Braille Opens Doors Previously Closed

Gary Wunder addresses a group at the World Blind Union event in Orlando, Florida, in 2016.

Braille Opens Doors Previously Closed

As a child words meant everything to me. I loved to hear people talk and tell stories. One of the things I liked the best was when people read, but exactly what they were doing both perplexed and amazed me. When they told me a story, it would vary a bit. When they read me the story, it was always the same, and it was clear they weren't always the storyteller.

What was reading, I asked, and dutifully they showed me the newspaper, the magazine, or the catalog. When they read the newspaper, it usually had something to do with a soon-to-be cure for blindness. When they read from a magazine, it was usually about someone I had heard on the radio or television. When they read from the catalog, it was usually about something I really wanted for Christmas, and the more they read me, the more I liked it.

The newspaper, the magazine, and the catalog all had slightly different textures, but I couldn't get where the words came from. The texture was smooth and pleasant to the touch, but how did they find words? I asked, and again they answered. They said that the words came from letters, and they taught me the alphabet song and how to spell things like cat, dog, mom, dad, and even my name. The letters were fun to sing, and it was easy to memorize these words and spell them back, receiving praise on being a good boy, a bright boy.

But if the words came from letters, where could I find them on those pages? I was told they were different shapes, but I certainly couldn't feel shapes. I finally concluded I had to be content with the fact that grown-ups could read and children could not.

At six years of age I went off to school, and one of the things they said they were going to teach me was Braille. They put in front of me a book, and in addition to some of the smooth surfaces I had felt with other reading material, this one had bumps. They told me that the bumps were letters and started showing me a, b, and c. This was cool because I could feel the shapes and knew the song. Then it hit me with a joy that I have seldom experienced. These weren't just letters: they were letters that made words; I was learning to read. I remember asking in amazement, "Is C A T cat in Braille?" They said that it was, and they affirmed that mom and dad and even Gary were still the same.

I understand the problems we have in training enough teachers who are competent in Braille and even how many of those who are committed to it cannot read quickly enough to make a story interesting in the same way that my mom, dad, and grandma could. What I can't understand is how anyone could discount learning a reading and writing system, whether the shapes that make it up come from ink or toner or dots. I read rapidly enough that sharing stories with my children and grandchildren took place in just the same way the stories were read to me. The only difference is that I read with my fingers and they read with their eyes. Oh, there is one other difference: my children found their reading experience enhanced by turning off the lights, sitting close to me on the couch, and sometimes putting their head on my shoulder.

For more than thirty years of my life, the paycheck that I brought home came from analyzing complicated syntax necessary in writing and reviewing computer software. Being able to grapple with spelling, punctuation, and document layout is now what I do for a living, writing not for computers but for human beings. I learned from Braille how to read and write in large part by being able to touch the work of authors who were masters in their craft. Most of the words I know how to spell came from remembering what they felt like on the page and being able to reconstruct them in my own writing. Braille is beautiful, Braille is a blessing, and I am so fortunate to have the world under my fingertips.