How ‘Eye’ See It: Brailling with Alexis
Braille is more than just a way for those with a visual impairment to write; it’s a way to keep them connected to the world. Literacy is key to continued education. Whether working on a school paper or reading the day’s news, reading and writing are critical skills we need to understand the world around us. For those experiencing visual impairment, Braille is the connection. While just like with any writing system, learning takes time and can be a process. When NBCF staff think of a student who’s made remarkable strides in their Braille literacy, Alexis always comes to mind.
An NBCF student for over 8 years, Alexis started learning Braille during his time with NBCF. In addition to his schooling, his Brailling skills have grown significantly over the years and helped to open up a new world for him.
Braille may seem like any writing system, though the steps are different. If you’re sighted, think of how you learned to write your letters. You probably remember tracing large, dotted versions of a letter and reciting your ABCs first. You may not remember learning all the motor skills needed to hold a pencil correctly. For students learning Braille, there are similar skills they need to work up to before they can begin using a Brailler; these are akin to a typewriter.
A Brailler is a heavy metal machine needed to emboss thick paper and requires strong motor skills in the hands. They also need to decipher objects in their hands, differences between rough/smooth, big/small, soft/hard, same/different, etc.
This prepares a student to use their hands correctly to decipher letters the way a sighted peer would with their eyes. In addition to learning pre-Braille skills, a student must learn how to track. This is the motion of keeping your pointer fingers together and moving from left to right on the page in order to read. Students will learn the tactile alphabet and then how to spell, write sentences, and of course, how to read.
This may seem like a lot, and it is, but it all starts very early in a student’s life. For Alexis, he started learning Braille at around 3 years old. His mother, Margarita, says she sees his skills growing daily.
“He uses Braille at restaurants, stores, any of the games he plays, and at school.” Margarita says. “Sometimes, I ask him to translate the Braille so I can learn it.”
It isn’t uncommon for parents of children who are blind not to know Braille themselves; it’s a struggle many parents have, especially when their child has questions or needs help with something. Braille can take a while to learn, even as an adult. A parent should be able to ask for a print copy of their student’s assignment, or an “interlined Braille” (print sentences provided under Braille ones) copy to at least be able to help with the content. It’s essential to have family involvement in a child’s literacy because being able to read and write gives an individual access to the world.
“Alexis is more attentive and independent in school, the more he learns. He has moved into mainstream math, science and PE.” Margarita says. “He’s dreaming of a future for the first time this year and talks about what he wants to be when he grows up. He said either a scientist or wood maker.
When a Braille student gains skills in knowing the raised alphabet, tracking and reading, they can begin their introduction to Braille technology. This usually starts with the Perkins Brailler (which is like an old typewriter with less keys). As a student gets more proficient in their Brailling skills, they’ll move onto more complex technology, like Braille displays. Braille displays allow a student to connect to the internet and translate words on the screen.
These days, it’s hard to imagine the world without internet access. If you’re a Braille student without access, the amount of information available to you is limited. This is why it’s so important for students, like Alexis, to be able to gain the skills necessary to move forward with technology that opens up limitless amounts of education.
Alexis has already begun his journey with learning Braille technology, giving him access to a wider world. The more skills he gains, the more confidence and independence he has.
January’s National Braille Literacy Month is not just about educating the sighted about how to read or use Braille. It’s also about acknowledging the importance basic literacy has on a person’s life and the reason we need accessible Braille in the community. For students like Alexis, Braille isn’t just a means of written communication – it’s a door opening up possibilities for a future. And we know that Alexis’ future bright.