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Braille Awareness Day – my life with braille

When I suddenly lost my sight in my mid-thirties, I went through a long period of adjustment and grief. I slowly managed to accept my new life and work out what I needed to do to move forward. I could see straight away that there were lots of new skills I needed to master – including using a white cane and assistive technology. I had never owned an iPhone before and had to dive straight in, using the built-in voiceover feature that reads out text. But it was incredibly difficult to rethink the way I used technology and I often found myself chucking my phone down in frustration. I realised that I needed time away from technology and this is when the tactile nature of learning braille became appealing.

First steps towards learning braille

I started by joining a local braille class, in 2014 when my son was still a toddler, which met at an adult learning centre down the road from me. I started following the RNIB’s Fingerprint course in class and at home and slowly learnt the alphabet. I was put in touch with Clear Vision library, who sent me my first braille books to read with my son. I clearly remember reading that first little board book with him. It was called That’s Not My Monster and it had just a couple of lines of Uncontracted [Grade 1] braille on each page. Sitting and reading to him from the book and experiencing his reactions was a magical moment.

When my son started learning to read, I really enjoyed helping him each day after school. It was made easier as his teacher was able to get braille versions of his reading scheme books from Clear Vision library. It made me determined to learn Contracted [Grade 2] braille so I would be able to read faster. From then on, I became really fascinated by the braille code and tried to practise a little every day.

Braille and independent reading

I completed the Fingerprint course in about two years, which meant that I could now read novels to myself again. The first novel I read in braille was Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie. It was slow going but I found that reading braille was relaxing and the closest I could get to the experience of reading a print book, something I missed so much. It’s also a great way to send me off to sleep at night. I often wake in the night to find a book laying open on my lap. That is another wonderful thing about braille, you can read in the dark so you don’t bother your partner!

It also comes in handy when trying to get a restless child off to sleep. I read to our son in the dark at bedtime most nights from braille books and it is one of the highlights of my day. We started with picture books and then as he got older, we moved on to chapter books; we have recently read the first two Harry Potter books. We are currently reading a hilarious book by Jo Simmons called I Swapped My Brother on the Internet.

In the summer I enjoy reading my braille books out in the garden or on the beach and I love that I can listen to the conversations going on nearby and hear my son playing football whilst I read. It is so good to do something without having headphones in my ears for a while and allows me to appreciate the world around me.

Braille and new technology

Over lockdown last year the RNIB had to close their library, which led me to embrace new technology and learn to read braille electronically. It was a daunting prospect. I got an Orbit Reader 20 refreshable braille display and it has been a brilliant piece of tech to use. I refer to it as my ‘braille Kindle’. It is about the size of a standard hardback and came with an SD card full of hundreds of books, which got me started.

I recently attended some great Zoom events by The Braillists Foundation, that featured lots of tips on how to use the Orbit Reader including how it could be used to read subtitles from foreign language films on your phone if you are learning a new language which I thought was inspired! The next challenge I have set myself is to learn how to connect the Orbit Reader to my iPhone so I can read e-books. This will open up a whole new world of books for me. Having choice is so important and a luxury that I took for granted in the past. It is brilliant that I can now read in a variety of formats; I always have a couple of audiobooks on the go alongside a print braille book and an electronic braille book.

Using braille in my everyday life

It is funny how situations can pop up that unexpectedly lend themselves to braille. When my sister got married in 2019, she asked if I would like to do a short reading at the service. I really wanted to be part of her big day but was very nervous about the idea of speaking in front of a large group. I knew I wouldn’t be able to memorise the passage so I typed it out into braille and practised it over and over, I was so pleased to be able to read it on the day.

Learning braille as an adult has been a really fulfilling experience for me and opened up new opportunities. I now volunteer for Clear Vision, transcribing children’s books into braille by typing onto transparent plastic sheets for them to insert into books. It is a big challenge and I make lots of mistakes but I really enjoy helping them in this way and keep learning and improving my braille skills.

Lockdown and learning braille

I read recently that it is estimated that less than 8 per cent of blind people use braille , however, I think that if more opportunities were out there for people to try it this number would rise. My braille group is a wonderful thing to be part of and is a great place to meet other blind people. We helped each other over the lockdowns this year, staying in touch with a weekly Zoom call and raising each other’s spirits. We all learn braille to different levels but we all appreciate that learning the basics of braille has helped us lots in everyday life: from labelling items in the kitchen, to being able to read braille on medication or label important documents.

Barriers to learning braille

One of the most often mentioned barriers to learning braille is lack of access to learning materials and teaching, but another key issue that several people in my braille group mentioned is lack of sensitivity in your fingers. Some people have nerve damage or take medication that can affect their touch, which makes learning braille much harder. We all agreed that it was a special moment when we read our first word, first sentence and realised that reading independently could be possible again. One friend expressed it as “it gives you back an element of your sight; it’s sight through fingertips”.

For me, it is all about having the tools to choose how I want to do things in my life. As blind people we spend our time constantly problem solving, and it is great to have braille as an option to call on when I need it.

Sarah Matthews


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