Braille Monitor                                             December 2014

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Ode to the Code: How One Student Came to Love Braille

by Kaitlin Shelton

Kaitlin SheltonFrom the Editor: Kaitlin Shelton is the president of the Ohio Association of Blind Students, won a national scholarship in 2013, and just won her second scholarship from the Ohio affiliate. At the state convention she played Federation songs on the guitar, although she plays other instruments as well. Kaitlin offers her perspective on Braille, Braille literacy, and how she struggled to accept both. Here’s what she has to say:

Today I am an avid Braille reader. I love reading novels on my BrailleSense or in hard copy and couldn’t imagine life without literacy. Some would say I’m even a bit too stern about Braille because I tend to avoid other forms of reading like audio and readers since a part of me considers using those methods of reading to be cheating, but you really just can’t replace Braille and the independence that comes along with it. From the way I talk, you’re probably assuming that I’ve had a Braille-filled childhood and parents who fought long and hard to secure the privileges of reading for me, but that wasn’t the case.

One day in pre-K I was pulled out of class by a woman from the county for an assessment. We sat in the hall, and she introduced me to the Perkins Brailler for the first time. We Brailled a few letters, and I was starting to get the hang of it, but she took me back to class, and I never saw her again. County officials determined that I saw well enough that reading Braille might not be the best option. I was sent along to kindergarten with the notion in my parents' heads that I would read large print.

Kindergarten came and went, and I started the first grade in the fall of 2000. My teacher, a creative and wonderful woman named Mrs. Murphy, noticed that there were a few problems with my academic performance right from the start. For one thing I could read print, but it was painfully slow and tedious. Since I have nystagmus and a very small focus in the one eye that has vision, I had to scan each letter individually before I could identify the word I was reading. I was also missing out on a lot of the incidental learning that the sighted students gained from seeing things like alphabet posters, number charts, and other visuals on the walls of the classroom. Mrs. Murphy decided that this needed to change. She researched the problem and decided that it was time for me to switch from reading print to reading Braille.

This terrified my parents, especially my mother. She had been told that, since her child had vision, everything should be done to allow that vision to be used and that using it would help me be more like my peers. In a roundabout way she had been told that reading anything other than print would make me look blind. Under these conditions she was against the idea of my learning Braille. She thought, “Who does this teacher think she is?”

But Mrs. Murphy followed her instinct and fought for me to learn Braille. She sat my mom down and told her that I was a bright student; there was no reason why I should be reading below grade level and falling behind my peers if it didn’t have to be that way. She explained that for me Braille would be the great equalizer. The books would grow longer and more complex, I’d be expected to read more for my classes, and without Braille I would continue to function at a lower level than my sighted classmates. She also made the point that the doctors had no idea how long I would have usable vision and that it would be much harder to learn Braille as a middle school or high school student than it would be at six years old, when reading instruction was part of the curriculum. My mom finally agreed that I should start learning Braille, so my instruction began.

But that wasn’t the half of my struggle to become Braille literate. By that time the idea that reading print was what made me the same as my friends had already wedged its way into my six-year-old brain. When my books that had pictures on the covers and looked just like everyone else’s were taken away, I was absolutely distraught. The Braille books I was given in their place were bland, bulky, and very different. I didn’t like being the only one in my class to have books like them, so I resisted the instruction. The Perkins Brailler was also something I came to despise. Before I used the Perkins, I used a grease pencil to write. I’d often lift my face from the page to have black grease smeared all over myself, but I figured that I was at least doing what my friends were. The Brailler was heavy, bulky, and loud. We were supposed to be very quiet during spelling tests, and using the noisy machine made me feel self-conscious.

Many of my spelling tests were not completed because I would get frustrated or upset and begin to cry or throw a temper tantrum in the middle of class. I remember being carried out of the room into the hall by my aide, sobbing out “I hate Braille.” Though I laugh about it now, it was a serious self-esteem issue for me at the time. As the year went on, I started to devise other methods for avoiding the Brailler. Once, when my aide had left me alone in our Braille room to grab something, I shoved everything I could get my hands on into the Brailler. Pencils, paper clips, and thumbtacks were among the items that the aide tried to fish out of the Brailler, but it needed to be sent off to be repaired. Unfortunately for me, the county brought a spare Brailler to the school for me to use while the one we had was being fixed, and I think that was when I realized that I wasn’t going to avoid Braille. It was clear to me that it would now be a part of my life, and I would just have to deal with it.

In the second grade, after I had been reading Braille for a year, my attitude about Braille began to change. My skills had improved to the point where I could start reading the same stories as my classmates, so, even though I still didn’t have my pictures, I could at least read the same Junie B. Jones and Magic Treehouse books. My mother had become a staunch supporter of Braille and began purchasing the print copies of books I read so she could read with me. Each Christmas after that, until I became a member of Bookshare and NLS, I received several Newberry Award-winning books from Seedlings in Braille. I soon started reading books above my grade level, and by the third grade my favorite books included The Trumpet of the Swan, Matilda, Charlotte’s Web, James and the Giant Peach, and some books in the Goosebumps series.

Over the next several years I began to advocate for Braille along with my mother. Together we established a Braille book library for blind children throughout Ohio, and several of my Seedlings Books remain in that library today. Whenever I hear a parent of a blind child say that he or she uses audio and the computer to read, I always ask, “What about Braille?” And then I try to educate them about how it has enriched my life and the lives of other blind people. As Mrs. Murphy said, for blind people Braille is the great equalizer. It is what makes us literate, and, although technology and audio can certainly be useful and do serve their purposes, they can’t replace Braille. I know that I would have at best struggled through high school and performed less successfully than I have and at worst not finished high school and found some small job which doesn’t require literacy skills. Fortunately, I can say that, not only am I well versed in the literary code, but I also use the music Braille code for my studies as a music therapy major and know the scientific and Nemeth codes as well.

In the Federation we hear about parents fighting their school districts for Braille instruction all the time. My situation was the opposite, and I shudder to think of where I would be today if my parents had never changed their minds about Braille. I am glad that both my parents and I have come to see Braille, not as something which makes me different from my sighted friends and classmates, but as something which lets me compete and perform to the same standards. I consider myself to be extremely lucky, not only because I learned Braille at all, but because most kids like me with usable vision are denied the right to receive a comparable education to those of their sighted peers. If it weren’t for Mrs. Murphy’s insistence, I would never have discovered the necessity and joy of Braille literacy. It is fitting that my birthday is the same as Louis Braille's, January 4, because I owe so much to him—as we all do—for the code which has made me who I am today.

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