My Braille Journey

Individual using a Perkins Brailler

Editor’s note: Natalie Charles, a young adult who is blind, reflects on learning braille and participating in a Braille Bee as a student. Natalie dreams of becoming a braille teacher, a braille transcriber, or opening Braille Learning Center.

As far as I can remember, I started learning braille when I was 2 or 3 years old. When I was little, I attended the Arizona School for The Deaf and Blind (ASDB) In Tucson, Arizona. I was in the early-start program that they had there at that time. I remember that they didn’t have much funding for books.

A Gradual Start to Learning Braille

I remember that outside the classroom, there would be a short pile of books with tactile pictures and braille, and we would sit on the floor outside the classroom to read. Years later, long after I had left, the early-start program was shut down. I don’t really remember much about those first few years.

However, when my parents and I moved to California, I went to Chandler Tripp School, where there still wasn’t a lot of available braille materials and braille instruction. I remember sitting with the classroom TA while she reviewed the alphabet. She would make up songs for the alphabet and tell me which letters to make on the Perkins Brailler.

After I graduated from Chandler Tripp, I went to Collins Elementary School in Cupertino, a regular public school. I did not have a really good experience. I did have a TVI there, which was helpful, but I don’t remember getting much braille there either.

Soaring at a School for the Blind

All that changed for the better when I was six. A week after my 6th birthday, on February 9th, 2009, I attended my first day at the California School for The Blind (CSB) in Fremont, California. I loved it there as soon as I started! I had a really great braille teacher who had been teaching braille for a very long time, and I was getting more help and support than I had been getting at Collins. I recall not only learning to read braille more regularly but also learning other types of technology for braille, such as the Braille Note Apex and the Braille Note MPower. I was also learning more braille contractions!

I went from short stories that were double-spaced and single-sided to stories that were single-spaced and single-sided. I loved to read and still do to this day. When I first arrived at CSB, I was really surprised at how large their library was and at the large selection of braille books, different-sized print, print/braille books, audiobooks, braillers, abacuses, and games. Even though I didn’t know how to read very well yet, and I couldn’t read very long books, I would check out armloads of books that I could read, as many as I could carry. After a while, I was to start reading double-sided and single-spaced books that were much longer in length. I was also learning more about contractions.

Braille Bee and Braille Challenge

The braille teacher at the school also did this competition every year called a Braille Bee. It is basically a spelling bee but with braille. It had four levels. I did the Braille Bee every year, but I never won; I only came close to winning. For some years, I got second or third place. That changed the year I turned 10, and I won level three. I was so proud of myself. I couldn’t believe it!

On January 31 of 2013, I graduated from braille class because I had already learned everything. I went from reading books that were short, one-volume, single-sided, and double-spaced to reading books that were multiple volumes, double-sided, and single-spaced. At that time, my classroom teacher said that I was reading above grade level!

For all those years, I was also doing the local Braille Challenge. However, I never won the Braille Challenge, and I wouldn’t say I liked how long it was. I did receive 3rd place or honorable mentions. I didn’t prefer the Braille Challenge because it was a really long day. Even though I graduated from braille class, I still participated in the Braille Bee. I was trying to win level four which was the highest and the hardest level, and indeed I finally won in the year 2020.

I was really pleased with my hard work, and then I went on again to win in 2022. I also was a judge for level three this year. I liked doing it. In 2021 there was no Braille Bee due to distance learning. All of my hard work had paid off. I graduated from CSB this past June, so I cannot judge the Braille Bee again. I am still glad that I was able to do it once. I will still come back to watch it and maybe help with the practices.

A Future in Braille

I also learned other braille technology like the Braille Note Touch over the years. In my last year at CSB, I was also helping the two youngest classes for two periods with their braille. I would work one-on-one or in small groups with either the kindergarten through 3rd grade and the 4th through 6th graders with braille. I really enjoyed working with all of them! At the same time, after school, I was also working with another student on her braille. I became a mentor to her, and she transferred to CSB as a result. I enjoy mentoring other kids in learning braille because it is easy for me, and I enjoy doing it. I appreciated that not only did they begin to enjoy reading braille, but they also got better at it!

I can earn an income based on my braille knowledge hourly. I have a gift that should be passed on to others. I dream of becoming a braille teacher or transcriber and possibly working at CSB. I would also like to open a Braille Learning Center in person or virtually and help support kids in school districts who need it. I would also give their parents CSB information packets.

Any child that is blind should be able to learn braille whether or not they can see a little bit in case they lose all of their vision. I think that braille would help them not just in spelling or writing but in everyday life, like reading braille signs, menus, maps, etc. This love of braille created in me is just the start of my braille journey.