, 2019

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Audio Transcript


Embracing Braille – Braille for Beginners

Presented by Vileen Shah

October 3, 2019

Vileen S: I welcome you all, on this October 3rd, 2019. I'm Vileen Shah, your facilitator for this session. Tips for beginner learners. I'm going to make it a little brief. There are several aspects involved when you are learning braille, or when you start learning braille. The first and foremost, that I have read somewhere else and I would like to make it here: relax. You should not be tensed; you should not be stressed out when you are learning braille. For many of you who become blind in late age, who have seen the world, who have read the print books and print materials, suddenly the situation compels you to learn braille. It's quite a bit of challenge. I understand that you are struggling emotionally, you are struggling physically to get adjusted to the new situation of life. And at that time, if you are not able to read, as much as if you're not able to drive, you feel so frustrated. Driving is, of course, no option, because that is not something you are going to do ever, unless until Tesla brings some new car auto driving. We are not going to that direction now. But other than that, reading and writing is still possible, of course in a different way, and that is learning braille.

To begin with, yes, you should relax. Position yourself on a chair, on a bed, on the floor, wherever you want to sit. You can read, you can learn braille anywhere, sitting anywhere. You don't have to ... In many- excuse me- developing countries, some people ... Remember, in developing countries also, there are some rich people, but some people do not even have chairs. They sit on the floor, and they learn braille, and they learn excellently. Wherever you are, make yourself comfortable, relax, and take a position that makes you feel relaxed, and then have your hands set on the book, on a braille page. When you are trying to read, or feel dots, again your hands should be relaxed. Your fingers should be relaxed. Then you should start feeling the dots on a page. There are multiple ways, or multiple techniques, called hand movements and positioning. I'm going to devote one full session on hand positioning and hand movements while reading braille. But I'll briefly describe it now, so that you know what's coming.

To begin with, you can just explore the page, which is called scanning. Press your both hands, flat hands, relaxed hands on a page, and feel the dots. Don't try to read, don't try to understand each letter or each word, just feel, if you're a beginner learner. Feel braille, feel braille dots, and then move your hands down to the page as if you are exploring what it is. Remember particularly, if you had been sighted and start learning something to feel, to touch, something that you did not have to do. Most of the things you could perceive by sight when you were sighted. It's a huge transition. I never have had that situation, because I became blind at age three, and my mother said that I was always very active, running around when I was sighted. But at least I never had a chance to learn how to read and write. But I have heard a number of stories from my learners, from the participants and from friends, how much struggle it was for them to switch over to the new world, to the world of sightlessness.

Therefore, do not feel scared. Do not feel stressed out. Do not feel afraid. "How in the world am I going to learn braille?" Rather, start with determination. "Yes, this is something I want to do." I'll see many of my students doing that. They know that they have to ... That they've been going through a big loss, and a big change, and a big transition, but they take it as a challenge, and they make it happen. That's where you can learn braille, if you do not feel scared and do not feel afraid but take it as a challenge. Take is as a new learning opportunity. Take it as an opportunity that you can make of the loss. There are things, there are several things you can make out when you are in an adverse situation. Adversity should not scare you, but you should take it as an opportunity to make your life better. If you do that, you will be successful in almost every walk of life.

I don't talk to brag, but just imagine if I had to share my own story ... Born in a very small village off of entirely least developed country when I was born. Now, India is quite at a high, but at that time. Having no electricity. But I still learned braille, and interestingly, you may want to hear this, feel inspired by that. My purpose is to motivate you, and not sing songs of my praise. That, all my education is from India, whether I teach American History here or the World History or American Government, those are the courses I teach, both at Hadley and at college in Chicago. I'm living in California. I teach people in Chicago online American Government. If I could learn braille and teach braille in the United States, I feel myself blessed. What I'm trying to say, that you can also do it. Anybody can. If I can do, you can do. That's my slogan. So please do not feel afraid, and do not feel scared, but take it as a challenge. Make adversity an opportunity and work it into a benefit to your life.

