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.

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

Of Pictures, Voices, and Words: Making your Memories MultiSensory

On Memorial Day, my mom posted a picture of her dad, my grandpa “Pete”, on her Facebook page, mentioning he was a lieutenant colonel in WWII. Grandpa “Pete” died before I was born, and I never got to meet him. When I first discovered my mom’s post, I was struck by the fact that here on my computer screen was an image of a man who was genetically and spiritually close to me, yet because I am blind, I couldn’t interact with that image at all, or join the chorus of other friends and relatives commenting on his appearance. It was a lonely feeling.

On reflection, though, I realized this was another case of calling something a disability problem when it was really just a lack of imagination. Although I couldn’t *visually* study Grandpa Pete’s picture, I was mainly interested in the history of who he was, where he was and what he was doing at that moment. So, I wrote to my mom and asked her to tell me about his military career. I read the comments from friends of hers, who knew him, describing who he was. And I showed the post to my husband Jason, and felt the warmth of sharing another part of my family with him.

Storytelling and memory making are universal human activities. At first, the only way we could preserve memories was through oral storytelling. Then, written language allowed us to capture memories in words without needing to pass them directly from person to person. Once the camera was invented, we began to capture the visual aspects of our experiences, creating stories that were both verbal and visual in nature. Today, with the advent of social media, visuals often dominate the memories we share with others. But that doesn’t mean that blind people can’t participate. In fact, with a little forethought, we can create memories that engage multiple senses, and that are accessible to all.

Fortunately, I did know my other grandpa, “Dave”, who was alive until I was 11. A few years before his death, my dad and aunt interviewed him (on cassette tape) about his ancestry, his life, and his values. Recently the recording was digitized and shared within our family. This was of benefit to our entire family, not just to me. But it is especially powerful for me to hear his voice and connect with his stories in the absence of pictures. Video, too, can offer a real sense of being present in the moment for all, and if there is a good balance of dialogue and action, videos can engage people with visual or hearing impairments.

When making memories for yourself, or for a loved one with a disability, think of how you can preserve moments in ways that engage multiple senses. Of course, photo, audio and video all capture moments in different ways. I like to involve my sense of touch by saving small items that remind me of a particular experience, like a souvenir from a vacation, or a ribbon or button I received from participating in an event. Or the clamshell ring holder that Jason gave me on our wedding day, that he apparently bought on his bachelor trip to Europe when we first started dating (and kept it a surprise for four years). Smells and tastes conjure memories, too; in fact, some studies suggest that smells can trigger more vivid memories than any other sense Some of the first meals I learned to cook were old family favorites that rewarded me with their familiar smells and tastes.

I want to conclude this post with some practical guidance for posting accessible photos and videos on social media. In a phrase: text captions. The beauty of today’s technology is that it can show words in either visual form (print), auditory form (text-to-speech), or tactile form (braille, if the reader uses a braille device). Presenting a brief verbal description alongside a photo or video allows people to learn about the content using the sense that works best for them. Even for people without sensory disabilities, captions can help set the scene and add additional context. Captions needn’t be long; I recommend a sentence or two describing the setting, important people pictured and their relationships (e.g., “picture of my family, my graduating class, etc.), and a brief explanation of any actions (e.g., my baby boy crawling), or props that are important to the story (e.g., if someone is wearing a silly costume or intentionally striking a weird pose). When you caption an entire album, your words become a story of its own.

Facebook has a built-in caption box as part of the uploader for individual photos and videos, and if you upload an album, you can return to each photo and caption it individually. On a website, captions can be included as part of the code next to the image. There is also a feature known as “alt text” which can be used in HTML to add image descriptions which are only “visible” to people using screen readers. This may be useful if you don’t want to clutter a page with printed text, but still want to make your images accessible. But, keep in mind that some people with low vision may not use screen readers, but might still appreciate a caption.

In closing, here are a few pictures representing my favorite memories, and one short audio clip, with captions. Enjoy!

