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Three Decades of Braille

August 27, 2014


Three Decades of Braille


by Alice Jane-Marie Massa



This past Saturday, August 23, marked the 30th anniversary of my receiving my certificate as a braille transcriber from the Library of Congress.  This certificate is the only one that  I keep framed on one of the walls of my townhouse.


From 1984, I must go back almost another three decades to explain this story.  Before I began first grade, a doctor told my parents that they should take me to an ophthalmologist.  They did.  By the time I was in the second grade, I realized that my eyes were not like the other 88 students in my rural grade school.  Eventually, I knew that I had macular degeneration, with a juvenile onset.  Since the myriad of eye specialists  firmly agreed that I would retain enough vision to read regular print, I never learned braille as a child nor as a teen–not even when I became legally blind at age sixteen.  I wish I had learned braille at a young age because all the doctors were wrong.


By the time I turned thirty, I knew that I needed something more than magnification to read.  In 1980, I enrolled in the Talking Book Program of the National Library Service (NLS), Division for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.  A world of books opened for me; and I still thoroughly enjoy the now digitally-recorded books.


Despite my immense satisfaction with these Talking Books, I decided that I needed and wanted to learn braille.  For many years, I had on one of my book shelves, a Scholastic Book entitled The Story of My Life, by Helen Keller.  In the back of this paperback book was a pictorial representation of the braille alphabet.  Thus, with a hole punch and pieces of index cards, I made flashcards so that I could learn the braille alphabet.


After fashioning these meager instructional materials in 1983, someone loaned me a Perkins Braille Writer.  Well, my dad and I tried every way possible to insert paper into the heavy-duty machine.  We had no directions, and no one to turn to for advice.  After much trial and error, we finally properly inserted the paper into the braille writer.  Later in that same year of 1983, I purchased my first and only electric braille writer from Howe Press, located in  Massachusetts.  (I still use this especially well-designed machine of only nine keys.)  Learning to use this machine to produce braille rapidly came easily to me; however, learning to read braille with fluidity was a much greater challenge for me when I was in my early 30s.  During these early months of my delving into braille, I also learned to use a slate and stylus for writing braille.


Along with my effort to teach myself braille, I read a great deal about the history of braille and its inventor–the brilliant Louis Braille (January 4, 1809-January 6, 1852) of Paris, France.  Not only did he invent this remarkable system of raised dots  for tactile reading and writing in 1824, but he also invented music braille.  (To read more about the remarkable life of Louis Braille, I highly recommend the book Louis Braille:  A Touch of Genius, by C. Michael Mellor, copyright 2006.)


Soon after learning the basics of braille, I wanted to learn all the short forms and contractions of literary braille (grade-two braille), as well as all the rules for correctly writing braille.  With the help of an NLS publication titled, I believe, Volunteers Who Produce Braille, I found that a certified braille transcriber lived about 25 miles from my home.  I telephoned her to ask her if she would check each of my eighteen lessons of the Braille Transcribing Course from the Library of Congress.  When I told her that I was visually impaired, she did not want to assist me with the course.  (Typically, individuals who take this course are sighted and plan to do braille transcription work.)  I had all the materials to teach myself; I only needed her to proofread my work and inform me of any errors in transcription.  She did not want to work with me.  I persisted.  I have no idea what gave me the strength and stubbornness to continue with my persuasion, but I did.  When she finally realized how determined I was, she agreed.  I brailled and re-brailled the 11-by-11.5-inch pages until I thought and hoped that they were perfect lessons.  Delivering each of the 18 lessons to her, I was never really comfortable because I could detect her hesitation, her reluctance.  Nevertheless, I truly loved learning braille–all the rules for braille transcription; so I continued to produce each lesson meticulously.  After the local braille transcriber checked and approved each of my eighteen lessons, I had to braille a final lesson of 35 pages which had to be graded by someone at the Library of Congress.  I selected a portion of a large-print book about President Harry Truman and First Lady Bess Truman for my braille transcription.  By the time I had hopefully perfectly brailled all those dots, cells, lines, and pages of braille–I was hesitant about mailing all my work to the Library of Congress.  Thus, I was so grateful when my parents suggested that we three could plan a vacation to Washington, D.C., and hand-deliver the manuscript to the Library of Congress.


