Learning Braille in a Small School

Embracing Braille group member Kelly Sapergia shared his experience on learning braille in a small school setting.

January 9, 2020

Don't miss the next episode

Audio Transcript


Embracing Braille – Learning Braille in a Small School

Presented by Vileen Shah

January 9, 2020

Vileen S: Hello everybody. Good morning. This is Vileen Shah, your host for Embracing Braille group, welcoming you. I would request, Kelly Sapergia, to get to the speaker and start saying, and Kelly, you will tell about yourself first and then share your experience, how about, learning in a small school. Over to Kelly, thank you Kelly so much.

Kelly S: Well, thank you for your introduction there, Vileen, and hello everyone. It's great to be here with you today. I am a musician and Internet radio broadcaster, as well as a member of Toastmasters, and specifically the top Toastmasters Club here in the great city, as I like to call it, of Mouse Jaw, here in Saskatchewan. Today I would like to present this speech that I actually did for Toastmasters a couple of days ago in preparation for doing it here today. It's called Learning Braille in a Small School. And after the speech is done, I'll be more than happy to take any questions that you may have.

What are we going to do? I'm sure that was one of the first questions the staff at Mortlach School were asking themselves as I was being enrolled as a student at the age of four. After all, who in a rural area of Saskatchewan, Canada, was available to teach the only blind student in the area braille, orientation and mobility, and other necessary skills. At one point the idea of sending me to a boarding school for the blind in Brantford, Ontario, was suggested, which until that point in the mid-80s was apparently mandatory. Thankfully, my parents rejected it in favor of having me attend public school. And, as luck would have it, there was a retired special education teacher who agreed to take on the challenge, and yes it could be a challenge at times, of teaching me those skills with help from the CNIB, until she officially retired while I was in grade six. Her name was Mrs. Sorrel, and in my opinion, she was one of the best braille teachers I had. I was born blind due to ROP, or retinopathy of prematurity, near a small town called Mortlach, and my introduction to braille began when I was about three or four years old. My parents would buy me print braille books, also known as Twin Vision Books. One page was in braille while the other was the actual print page. I believe one of the first books I read this way was one called Red Thread Riddles, from UNESCO, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization. It also featured various tactile pictures, such as a hand on the front and back covers, a pair of scissors, and an umbrella, among other things. The Twin Vision Books were a great introduction to braille, but of course I would need to learn to read and write it. I began learning to read braille in earnest when I was in kindergarten. There were some books that the school was able to order, with both braille and tactile shapes, as I recall, and Mrs. Sorrel and I would practice reading those during certain classes every day while the students were doing other things, such as probably art-related activities. As the school years came and went, I expanded to larger books, and even magazines such as the Weekly Reader's School Newspaper, which the other students in my class were reading as well. Another magazine I enjoyed was Expectations. This was an annual publication for blind children, which not only included short stories but also tactile pictures of some of the characters mentioned in the stories, as well as a page of scratch and sniff stickers. Anybody remember those?

But I was also interested in audio books, or talking books if you prefer, at the time. It wasn't until I was nine when I received my first cassette talking book machine from the CNIB. I remember listening to books like Charlotte's Web by E.B. White and being impressed with the narrator's reading. "Now, that-" I thought to myself at the time, " ... is what I want to do when I grow up." Needless to say, it wasn't long before I was reading, or trying to read, books on tape myself just like those narrators. One example of this occurred in 1993 when the movie Jurassic Park was released. After seeing it in the theater, I discovered that it was based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Michael Crichton. My mom started reading the book onto tape for me while I waited for my copy from the CNIB library to arrive. When it did arrive, mom said that if I wanted to have the rest recorded on tape, I would have to read it myself. It wasn't that she didn't want to do it anymore, it was just her way of challenging me to keep up with my braille reading skills, which was a very good idea because it does take time and money to produce braille textbooks and there were lots of periods where I had to rely solely on audio books. Even, if you can imagine this, a recorded math textbook when I was in grade three. In my opinion, give me braille any day for that kind of book. And, as a result, my spelling and reading actually suffered a little bit because I was listening to books too much.

Anyway, over the course of the summer I read the rest of the novel Jurassic Park onto tape, and had a great time doing it too. Of course I made mistakes, but I would always rewind the tape back to where the blooper, as I like to call it, was, and just started reading from there until I got it right. It also helped with my speed reading, and that has come in very handy for me today, because there are times where I will be asked to read different scriptures at our local church. I braille them at home and practice reading them constantly to get the pronunciation of certain words right. People have come up to me after the services when I have done these readings, saying how much they enjoy seeing my fingers flying over the pages. In other words, practice makes perfect. It was about the same time that I started learning to read braille that I also began learning to write braille, again when I was in kindergarten. I can still remember the excitement that I felt upon receiving my first Perkins Brailler. Actually, there were two of them, one for home, the other for school. Mrs. Sorrel also had a brailler that she used to write class notes and assignment instructions and other material.

