“Does ‘myf’ stand for ‘myself’”? I remember pondering as I turned the cardboard pages of the second book I’d read independently. Well, almost read. If I could be sure about this mysterious short-form, then I had nailed it. My Mummy was a great encyclopaedia about these things, even if she’d always have to go away and ruffle some of that blank-feeling paper that apparently had print dots on it first. Ÿes, ‘myf’is the Braille contraction for ‘myself’”, she reported, many seconds later. I was so proud to be able to read all by, well, myself. And I could even write “all by myself” in this kind of hard thing called grade 2 or contracted Braille to prove it.
You don’t know what twelve Perkins Braillers in a room going at full throttle sounds like till you’ve heard them. It’s an indoor construction site to the ears. But under construction were words. It was a spelling test. “Number 5: spell Tennessee.” I pouted. I was the only Canadian in the room competing against eleven other eight-to-ten YO Americans for a trophy and a little bit of cash. These things are a big deal when you’re eight, you see. Oh, and no cheating and using contractions allowed in spelling tests. I don’t know why the print world hasn’t adopted the good ones yet. It really is easier to spell receive ‘rcv’ and together ‘tgr’, after all.
I closed my copy of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue BWV 861 in G Minor with an unsatisfying dull thud of temporary finality and stepped away from the piano. It hadn’t been difficult to learn the notes to the Prelude–I’d done that by ear and had a quick look through the Braille for good measure and any musical markings I’d missed–but the fugue was another story. There was no way I’d get to create my own version of its magically seamless sound without a trusty paper intermediary. It was transcribed in an old Braille Music format called bar-by-bar, which meant that half the battle was keeping your place within the poorly organised (by our modern standards) sea of dots. But four bars learnt was four bars learnt, wasn’t it? I’d learn another two or four or six tomorrow, and another bunch the day after that, and in under three weeks I’d have the bones of the fugue in my fingers to play to my heart’s content. It was slow, but it sticks better when it’s slow, anyway.
It’s 2am and I’m sitting in my room in Salamanca, Spain, trying to conjure up an alternate persona in which I have an encyclopaedic knowledge of bandes desinées, and also of the syntax of French. It was always going to be a bad idea to leave this assignment on comics, of all things, to the last minute, but I’d been doing the exchange student thing and eating pizza and gelato in Rome with Italian friends on the weekend. At this hour and more conscious than I wanted to be about the prospect of an all-nighter, the idea of me, a blind person who has never read or had described in detail a comic in my entire life and who had at that point spokenFrench for about four months, producing something coherent on the topic, was anything but comical. It was just as well I had my Braille notes with me in order to survive the 20-minute presentation on the topic after handing in the 1500-word report 36 hours later. Making sense was necessary if I wanted to avoid the wrath of my classmates. You see, we had to write these 500-word opinion pieces on every group’s presentation, so if it didn’t make sense, or it was so boring you nodded off, you paid for it later. Miraculously, after a class vote, my group’s was picked as the favourite, AKA the least painful to learn about for the exam. , Ergo, the solution to life’s doubts is to write foreign language assignments on equally foreign topics in a different foreign country after returning from foreign country #3 at 2am.
“Toma”. It was my last day in Salamanca before returning to New Zealand. I didn’t know when I’d next be in the Northern hemisphere. My friend Inés and I were enjoying chocolate milkshakes when she passed it to me. Five sheets of paper, about the size of large Post-it notes, covered in pen-made Braille. I hadn’t cried yet that day and my curiosity to read her note and the twenty other people in the cafe was all that was standing between me and my eyes losing it completely. Inés was sighted. She didn’t know any Braille before she wrote the note. It said, among other things, that I’d taught her that you can do anything if you really, really want to. Who cares if that’s a bit cliché. It’s more than original when you put it into practice by conscripting the lowly pen to punch out, dot by dot, an entire paragraph of Braille. I made a mental note to remember to apply Inés’definition of determination to my own life. Thank you, Inés.
Dear Louis Braille,
I just wanted to say thank you. Your literary and music codes have been woven throughout my life, saving my butt on more occasions than you probably cared to read about, if you were patient enough to make it this far down my assorted memories.. Some people think that Braille isn’t important any more, now that we’ve got these things called computers and speech synthesisers. I wanted to show these memories to you so you could see how important Braille has been to me, even if I didn’t explain all the advances in technology and travel possibilities and everything very well. ? I belong to the group of millennials who would feel lost without another gadget called an iPhone, but Braille is–and will always be–the trusty soulmate I call on to make my life that bit more enriched, convenient and fulfilling.
I wish every blind person had the choice to learn Braille, Louis. Some things still aren’t fair these days. But that’s not your fault. I know, if you were still here, that you would speak up with me, for all blind children to learn Braille and have the tools to use it, and for all blind adults to be given the choice to do the same. You would encourage parents of blind children to remember that reading Braille leads to so much more than a better grasp of punctuation. And you’d be delighted to hear that now in 2018, reading and writing Braille in the digital age is logistically easier than it’s ever been, with nifty devices called Braille displays slowly but surely becoming cheaper and more books than you could imagine available on those computer things that you can pair with Braille displays to give you an instant tactile library. Anyway, happy 209th Birthday! For today, there’s plenty to celebrate, and I, for one, am extremely grateful for your ingenuity, persistence and resultant Braille codes.
Áine – a Braille reader from New Zealand, born in the 1990s