Picture from my weekend on a farm during my study-abroad trip to Australia, 2007.
Silverman family photo taken sometime in the 1990’s, with our dog, Teddy.
This is the main piece of artwork in our apartment. My mother-in-law gifted us with a wooden plaque that has our wedding vows wood-burned on it, flanked by a tree of life (Jewish symbol) and Celtic knotwork (a symbol of Jason’s Welsh heritage).
Jason and me on our wedding day.
Celebratory dinner after our Ph.D. graduation with Jason, his parents, and close friends from Arizona and Colorado.

Audio from beach hike in Seattle

On people with Disabilities, Also Known As Disabled People

Since I’m a disability training consultant, I spend some time reading etiquette tips for interacting with people who have disabilities. One of the strongest, most consistent mandates I see is regarding “person-first language”. All the books and tip sheets urge us to refer to people with disabilities as “people first” by using phrases like “person with autism” or “person with a disability” rather than “autistic people” or “disabled people.” This mandate has moved into the academic realm as well, with journal editors and grantmakers requiring person-first references to disability in academic writing. I’ve even known people who were corrected when they referred to *themselves* as disabled people.

Because disability is such a diverse, nuanced experience, I’ve always found the rigidity around disability language to be a little frustrating. The person-first mandate also contradicts the way I’ve always talked about my own disability. Without pause, I’ve always referred to myself and others like me as “blind people” and this phrase never struck me as offensive. So, I was interested to read this recent American Psychologist articleabout how disability language has changed over time.

Person-first disability language became popularized in the 1980’s and 1990’s, around the time of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)’s passage. It came in reaction to earlier, medicalized disability language that defined people exclusively by their impairments. Terms like “the Down’s kid” or “those schizophrenics on the fourth floor” dehumanized people by labeling them as nothing more than their impairments and discounting differences between people with the same impairment. In this way, person-first language emphasizes each person’s humanity and individuality.

However, in recent years some members of the disability community have challenged the exclusive use of person-first language. Their argument has two main thrusts. First, we don’t use person-first language to describe any other group of people in English. We don’t say, “the person with femaleness” or “people who are Asian”. We certainly don’t say “people who are beautiful”; instead we are happy to call them “beautiful people.” In this way, person-first disability language sounds unusual and, paradoxically, brings more mental attention to the disability. The phrasing itself can also be awkward, especially in writing.

The second issue is that many people think of their disabilities as positive parts of who they are. Thus, they would not want to be separated from their disability identity in language. Instead, they prefer “identity-first” constructions that highlight their membership in a particular disability group, in the same way we use “identity-first” phrasing to describe someone’s race, gender, or beauty. This thinking is especially strong among some disability groups, such as blind people, Deaf people, and autistic people.

So then, what’s the bottom line? What language should we be using?

The short answer is “both.” Using both types of language respects both viewpoints on the issue. Using both constructions also breaks down the rigidity that often accompanies this discussion. I will use both types of language on this blog and in my training materials to offer respect to both preferences.

In addition, it is worth noting that people with disabilities, also known as disabled people, must be the ones leading these language discussions. We should respect their preferences on how they speak about themselves and how they wish to be described verbally and in writing. All too often, people without disabilities, aka nondisabled people, have been the ones promoting a rigid language preference.

Last year, I gave an invited talk at an occupational therapy conference about some research I had done. A colleague urged me to use person-first language throughout my talk. Out of curiosity, I asked some friends on Facebook what type of language they preferred to use, and mentioned that I had been mandated to use person-first language with the occupational therapists. A friend of mine, who happens to be a person without disabilities who teaches kids who are blind or visually impaired (also known as, a nondisabled teacher of blind students), had an interesting idea. She advised me to call my audience “therapists of occupation.” She further advised that since I was not a member of that group, I obviously had the authority to decide what these individuals should be called. Her facetious response illustrates the absurdity of telling others what to call themselves.

If you are in doubt about what to call a particular individual, person-first language is a safe initial bet. But, even better is to ask the individual. If you are writing or speaking about a particular disability group, read their literature, and find out what language they use. Most of all, recognize that language is an ever-changing reflection of the way groups view themselves, and are viewed by others.

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