You know how kids are when they see a new piece of equipment? Well, my brailler was an instant hit. Everyone it seemed had to try it. Kids would be wandering over and pressing the keys on the brailler, or else moving the carriage lever back and forth until the bell dinged, obviously to indicate that you were just about at the end of the line. I now know that kids are curious about how things work, but back then woe to the person who dared touch my brailler. Needless to say, I spent quite a lot of time out in the hall whenever I had a resulting temper tantrum, of which there were many back then.

But thanks to Mrs. Sorrel's guidance I mastered the brailler and began writing the alphabet, even doing occasional speed drills to see how fast I could type on it. Also with Mrs. Sorrel's guidance I progressed to writing actual words and then sentences. All this was in Grade 1 Braille, or Uncontracted Braille of the time. Later, I advanced to doing Contracted Braille, or Grade 2 Braille as we called it back then.

It was also around this time that I learned about another method of writing braille, and that was the slate and stylus. While Mrs. Sorrel did a superb job of teaching me how to use the device, I don't think it was for very long. And this is something I truly regret, is that I didn't use it much during class. This was probably because the teachers felt, or probably felt, that the brailler, though noisy, was a lot faster when it came to writing my notes. Plus, there was also other equipment coming along for me, such as a talking computer. My mom, however, kept encouraging me to use the slate at home, and would even read articles from Future Reflections, a magazine from the National Federation of the Blind for parents of blind children, about the slate's many benefits. I, however, argued that it was too slow, and I wanted nothing to do with it whatsoever. Needless to say, when I discovered it a few years ago, I realized just how useful a device it was and am now making up for lost time as a result.

There were, however, some things that Mrs. Sorrel couldn't help me with, and braille music was one of them. I remember getting a hymn book when I was in grade two and being unable to read it, because all the pages were filled with, what to me at the time anyway, looked like gibberish. I did receive some books later on about reading braille music, but I had problems following those as well, and Mrs. Sorrel didn't know the code. I am grateful to the Hadley Institute for the Blind for their braille courses, braille music courses, two of which I took starting in 2013.

In conclusion, learning braille in a small school is pretty much no different than learning it in any other school. I think the thing with me was that because I was the only blind student, I had a lot of one on one assistance. And it's because of teachers like Mrs. Sorrel, who not only encouraged me to keep using braille, which I enjoy to this day, whether it's reading a novel or writing a label for an item in my home, but who also makes sure that other staff and teachers at other rural schools no longer have to ask, "What are we going to do now?" whenever a new blind student is enrolled. Thank you so much.

Vileen S: Thank you so much, Kelly. One thing I would like to specify or clarify, for some of you who may not be knowing, CNIB is Canadian National Institute for the Blind, and as far as I understand it's a combination of services that you get here in the United States by NLS and AFB. No, I'm sorry. It should be American Printing House for the Blind. HBF. Yeah. So, CNIB, Kelly, is the one that provides you with the braille books, right?

Kelly S: That's right.

Vileen S: Yeah.

Kelly S: And they also get a lot of them as well from RNIB in the UK and other places now.

Vileen S: Oh, that's another interesting issue, and that's where the rule of UEB comes. United English Braille. Because all these countries have adopted UEB, now the exchange of books between two different countries or multiple countries is possible, and that's how the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, CNIB, can have the books available from RNIB, which is Royal National Institute for the Blind in UK, United Kingdom, which is also another name for England or Great Britain, the same country. I decided, or I was rather motivated, I thought of Kelly Sapergia to be a presenter on two reasons. He learned Everyday Reading in UEB from me, and I liked two things. His reading style and delivery of voice. I was impressed. No wonder, Kelly, you are a good broadcaster. My judgment comes to be true there. I was so impressed. And I'm sure so many people like to hear you when you are broadcasting. All right, so the floor is opened for the questions and answers. The floor is open.

Elyse H: Okay.

Vileen S: Yes.

Elyse H: Okay. Michelle, can you hear us?

Michelle: Sure. Happy new year.

Vileen S: Happy new year.

Michelle: Thank you so much, Kelly. You gave us some insight. Kelly, first it seems like you had great support from your teacher, Mrs. Sorrel, and of course your mom. Can you tell us what has been your greatest challenge and what has been the best resource for your music, if you don't mind, with the braille, using braille? Thank you. Over.