With my precious manuscript packed with the utmost of care, we journeyed to our nation’s capital for the second time.  (Two decades had passed since our first vacation in Washington.)  My mother, my dad, and I enjoyed visiting the government buildings, monuments, and museums–some of which we had toured on our first trip to D.C.  Additionally, we took some tours which we had not done previously.  For example, we toured Mount Vernon.  Another new highlight of our stay was a bus tour of the monuments at night.  (I especially liked the night tour because my fading vision could see more of the lighted monuments at night than during the glare of daylight.)  On this summer vacation in one of my favorite cities to visit, a most unforgettable moment was when I handed my 35 pages of braille transcription to an employee at the Library of Congress.  I was just ever so slightly disappointed that where I hand-delivered the manuscript was in an annex building of the Library of Congress.  Finally, all my braille work was in the hands of where it needed to be; and I was pleased with the accomplishment that had taken me this far.


When , several weeks later, I received the good news that I passed with only three cells containing an error, I was delighted and relieved.  I felt that I had put more work into the braille transcription course than I had put into my first master’s degree.  The braille transcriber’s certificate–dated August 23, 1984–has always meant so very much to me.


After teaching braille as a volunteer for a few years, I earned a second master’s degree in blind rehabilitation from Western Michigan University.  From 1991 through 1997, I taught braille as one of my classes as a blind rehabilitation instructor.  During the final two decades of my teaching career, I learned, used, and taught computerized braille equipment.  While I continue to use the high-tech braille machines, I also still use the slate and stylus (comparable to a sighted person’s using a pen or pencil at times), as well as my Perkins Braille Writer.


Learning braille in an unconventional manner served me well throughout the twenty years that I taught at Milwaukee Area Technical College and continues to be a vital part of my life today.  I would not want to imagine what my life would be like without braille.


I do not begrudge those doctors who thought I would never need braille.  I am just grateful to all who made possible my being able to learn braille and who supported me in my quest.  If, near Heaven, there is a Rainbow Bridge to meet our pet dogs and guide dogs again, I hope that there is also a Braille Bridge where all of us who use braille can meet Louis Braille to thank him for the wonderful gift of his tactile system of reading and writing.


NOTE:  Part Two of this story will most likely appear as next week’s blog post.


Happy Labor Day Weekend!

To my Indiana relatives and friends–Enjoy the Little Italy Festival!

Alice and Zoe


August 27, 2014, Wednesday



From → Uncategorized

  1. Carole permalink

    How enlightening and very interesting, Alice! I definitely learned some new facts in this week’s blog. My students were always amazed when John Stroot came to visit our classroom and provided them with a Braille card and a bookmark with their name. Your perseverance and expertise are admired, as is Eric’s ability to communicate through his Braille skills.

    • Carole–Thanks for taking the time to comment. Yes, John Stroot and all others who share braille and more in elementary classrooms provide an invaluable learning experience for young students who will grow up to be more understanding adults in our workplaces and neighborhoods. Enjoy the Labor Day weekend! A & Z Z

  2. I’ve found that a Braille display has been helpful in my writing. Happy Brailling!

    • Abbie–How nice to have a comment from a longtime braille user! Also, I know that you are such a superb oral reader of braille. Enjoy the Labor Day weekend–Alice

  3. Fran Rayce permalink

    Your hardwork and dedication surely shine through in this piece, and like Carole, I learned some new things about you and your work. It also highlights the devotion that your parents had to providing you with every opportunity that they could find. What a blessing. Thanks for sharing.

    And for the first time in many years we are looking forward to being in Clinton for a portion of the Little Italy Festival. I’ll give the salami wheel a spin for you and have an extra bite of Italian Cream Cake.

    • Fran–How did you know that I had been thinking of Italian Cream Cake yesterday? The grape ice is another favorite festival treat of mine. I do hope that the skies over the Wabash River and Clinton will be fair for all the festival-goers and the parade. Thanks for your nice comments. Enjoy the Little Italy Festival! Take care–Alice

  4. What a memorable experience Ric and I had in 2001 when we walked through the streets of Paris, France, to locate the National Institute for Blind Youth! The staff at the institute spoke no English, so I put my high school and college French classes to work to communicate with these gracious people. I was able to relate your situation and your request for materials about Louis Braille. Of course, they were more than happy to provide pamphlets and books (all in French) for me to deliver to you. Visiting the National Institute was truly a highlight of my trip to Paris!
    Love, Mary

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