My Life in Six Dots: The Persistent Relevance of Braille

Individual exploring a tactile graphic with braille

Editor’s note: George Stern, who is DeafBlind, beautifully describes what braille means to him, stating it means more to him than facts can convey, and it is more than a code.

What Facts Can’t Convey

Fall On Your Knees; Thirst; Wild About Herbs; Trouble Times Two; L’Etranger; The Prince; The American Pageant; Braided Creek …

These are titles, specifically of books I’ve enjoyed reading in hardcopy or electronic braille over my literate lifetime. I’ll share a few more such lists because this is how I’ve chosen to celebrate Louis Braille’s bumpy legacy by marking its enduring presence in my life.       

There are some things, after all, that the Googleable, citable, historical facts and figures cannot convey:  the illicit thrill of passing snarky notes on a braille notetaker during the less-captivating speeches of a convention; the eye-stinging joy when your sighted best friend surprises you with a braille wedding invitation; the fruitless tedium of blow-drying the pages of a Harry Potter book left to drown in a South Floridian torrent by a grumpy mail person.

More Than Just a Code

The Flavor Bible; In One Person; The Looming Tower; The Dream and the Tomb; Roast Chicken and Other Stories; Other People’s Rules; Slam ….

Deep in the death throes of an unraveling relationship, I was given the very sound advice to “remember podcasts, remember how to read books.” So, I did, swelling my audio and braille libraries with the expected self-help titles, escape reads – and John Irving’s In One Person. This soul ballad of a book read into the wee hours of the morning when bloodless fingers lost all sensation; singlehandedly reignited the spontaneous laughter circuit from mind to belly that I thought was dead forever.

*** I’ve never been comfortable with the description – and teaching – of braille as a code comprising dots 1 through six, with combinations to be memorized. After all, if you take dot 1 (representing the letter a in the English and French Braille tables) and drop it in the middle of an otherwise blank page, there’s really no telling which dot it is. No, even as a four or five-year-old, I thought of Braille in terms of interrelated shapes and movements (which, funnily enough, is how the most effective print-based reading and writing is taught.)

From kindergarten on, braille seeped in to saturate my existence like a slow-motion flood: braille textbooks by the boxful, braille Uno and Go Fish cards, print/braille books on John Henry and Stevie Wonder, flimsy, paper-bound volumes of the Animorph series redolent of cigarette smoke from old Mr. Bill across the way …

Then, in fifth grade, I learned about the National Library Service’s Braille and Talking Book program, and let’s say my schoolbag was probably the heaviest in our district.

But I never begrudged my braille’s weight and space nor felt shame for the boisterous clatter of working on my Perkins brailler.

Even before I’d read research on the positive link between kinesthetics and memory, I knew that, for me, braille was an irreplaceable key to the treasury of human ideas.

Braille: A Living, Breathing Medium

Catch-22; Their Eyes Were watching God; Jonathan Livingston Seagull; Starlight Enclave; How to Be Single and Happy; Quiet; Atomic Habits; Beloved…

What’s the scariest line to read in braille? “Danger, Don’t Touch!”

There is an image of braille that persists: slow, cumbersome, bulky, expensive, inflexible, and anachronistic. It’s an image that doesn’t show up well against sleek audio solutions, rattling through books and documents at several times human speed.

But much of this image is an illusion, rooted more in the expectations and assumptions of a vision-centrist world than in reality.

Reality is me reading a lightweight volume of Heller’s Catch-22 while having my teeth cleaned at the dentist; it’s the fact that smartphones paired with portable, refreshable braille displays can generate braille support for at least 30 major languages; it’s that a refreshable braille device lighter than a standard laptop can contain as many books as were lost when the Library of Alexandria burned; it’s that a blind fashionista can ask for braille labels on her fragrance bottles, and a deafblind cook can tell his peppers apart without sneezing to death.

In short, the rumors that braille is dead are greatly exaggerated, the assertions that it is useless, uninformed. Braille is, in truth, more relevant, more alive, and more empowering than ever before.