In Honor of World Braille Day, Part 1

The inventor of tactile literacy, Louis Braille, was born in Coupvray, France, on January 4, 1809. Louis was born sighted, but he became blind when, at the age of three, he accidentally poked himself in the eye with a sharp tool from his father’s leather workshop. An infection resulted in both eyes, rendering him totally blind by the age of five.

Louis went to school at the Royal Institute for Blind Youth in Paris. At that time, the only method blind people could use to access the written word, besides listening, was to read books containing raised print letters made out of wood or wire. Such books were bulky and the reading process was inefficient. Louis longed for a tactile reading system that would give him the same efficient access to books as his sighted peers enjoyed in print.

When Louis was twelve, a man named Charles Barbier visited the school. Barbier was working to develop a tactile code that French soldiers could use to exchange secret messages in the dark. Louis was intrigued by Barbier’s code, known as “night writing.” Over the next three years, Louis simplified and standardized the code, and the first braille alphabet was born.

Simply put, all braille symbols consist of dots arranged in a “cell”, or a grid 2 dots wide and 3 dots high. Each symbol is represented by a different combination of dots. There are 64 possible braille symbols in total, including a space (made by creating an empty cell with no dots present). Louis Braille’s code focused on the 25 symbols corresponding to letters of the Roman alphabet (excluding W, which was absent from the French alphabet at the time). The first ten letters are made by combining dots in the upper two-thirds of the cell; for letters K-T, the lower left dot is added to letters A-J; and for letters U, V, X, Y, and Z, the lower right dot is added to K, L, M, N, and O respectively. Some of the remaining dot combinations are used as punctuation marks or mathematical symbols in Louis Braille’s original code. At a later point, the English braille code was modified to turn additional dot combinations into “contractions” that make braille easier and faster to read; for example, the word “for” is written as a single symbol consisting of all six dots. Numbers can be written either by placing a symbol called a “number sign” just before letters A-J (to represent numbers 1-9 and 0, respectively) or by writing letters A-J one dot lower in the cell to represent numbers 1-9 and 0, respectively. A separate code for braille music was also created.

Louis Braille published his first brailled book in 1829. The oldest, most basic braille writing device was a stylus, ironically similar to the tool that caused Louis’s blindness, that can be used to punch the braille dots through a piece of paper. Many braille users today still use a stylus along with a slate, which holds the paper in suspension so that dots can be punched through with appropriate spacing. Modern braille writing implements, as I will discuss next week, can make braille production smooth and efficient.

Although students at the Royal Institute for Blind Youth liked Louis Braille’s code, it was not taught there officially until after his death in 1852. Teachers and principals at schools for the blind in other parts of the world showed a remarkable resistance to adopting braille. In the United States, various other tactile codes were introduced as alternatives to braille. Most of these codes, such as Boston line type and New York point, were written to resemble conventional print. Sighted educators preferred for their students to use codes that they could read and write themselves. Analogous to “oralist” movements emphasizing speech and lip-reading for deaf students, it was thought that blind students should use print-based literacy in order to avoid isolation from the broader sighted community. However, these print-based alternatives were difficult to read efficiently. They were unstandardized, so students educated in one code may have had limited access to books written in that code. Some students at schools for the blind began secretly using braille to communicate with one another. Eventually, the simplicity and efficiency of braille was recognized, and braille was adopted as the international standard of tactile literacy. Louis’s birthday, January 4, is commemorated as “World Braille Day.”

Louis Braille’s biography was one of the first braille books I ever read, while I was still mastering the contractions and building my reading comprehension skills. The picture shows me reading braille (though probably not that particular book) at the age of six.
picture of me reading at age 6
Louis Braille’s life and work made a real impression on me. He was an example of a disabled person who refused to follow the path that society prescribed for disabled people of his time. Instead, he found a solution that made life better not just for him, but for the entire blind community present and future. He used his own disability experience to develop a simple yet elegant solution that has proven itself superior to other methods. The backlash that Louis received is just one example of a trend of nondisabled authorities guarding their power by explicitly or implicitly rejecting disabled people’s leadership in empowering themselves. Today, even though most blind children are no longer educated at segregated schools for the blind, conflicts surrounding the use of braille still rage. I will write more about modern braille debates next week.

The ABCs of Good Disability Awareness

Yesterday was World Sight day. Tuesday was World Mental Health Day. In the United States, this Sunday is White Cane Safety Day, while this entire month is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. And the disability-themed calendar entries aren’t just limited to October; check out this list of disability awareness days, weeks, and months

Most people enjoy participating in disability awareness campaigns. They have fun making signs, passing out pamphlets, or speaking to kids in schools. Most people seem to agree that disability awareness is a good goal to achieve.

But in disability communities, the term “awareness” raises some eyebrows. It’s not that we don’t support educating the public; far from it. It’s that the aim of “spreading awareness” has been used to back some truly reprehensible depictions of disability. For example, in 2009, the organization Autism Speaks promoted one of its awareness events with a video featuring images of children playing by themselves, alongside an ominous-sounding, disembodied voice saying “I am autism….I know where you live, and guess what, I live there too….I work faster than pediatric AIDS, cancer and diabetes combined…There is no cure for me…I am still winning, and you are scared, and you should be……” an “awareness-raising” depiction of autistic children as monsters, (with no mention of the adult self-advocates they might become). Another organization, the Foundation Fighting Blindness, posted a video last year that was titled, “What would you do if you couldn’t see your child?” The silent film featured images of children playing at the park, which became progressively blurrier to simulate loss of peripheral vision. While this film might have done a decent job of simulating peripheral vision loss, it failed to capture the ways in which blind parents interact with their kids outdoors, contributing to dangerous stereotypes that result in too many children being taken from their disabled parents.