Sorry, I've been preaching. Sometimes I start giving sermons, but sometimes it helps some people. Okay. So that's one of the things that, when you want to learn braille, you are a beginner learner. When you start learning, relax. Think positive, use the situation as an opportunity, and start learning. Trust me. When you have finished learning braille, when you are done learning how to read and write braille, you will feel that you are in a different world. You will feel so independent. You will feel the entire effort was so gratifying, because braille to me, in my personal view, is a salvation for blind and visually impaired people.

Now that your hand is on a braille page, you've started learning, and when you start reading, there are three different options. It's called... It's about the hand positioning. Remember that you should read braille with your both hands. That's a real good topic we can also go into detail sometime, but at this point I'm able to say that put your both hands on a page. Never ever try to read braille with one hand. Am I saying that you cannot read braille with one hand? No, that's not what I mean to say. You can, there are several students, not all, but several learners that I have come across, and some of them are real good braille readers, but they read braille with one hand. Reading braille with one hand is possible but reading braille with two hands gives you greater speed, greater accuracy, and also helps your hand to get less tired, because both of them are working.

Please, always start reading braille with your both hands. Start moving your hands on a braille page always two hands, not one. And of course you may want to read with speed. You cannot always have both hands, but one going forward moving to the right, the other one can leave off a line and go to the next line, start reading there. It's kind of combination. That comes later. It's not exactly for very beginner learners, but when you are in the middle of learning, if you have done like two years or three years of braille learning, if you are learning contracted braille, and if you are trying to read books, that's where you should use that two hand technique in which you can use both hands. But it's kind of complementary. Each hand should complement to the information that the other hand has gathered. That's one of the ways you can read braille. So use two hands, that's the bottom line.

How to use two hands? We will have one full session on hand positioning, hand movement, and preferably I will try to get one of my coworkers, Donna... Her last name is Fridgant, but don't worry about that. Donna and I helped prepare a workshop on hand movement, and that should be available online. I'm going to check and, like you know... That teaches you how you should position yourself, how you should position your hands, and how best you can learn braille.

Let's assume that now you learned how to scan a page, now that you learned how to feel dots, and now that you learned the two hand technique and that you are moving your hands on a page, you are able to read dots, you are able to identify letters. Now the next stage is that you need to process those letters into words. I remember, once again, one of the participants who mentioned that it's so difficult for him to coordinate the letters into words in braille, because he was so much used to reading print. How to process the information your hands gather, your eyes were getting information, and they were also quick and so natural that you're not sure how to do this now. Once again, when you start reading with two hands, and you start reading letters, and you start putting letters into words, obviously you need to stay focused. The next step, I may say, is to stay focused. I'll repeat again, first and foremost is relax, then second is position yourself and your hands in a relaxing mode. Third thing, feel the dots, do not hurry to learn the words and letters. And the fourth thing is use two hand technique. And the fifth thing, process the letters and words that your fingers feel. How that's process successfully done.

That reminds me, oftentimes I advise my students what enrolled in the course, Everyday Reading in UEB. UEBs are different issue here, but basically these learners are actually enrolled into this course, everyday reading, I may say, in braille. Enhanced reading proficiency in braille. Oftentimes I've come across that when they read, they have to record the reading assignment, and when I listen, I realize that sometimes they assume a word and say that. For instance, let's say there's the word "version", V-E-R-S-I-O-N. Somebody happened to speak it "verbal". That is because that person assumed, looking at the letter V and E-R, and thought that it may be "verbal". My advice to them is, do not let your brain go ahead of your fingers. I'll just elaborate this. Let your fingers feel the braille dots, braille letters, words, and have them process into your brain, and then you speak. If you would read braille after having the fingers feel the words and the brain have it processed, then you will read it with accuracy. If you let your brain move ahead of the fingers, then you will start assuming and start reading incorrect words, wrong words. That's another tip, I may say, if you're learning braille. How to read.