Kelly S: For my greatest challenge? I think the braille music would definitely have been quite a challenge, because we never really had to of course use it during school, but I, as I say, did get these books about reading it. There were some instructions of course in them, but I just I think needed more assistance really in understanding a lot of concepts. So, that's why I was really glad to be able to take Hadley's courses they had regarding braille music. As for resources, one that I was using up until fairly recently was from the CNIB Library. They used to have a whole bunch of braille music scores, but with the change to their library those seem to have disappeared. And I don't know when those will be returning but I did contact them, and they said at some point they hope to reintroduce those. So, hopefully they will, but at the moment I really don't have any other resources for using that. As for music myself, I normally play by ear so I'm not really too worried. I know that they'll get those braille scores of theirs at some point.

Vileen S: Thank you. Okay. Next question.

Elyse H: Okay. Beth, I see your hand is raised. Can you hear us?

Beth: Yeah, yeah. I have a question about, like, so you learned travel skills from that teacher as well, like mobility and ... Oh, and another question. What's the radio station that you broadcast over the Internet, not radio? Okay.

Kelly S: I am with the Global Voice Internet Radio.

Beth: Okay.

Kelly S: We are a station that has a variety of shows presented by other visually impaired radio DJs, as well as sighted DJs as well. And our website is at www.theglobalvoice ... that's all one word, no dashes or anything, theglobalvoice.info.

Kelly S: I do two shows actually on there. One is called Northern Lights, which broadcasts two hours of new age, ambient and meditation music, as I like to call it, every Friday UTC, or Universal Time, or that'd be Thursday evening in North America. And the other show I do is on Saturday UTC, or Friday evening in North America, called Smooth and Easy, which is an hour-long program featuring smooth jazz, chill out and easy listening music. In addition to that, I am the promotion, or production director of the station, meaning that I listen to all the IDs and promos and basically make sure that they're of the very high quality. I even produce a lot of that too as part of my voiceover work. Over.

Vileen S: Right.

Kelly S: Oh, and I forgot to mention about the white cane travel. Yes, Mrs. Sorrel did teach me some white cane travel, and we would often go around Mortlach and just practice walking around with the cane and everything. But we also went to Moose Jaw and did a lot of cane travel there. And we had again a lot of assistance from people at the CNIB who specialized in that, so that was of great help as well.

Vileen S: Great, terrific. Okay, next question.

Elyse H: Okay. Susan, you're next in line. Can you hear us?

Susan: Yes. I think my question was probably answered, but it has to do with the music, for braille for music. I play the ukulele, but I was in a group and I enlarged the music that I was trying to see, but it became so cumbersome I just procrastinated, didn't want to do it and haven't done it in a couple of years now. Anyway, so the music, I can't imagine feeling the braille and playing the ukulele at the same time. What is the process for that? Memorizing it maybe?

Kelly S: That's basically the idea, that you would read the braille music score and then practice with your instrument with that while basically memorizing it. Then that way, you don't have to worry about pausing to flip over to the next page of braille.

Elyse H: Okay, Alison, you're next in line.

Alison: Kelly, when you were learning your braille letters, did Mrs. Sorrel ever teach you how to use magnetic braille tiles? Did she ever have you write words and then spell them out with the tiles and pop them as you went? That's how I learned back when I first started learning braille.

Kelly S: I must admit, I never knew those were available. But no, we didn't have anything like that back then. I don't think we did anyway. What we did have though was a little model, you might call it, called a swing cell. This was a little device, for those who don't know, it was a little thing where you had a wood block essentially and then there would be a couple of pieces of wood with some pegs on it. Those could be swung outward. So, if you have it facing vertically it would represent the keys on ... No. It would represent a braille cell. If you swung it outwards so that it's all horizontal, then those would represent the keys on a Perkins Brailler, except for the space bar.

Alison: Oh, okay.

Vileen S: Alison, just tell me more, tell us all, maybe let other people know, about that magnetic thing. I never heard so I am curious too.

Alison: Okay. It was just basically little magnetic letters with the print letter on top and the braille letter below it. You can get them from APH. I don't know if they still carry them, but you could look.

Elyse H: Okay, Jodie, you're next in line here. Go ahead.

Jodie: Yes. Thank you, Kelly, your presentation was terrific. But I just wanted to comment that I just asked my Amazon Echo to play The Global Voice and I'm listening to it.

Kelly S: Oh great.

Vileen S: Oh wow.

Elyse H: Okay, we have another hand up here. Katrina, you're next in line.

Vileen S: Okay.

Katrina: Yes. I wanted to compliment you, Mr. Kelly, on your presentation. You have a DJ voice. I thought that was pretty neat. I didn't know that blind people could do that. And then I wanted to ask you do you know of any place where you can learn the braille music? I'm a songwriter and a musician and I've always wanted to learn it in braille, and now that I can't see music, I need to learn it. Over.