Both of these attempts at disability awareness treated the disability as a one-dimensional enemy, completely ignoring the multidimensional lives of people affected. Fortunately, in response to mass protests, both videos were taken down by their creators (although the autism video is still in the Youtube archives). But it is clear that not all awareness is good awareness. We don’t want our disabilities regarded as enemies, nor do we just want people to know we exist. What we seek in an awareness-raising event is a real, tangible shift of public attitudes. We want people to come away from awareness events with a willingness to become our allies, an openness to consider us as equals, and a zeal to support changes that remove barriers keeping us from equal participation.
So, how do we construct awareness campaigns that effect real positive changes?

Early in my psychology studies, I learned about the “ABCs” of attitudes. Attitudes consist of affect (a fancy word for feelings), behavior, and cognition (a fancy word for thoughts or knowledge.). So, here are some ideas for the ABCs of an effective attitude change campaign. I welcome additional feedback about what has worked well in the comments.

Feelings are powerful motivators. Disability awareness messages often play on feelings, but too much of the time, they rely on scaring learners or making them feel sorry for people with particular disabilities. A good awareness campaign need not rely on fear or pity. Instead, invite people with disabilities to tell their stories and share themselves with the group. We tend to be more inclusive toward people we feel are similar to us, or when we identify emotionally with their experiences. So, let disabled guest speakers provide a window into their lives, their hobbies and interests, and their dreams. Share autobiographical accounts written by disabled people, or on social media, share blogs such as Autistic Hoya, Where’s Your Dog, or Claiming Crip.
Sometimes, good awareness means making people feel a little uncomfortable with the status quo. Encourage learners to critically examine their own knee-jerk reactions to disability and think about how they can modify their prejudices. Share accounts of discrimination and the prevalence of abuse, poverty, and other socially constructed injustices disproportionately affecting people with disabilities. Make learners a little angry about problems they have the power to solve collectively.

The best awareness campaign does no real good unless it drives people to action. Once you’ve gotten learners emotionally invested in the problem, suggest concrete actions they can take to support people with disabilities. Examples of actions include:

  • Donating funds to a self-advocacy organization of disabled people;
  • Signing up for legislative alerts, and contacting legislators to urge action on disability rights laws;
  • Attending town hall meetings to advocate for improved public transportation in their town;
  • Identifying access barriers on their college campus or at local businesses, and reporting them to authorities;
  • Starting or joining a committee to promote inclusion at their place of worship;
  • If they are in a hiring position, making job applications accessible and advertising job openings in disability forums;
  • Making their photos and videos accessible on social media;
  • Consciously working to improve their one-on-one interactions with disabled people, ensuring they treat the person with dignity, as an ordinary other, and as an expert on their own needs. Learn more here

Accurate information is an important part of awareness. Teaching about tools like the white cane can be very beneficial, especially when it opens up further dialogue. But any information presented must be accurate. I am continually shocked to see how many disability awareness activities happen without the leadership of disabled people. If you can’t find a disabled person or two to lead your event, at least find someone to fact-check your written materials or comment on your videos. Much better to get some critical feedback on a video before it’s released, than to release it and then deal with a ton of unexpected backlash from disability advocates. One place to find disabled individuals is on the Disability Wisdom Discussion Group
Accurate information might include education on the ways in which disabled people perform activities. It’s also OK to include information, from disabled people, on the challenges of disability. We know that having a disability isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, and presenting a balanced account is essential. Along with this, it’s important to respect the boundaries of our expert teachers with disabilities. Although many of us are willing to teach at a formal event, we may not be able or willing to teach when we’re busy shopping, for example, or we may wish not to talk about deeply emotional aspects of disability with people we don’t know well. A good awareness campaign may involve multiple expert teachers with different disability experiences, who are willing to participate in different ways. And, when you can, encourage ongoing contact between teachers and learners. After all, the need for good awareness doesn’t go away when a disability awareness month is over.

Greetings from the NFB National Convention!

This week I’m attending the annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind in Orlando. This is my fifteenth NFB national convention. I first attended when I was 16 years old, and only missed two conventions since. The weeklong program follows a consistent pattern from year to year, but each convention is a unique experience for me. I attended first as a youth in high school, then as a winner of one of the 30 scholarships that NFB awards. As I progressed through college, some conventions were primarily parties, while others were filled with leadership responsibilities, new lessons learned, and new lessons taught. Over these years I have participated in the conventions as a presenter, an organizer, a sales volunteer, a leader in the NFB’s student division, and a mentor to many. I have also received mentorship and companionship from countless blind individuals from all walks of life. This year, in particular, I reflect on the balance I strike between learning and teaching. As a learner, I was fortunate to receive private lessons on the use of “R” statistical software from a blind man who is a world-renowned expert on the subject. As a teacher, I had the opportunity to discuss my disability simulation research with the NFB’s National Organization of Parents of Blind Children. I am also serving on the mentoring committee for the NFB’s scholarship program. In this role, I have the privilege of spending each day of the convention paired with a different NFB scholarship recipient. While I am teaching them about the organization, I am also learning more about the potential that we have as blind people to participate fully in all facets of life. Instead of being an organization that merely serves people who are blind, NFB is an organization that harnesses our collective talents and allows us to serve one another.
If you are curious to learn more about the convention, check out the 2017 2017 presidential report or the 2017 policy resolutions