How to write braille, that's entirely a different ballgame. Again, in the writing word of braille, there are a number of options. I'll briefly describe two, which you are familiar with or you have heard of. One is using a slate and stylus, and another one is using a braille writer. Using a braille writer is lot easier, but it's more expensive. Braille writers cost you a lot, if you have to buy. Even the used braille writers, you have to pay $200, $250, $300, depending on who sells and who buys and what's the condition. And then new ones are like $700 or $800. As against it, a slate and stylus is lot easy, and one of our participants provided good information about the range of prices. For the slate and stylus can cost you anywhere between $9 or $10 to $80, $90, or $100. There are a number of different slates.

We will not go into details about the types of slate, but we will try to cover the challenges that you encounter while learning braille, how to write it. To write braille, using a slate and stylus is quite challenging, because the dots are reversed, or the dot numbers are reversed. Because when you read, the dot numbers are 1 2 3 and 4 5 6, I mean 1 2 3 on the left side and 4 5 6 on the right side. But when you write, that numbers 1 2 3 on the right side, and three other dots, 4 5 6 are on the left side. That's quite a different, when you are to reverse the whole thing, practically you are writing in a reverse situation, because dots are involved on the other side of the paper. [inaudible] we will have one more session on just on slate and stylus. Then we can go into details.

Briefly, when you use a slate and stylus, if I were to give you a tip, the most effective tip is that you should keep in mind the dot numbers. Letter R consists of dots 1 2 3 and 5. When you read dots 1 2 3 are on the left side, and 5 on the right side. However, when you write with a slate and stylus, dots 1 2 3 are on the right side, and 5 on the left side. So it means, as long as you remember the dot numbers accurately, and you remember that when you are using the slate, the positions are reversed. The right becomes left and left becomes right. If you could remember that much, it's doable.

I had been using slate and stylus all throughout my learning career as a student, until I obtained my master's. I did not use a braille writer. I did not have access. Not that I did not want to use. And I made notes using a slate and stylus, during class and afterwards. I may say that I wrote probably thousands of pages using a slate and stylus. It's doable, but the point I'm trying to make is it's doable. It is that using your braille writer, it’s just a six-key option. If you could remember the numbers of the dots, it's doable. It's just easy. Press the necessary keys and make dots on the paper, and you can then read it.

Again, as part of the tips for beginner learners are concerned, I may summarize that the tips are to be divided into two parts. One for reading, and one for writing. Certain tips apply to both things. For instance, relax. That's the first condition. You should be in a relaxed position, whether you are writing braille or reading braille. Other things, like two hand technique, is for reading, and remembering dot numbers is good for both, for reading and writing, but particularly for writing with a slate and stylus. The dot numbers are extremely important, because that will help you to write braille with accuracy.

And to read and write braille, both things are equally important. If you are able to read, that's fine. You can read tons of pages, you can read thousands of pages and books available at NLS, National Library Service, and also other sources. You can even buy some books that are sold by National Braille Press and American Printing House for the Blind and all. But if you're able to write, then you are helping yourself. If you learn how to write, you are helping yourself, you can make notes, you can jot down the phone number, important points. For instance, I couldn't get good sleep last night, around 12 midnight. I just jotted down some points. What I am going to make announcement about before I start. That's because I had easy access to my slate and stylus, and a piece of paper. I wrote down the point so that I don't forget. For multiple weeks, you can use your reading and writing skill. But if you adopt a right approach to learning how to read and write, then you will find it enjoyable, rewarding, and above all you will find it helpful and useful.

That is my brief presentation today. It's almost time to wind up the session, but I'll take approximately anywhere between three to five questions, for those who are willing to stay longer.

Please raise hands, and let me be sure, let me be clear to you all that I could not cover everything, because it needs maybe three or four or probably eight sessions to cover everything about how to read and write braille and all the tips. I have tons of tips, and some of them I'm going to place online. The handouts that I have. Those will be posted online. Okay, questions?

Elyse H: Roderick, you're first in line. Go ahead.

Roderick: This is Roderick.