Kelly S: Well, thanks, Katrina. I don't know about for Canada at the moment, but for US listeners I believe you can get a lot of material through the NLS. There's various braille music courses and other things there. You've got more stuff than we do here, I guess.

Vileen S: Normally yeah, yeah.

Kelly S: It's a shame that we can't access to BARD service here.

Vileen S: NLS certainly has many more things available.

Kelly S: They do.

Vileen S: Yeah.

Kelly S: I'm hoping with the advent of the Americans Treaty, I'm hoping that they might be able to get some of that stuff available for Canada here. But I think my best bet is to try to go through the NLS and see what they have for their music collection.

Vileen S: Yeah, that's for sure.

Katrina: Thank you.

Vileen S: But at the same time I'm not sure ... Of course, I'm not using NLS much, I don't have time for that. But it does help a lot if we use computer and get tons of information online, instead of going through a medium.

Kelly S: And there are programs that you can get for the computer, for Windows at any rate, where you can have let's say a music score and then it can convert it to a braille score for you.

Katrina: Wow.

Kelly S: I haven't really tested one of those, but I know it can be done.

Vileen S: I will say-

Katrina: Oh, I need a computer.

Vileen S: Yes. I will say computer or computer literacy has become as important as breathing nowadays. It cannot live without it. Okay. All right, thank you. Next one. We have two more hands raised so that's good.

Elyse H: We sure do. Donald, you're next in line. Can you hear us?

Donald: Yes.

Vileen S: Hello Donald.

Donald: I just wanted to-

Vileen S: Yes, go ahead.

Donald: I just wanted to say that the music section at the Library of Congress is the place where you would find out anything you wanted to know about braille music and what's available. Call the music section.

Kelly S: Well, one thing I was going to say too, and that's very good, but one thing I was going to say too, I just remembered that National Braille Press I believe does have a couple of books that you can order regarding braille music. One is called Who's Afraid of Braille Music? I forget the author's name. But then there's another one by Bettye Krolick. B-E-T-T-Y-E is how you'd spell her name. I think it's called How to Read Braille Music. That's another option there for you as well.

Donald: Cool.

Katrina: That's National Braille Press?

Kelly S: Yes, and they're at www.nbp.org.

Donald: [crosstalk].

Kelly S: They're really good. I've ordered lots of books through National Braille Press over the years.

Donald: National Braille Press, they are very good, I'll say that.

Vileen S: And for those participants who may probably do not know, when we talk about National Braille Press we are buying books, we have to pay for that. Unless-

Katrina: Yes, I went through them before.

Vileen S: Yes. Okay. One good thing about National Braille Press is they sell books, braille books, at the cost of print books. So, if a print book cost you $10, and even if the cost of producing the braille book is $100, they will only charge you $10 and that is great.

Kelly S: Absolutely.

Elyse H: We have one more hand up, yeah.

Vileen S: All right.

Elyse H: It's Alison. Can you hear us?

Alison: Yeah, I can hear you. Where did you go to school, Kelly, to be a DJ? Because I met a total blind DJ in another part of Michigan. I've always wanted to be a DJ, but I switched my mind to education, braille education.

Kelly S: Well, I actually am self-taught, you might say. I didn't go to any school for doing any DJ work. But I've always had an interest in radio, and so I guess I just kept listening to and imitating all the DJs that I heard. And that's how I got started with Internet radio when that came along. Back in, I think it was 1999, I remember setting up a little station called KJS FM, where I played just different music and stuff. Back then it was automated so you would put up, at least I'd put 15 or so tracks, and then just have the station play it for me all the time and then have the occasional ID that I would also make for it. That's basically where it took off for me. I did do some work education as far as radio work goes. I worked our local station here in Moose Jaw, CHAB, which I heard this morning is currently off the air on their AM signal because of a transmitter fire. But they are broadcasting on the Internet so they're talking about that and I guess they're having a good time making references to that. But they also have a couple of FM stations here now. Then I also did some work at a station out of Regina.

Vileen S: Okay, thank you. Okay, ladies and gentlemen. We are reaching the end of this hour. I'm more than certain that everybody found today's presentation very productive, helpful and enlightening. To me at least. I'm a golden zero in music. So, when it comes to talking about music and playing music, anybody who talks I learn a lot. So, thank you so much. Thank you, Kelly, for giving us such an informative presentation and creating, generating so high an interest among our participants.

Kelly S: Oh, thank you for having me again there, Vileen. It was great to be here.

Vileen S: Oh, that's great, that's great. Thank you again everybody. I would like to wish you all a good week ahead and good weekend and see you all next Thursday. Bye now.