To celebrate National Braille Week 2021, London Vision spoke with Dave Williams and Ben Mustill-Rose of Braillists Foundation – the UK’s biggest braille cheerleaders – about braille tech and the new Braille for Beginners course, launching in January 2022.
Braillists Foundation first formed about five years ago as a focus group convened to test the Canute multi line Braille e-reader, made by Bristol Braille Technologies. Very soon the group grew and became a small, informal community. Braillists Foundation started exploring other braille topics, such as Unified English Braille, transcription, and trying out new pieces of braille equipment.
In early 2020, Braillists Foundation registered with the Charity Commission and is now a bona fide charity organisation! Still run by a core team of volunteers, the registration with the charity commission meant that during the pandemic, Braillists Foundation has been able to secure funding to continue its braille-focussed activities online!
Braille for Beginners
Funding during the pandemic meant that Braillists could run online courses, such as the first edition of the Braille for Beginners course. Many people wanted to use their extra free time during lockdown productively, and this saw many blind and partially sighted people decide to try and learn braille. Based mostly on the Fingerprint braille course, Braillists’ Braille for Beginners course is a weekly commitment, designed to help beginners learn enough braille to do things like read a greetings card, playing games, and reading labels.
A new, third iteration of this course is launching early in 2022, with extra materials for learners, including physical companion resources that map to each week of the course, meaning that learners will have handouts to practise with. A key part of the course is also the Braille for Beginners email discussion group between sessions, which is a great place to support and ask questions of other learners. Braille for Beginners is designed to remove as many barriers as possible to enable those that have the capacity and desire to learn braille to do so in a supportive environment.
Braillist Foundation’s best bits of braille tech
As you can imagine, when it comes to new and essential tech, Braillists know what they’re talking about. In this section, Braillists Foundation Chair, Dave Williams and Ben Mustill-Rose, Head of IT Operations, talk about their favourite and most frequently used bits of braille tech:
For Dave, his essential piece of equipment is Braille screen input on his phone. This is built into every iPhone, iPad, and iTouch (Androids have a third-party app that can be downloaded), and iPhone’s Voiceover has a feature which allows the user to turn the phone’s screen into a braille keyboard, meaning you can do six key braille entry on the touchscreen. According to Dave, this is a “rapid, private and accurate way of composing text on my phone, and the most frequent way I use braille”.
Dave also loves the Orbit Reader. While it’s still an expensive piece of kit (however, priced in the hundreds and not thousands like the Canute), he feels relaxed taking it on the train, bus or to the pub.
The Orbit Reader means that if he needs write something down in braille, he can do so very easily using it.
Ben is also a big fan of the Orbit Reader and Braille screen input, but he’s gone for a braille hand frame – they’re great for spontaneous notetaking, and “sometimes the more analogue ways of jotting down stuff is really useful”. For example, Ben takes taxis frequently for work, and a hand frame means that he can make a note on a paper receipt so he can quickly identify what it is in the future. “Sometimes the less technical and more simple solutions are the best ones really”.
Lost your sight and want to learn braille?
Gotten to grips with your cane training and mobility skills? Maybe you’re already pretty good with assistive technology and feel ready to learn braille? Braillists Foundation believes that braille is an essential thing to have in the blind person’s ‘toolbox’ because sometimes the technological solutions we have now – like screen readers – aren’t suitable in every context. As Dave says “If you’re in a very noisy environments, it can be difficult to hear a screen reader speaking to you. Likewise, if you’re in a very quiet environment, speech can feel very intrusive, and so braille might be the most appropriate solution”.
Both Ben and Dave noted that some course attendees have wanted to learn braille so that they can read bedtime stories to their children or grandchildren. Sometimes we forget how important this activity is in a child’s life, and braille gives blind parents and grandparents access to this bonding and educational experience.
Worried about finger sensitivity?
Start to develop your tactile ‘pre-braille’ skills. This could be through doing crafts or cooking or playing a musical instrument; any of those things will help build the strength and sensitivity in your fingers and develop fine motor skills. This can all be useful to start building those tactile skills that you will use when you start to learn braille.
When you’re ready – attend a Braillists Foundation meeting, reach out to RNIB, or sign up for Braillists’ Braille for Beginners course starting in January!