Vileen S: Yes, Roderick?

Roderick: I usually read with only one hand, because I am holding the book or whatever I'm reading with the other, and I've always had trouble reading. Maybe I should try to read... This is something I should have learned back in the very first lesson of Braille Literacy 1, but I'm in Braille Literacy 4 lesson 19 now, and I'm still having trouble because of that. Perhaps it's a good point. I appreciate the point that I should be reading with both hands.

This is beginning stuff, but even those of us who've been around for a while need to be reminded of these things. That is the other reason why we should continue to meet as one group, whether we're advanced or beginners.

Vileen S: Yes, that's-

Roderick: That's all I have to say.

Vileen S: Thank you. Thank you, yeah. It's certainly good to have one group. That way the beginner learners can learn from the advanced learners. That is one thing, and secondly, there are things that the advanced learners may not have learned before. You are kind of in between, Roderick, if I may want to say that you are learning contracted braille. As you said, you're not using both hands. There are different reasons why people do not use both hands. One of the frustrating reasons is that the instructors, the teachers, do not tell their students to use both hands. I keep emphasizing, and if you would try you would realize what a difference it makes when you read braille with two hands.

One point that Roderick, you mentioned, is you said that you're holding book with one hand. Yeah, if you are to hold then obviously you cannot read with two hands. But my concern is, why do you have to hold a book? Find a position, find a location where you can place a book on a desk, or if nothing else, on a lap. But preferable on a desk is a better situation, because when you put your book on your lap, sometimes it is hard to keep it even. If a braille page is set even on a flat surface, then it helps a lot to read braille with more accuracy and greater speed.

That's the first thing. It's easy to say, as I mentioned in my speech also, that in several developing countries, and sometimes some people live ... I do not mean anything, Roderick, but I'm just saying in general, that they do not have a chair or a desk. It's easy for me to say. If that's the situation, I'm not sure, but I like to always change any adversity to my opportunity, and I like to find my ways out. Again, the bottom line is that you want to have your book on a flat surface, and then use your both hands to read. Does that help you understand better, Roderick?

Roderick: Yes, I do. That's just that... I think my braille table is, I've got so many things now on my braille table that I've going to have to find another surface to set it on to use both hands.

Vileen S: Yes, your braille table has to have enough room for your book. I have my office here, and my office desk, and my wife likes to decorate it with all beautiful things on the desk, and I said "No. My braille books need at least two to three feet of room to spread it. I don't want ... It's okay if it looks simple, but I have to have enough room for my braille book to open, and enough room for me to set my hands on that." Yes, okay? So you are to reorganize yourself. But you want to learn braille in a right manner, with the right approach. Okay, let's take the next question.

Elyse H: This is Elyse. I'm going to jump in just quick. I know Beth was talking about the book on her lap not slipping, as well as keeping it flat. You can also put a little non-stick mat between your lap and the book. Sometimes you use it in the kitchen under a cutting board, so it doesn't wiggle on you. Try to put that under your book and see if that would hold it a little bit easier. Then you have both hands free to read.

Vileen S: Terrific, yes.

Elyse H: Okay, this person's phone number starts 812. Can you tell us your name, please?

Denise: Hi, I'm Denise.

Elyse H: Hi, Denise.

Denise: Hi. I'm from southern Indiana, and I've been legally blind since age 10, but when they tried to teach me braille, I would cheat and use my eyes. The instructor should have kept going, and she kind of gave up on me. My point is, I started at Hadley when I was about 42 years old, learning how to read braille, and I thought the same thing when I picked up the book. "Oh my gosh, I'll never ever be able to do this!" What I did was experiment with my hands and find the sensitivity in my fingers, and that did teach me that I'm a right-handed person, but I'm a left-handed braille person.

Vileen S: Ah, interesting.

