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Blind Live Fuller Lives Using Braille

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from THE WASHINGTON TIMES, December 11, 2006.

Charles Hill had to take a break from the real estate business when he lost his sight two years ago due to an infection in the brain and a stroke. Since August, he has been learning braille at Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind, a non-profit organization with offices in Northwest and Riverdale. His goal is to re-enter the real estate market.

Discerning the feel of braille has been the hardest part, he says. Mr. Hill previously worked as a carpenter and lacks sensitivity in his fingers.

"I need to get back out in society," says Mr. Hill, 46, of Southeast. "Braille is one part of it. I will be able to go up and down elevators. If I want to write a letter, I'll be able to do it. I'll use it on my computer, too. I need to put it on my stove, too, so I can see what the degree is. I need to be able to read my bank statement."

Despite technological advances to assist visually impaired people, learning braille is still essential, according to Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind. The code, first invented by Louis Braille in 1829, helps the blind have a better quality of life.

There are about 10 million blind and visually impaired people in the United States, according to the American Foundation for the Blind, a non-profit organization in New York City.

One-on-one training is the best way to learn braille, says Maurice Boyd, braille instructor at Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind. He is currently teaching six students in private two-hour sessions once or twice a week. A session costs from $35 to $75 per hour.

"Braille is not obsolete," Mr. Boyd says. "The mistake some people make because of assisted technology is to say that there is no longer the same demand and use for braille. Even if you learn to use a computer, at some point, you will have to read something."

The braille cell is a six-dot rectangle on its end, with dots numbered one through six, he says. Dots one, two and three are on the left, top to bottom. Dots four, five and six are on the right, top to bottom. The capital sign, dot 6, placed before a letter makes a capital letter. There are 63 possible combinations of the dots in the rectangular cell.

A muffin tin provides students with a representation of a braille cell, Mr. Boyd says. In addition to the letters, there are 189 composition signs and contractions specific to braille, which is like shorthand. Braille dots also can be used to communicate mathematical and musical ideas. However, students should learn the basic alphabet first.

"I can probably teach you the first five to seven letters in 20 minutes," Mr. Boyd says. "Reading it is a lot harder, to understand when one dot ends and another begins."

Braille books would go on forever if every word were spelled out a letter at a time, Mr. Boyd says. Therefore, contractions or groups of letters are used in most books. For instance, all the letters in the alphabet other than A, I and O stand for a word. B stands for but, and C for can. While some people only want to learn enough braille for minimal use, other people need it for professional purposes.

"I had a lady that got through all the contractions in 44 hours," Mr. Boyd says. "It depends on the student's desire."

Children are the easiest to teach, Mr. Boyd says. Unlike many adults, children haven't spent their entire lives reading. People who are partially sighted are the hardest people to teach because they try to read the dots with their eyes, he says.

"The biggest thing is their patience, and the patience of an instructor," Mr. Boyd says. "Learning braille is like learning print. If you are blind and can't read braille, you are not literate."

Depending on the person's literacy skills, a braille instructor might have to teach a person grammar and braille, says Harold Snider, executive director of Services for the Visually Impaired, a non-profit organization in Silver Spring. He has a doctorate in history. Private lessons cost $39 per hour.

Braille is a modification of a system of raised dots developed for the French army, to communicate silently at night. In contrast to sign language, a braille code for each language exists. There are six different Chinese braille codes, he says. "Braille is a code, not a language," says Mr. Snider, who has been blind since birth. He knows English, French and Spanish codes. "The combination of dots means something different in each language."

Not everyone is a good candidate to learn braille, such as those people who don't have the tactility to identify the dots. For instance, guitar players or some diabetics are at a disadvantage.

Less than 10 percent of the legally blind population reads braille, according to the American Foundation for the Blind.

Writing Braille is part of being literate in the code, says Patricia Droppers, an instructor at Services for the Visually Impaired. She has been blind since birth.

A Perkins braille writer, similar to a typewriter, has six keys that represent the braille cell. A slate and stylus is almost like using a pen and pencil to make braille notations. A braille note taker is like a personal digital assistant.

Braille labellers are used for putting labels on small items like compact discs. Braille embossers are attached to a computer to translate documents into the code. The Duxbury Braille Translator is a popular system.

"People in their 80s can learn it," Ms. Droppers says. "You don't have to be 20. Older adults can learn braille. It won't do much to help them read 'War and Peace,' but they can label their medications and spices and write down recipes, whatever they want to do to keep them living independently."

The best way to become proficient in braille is to use it, says Melanie Brunson, executive director for the American Council of the Blind in Northwest.

She says she was blinded within 6 weeks of birth because of receiving too much oxygen in an incubator. "If somebody wants to learn it, they should find materials and try to read it," Mrs. Brunson says. "It will be slow at first, but the more you do it, the faster you can get."

Using braille is completely different from listening to something being read, says Judith Dixon, a consumer relations officer at the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, a government agency at the Library of Congress in Northwest. Each year the organization produces 500 to 600 braille books. A correspondence course also is offered to teach sighted people to learn braille. It trains transcribers and proofreaders to produce braille materials from printed information. "If I read something in braille, I actually remember it," says Ms. Dixon, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology and has been blind since birth. "If I hear it, it doesn't have the same impact on my brain. Braille is still very important in the education process. I use braille all day long every day."

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