Denise: I think that really, really helped me, because I'm a mother and I'm a special ed teacher, and cooking and cleaning and all that did take some of the sensitivity away from the right hand. Don't give up, people, if you are finding it hard. I force myself because, being a teacher in this sighted world, and trying to keep up with everybody, I had to have quicker ways to file things and do things. And braille just opened a huge world up for me to be employed, and it was amazing to take that eye strain away, and to find ways to file papers and do things like that. I don't know, I guess that's me ringing my own bell and chiming my own horn.

Vileen S: Thank you for sharing, and that's right. It's good to have your left hand for braille and right hand for cooking and cleaning. I do some cooking and I also do cleaning. It's not just the mothers who have to do it, that's right.

Denise: Right.

Roderick: The same.

Vileen S: But actually sometimes, your right hand is non-dominant. You're still using it, but the main reading is done by the left hand. I always have kept wondering, which one is my dominant hand? I tried, but I couldn't figure out. Maybe I'm able to read braille with both hands equally. But that's a good thing, good to know. Thank you. Next one? By the way, everyone who poses a question or comment, observation, please say the word "over" so I don't feel I am cutting you off. Okay, who is next?

Dorothy Brown: This is Dorothy Brown in Pine Creek. Vileen, I jumped in earlier at the beginning of the hour, and I just wanted to say that I forget that a couple of our students are still working full-time and come on a half-hour lunch break. I hope I haven't taken a moment that someone else could have asked a question, but I just wanted to say that I appreciate your input, and the other students as well. The posture for me, I realized even again this morning, I felt like that my line was actually going down, and I couldn't figure out the last couple characters of a word. It was because I had, like Roderick was saying, I had let my book move a little bit, and when I got the book aligned right, and my hands aligned right with the pages, then I was able to figure out the rest of that word. So your point is well taken, thank you. Over.

Vileen S: I appreciate it. Thank you so much. Feedback helps. When you say that my point is well taken, it's helpful. That helps a lot. Then I feel that I'm doing something right. Thanks a lot. Okay, next one?

Elyse H: Roderick, you're next in line.

Vileen S: Roderick again?

Roderick: I hope I'm not dominating here, but you mentioned something about people who were able to read print, and I used to be able to read print and write very well, and that is probably the main reason why I have frustrations with braille, is because neither of them is nearly as good. Especially the reading part, as I used to be able to do with writing, with print. My assignments, reading and writing I do great, but when it comes to actual reading, it's not so much. But I think you mentioned, I think I know why. I've been getting all tense and not relaxing. I guess I'm over.

Vileen S: Okay. Now you know. Try and let me know. Relax, and frustration, from where the frustration comes. It comes when you expect high and achieve low. Oh no, it doesn't satisfy you. But do not expect. Just take it as is and learn braille and think how it is useful for you. Sometimes your expectations are not properly geared, and that's where you encounter frustration. So let's not do that. Just take it as is, okay? All right. All right, we can take one more question, if at all anybody has. This topic is kind of never ending. I'm pretty certain almost everybody has some comment, some observation, some question. Trust me, we'll address all your concerns, if not today, during the open session. When you have question and answer session, it will be yours. Feel free to ask.

Dennis: This is Dennis, up in Canada.

Vileen S: Yes?

Dennis: What I want to suggest ... I'm in Literacy 3, and what I've found is that, with Roderick there, that my writing is a lot better than my reading. But what I do is I write, I write better in reading, and if you write yourself short note, you will kind of... subconscious will tell you, you know you wrote it, so you should know it. Then you do that, and then eventually you will get away from writing what you want to read, and just read it. It will help you eventually, to read it without ... If I say pre-cheating, I would call it. It seems to help me quite a bit with my reading braille. Over.

Vileen S: This is a great suggestion, particularly for those who are beginner learners. That's one thing. You may want to convert the situation into an advantage to yourself. That's what Dennis has suggested. This is great, yes. You write your things in braille and read it after a day or two. That way, you will be able to know where you are in the writing skill level. This is terrific, thank you so much.

Okay, I think it's time for us to wrap up. Thank you, everybody, for joining today, and thanks a lot for giving extra time. Wishing you a good week ahead, and good weekend. Bye, now.