Sunday, April 27, 2008

Watch Your Back, Washy!

Learning Braille has been both a fascinating and frustrating experience. It has been a test of my memory, sensitivity and patience, made worse by the adventures of ‘Washy’. Washy is a cute wee doggy, around which all my Braille reading exercises are based. Unfortunately, he has become the focus for my frustration and one day, when I feel confident in writing it in perfect grade 2 Braille; I will write a fitting story about the little mongrel that will bring his chirpy tail-wagging to an end once and for all.

I decided to take the plunge into this weird and somewhat archaic language as I think it will give me another option in terms of communication. As anyone with a sensory impairment will tell you, communication is everything – I think the equation goes something like

Communication = information = knowledge + understanding = power + independence = self-esteem.

But, hey, I’m no psychologist. I do know that I’m getting increasingly fed up of squinting at screens trying to read ever bigger, brighter, higher-contrast letters. The words ‘dead horse’ and ‘flogging’ could be appropriately used, so I decided to invest in learning to use some nerve endings that aren’t, to use a technical term, knackered.

I’ve already fallen into the trap of referring to Braille as a ‘language’. Of course, it is not. Using Braille, I’m still reading and writing in English (or as near to it as I have ever managed). Braille is simply – no, not simply - a different way of representing that language – a different font if you like. Grade 1 Braille is pretty much a straightforward codification of our alphabet, so one letter of text is represented by one Braille character. A Braille character is a combination of one or more dots in a Braille cell of 6 dots, arranged like the 6 on a die.

Grade 2 Braille is where it gets really clever. Different Braille characters, or the same characters in different positions, are used to represent groups of letters, or even whole words. So, it’s not so different to the modern-day texting, if u knw wht I mean. But actually it’s much better, because it has very strict rules which leave no room for doubt as to what has been written, and some of the abbreviations can really shorten what needs to be written or read. Take the following sentence in normal text:

People have little knowledge and questionable understanding.

By my count, this has 53 text characters. In grade 2 Braille, it can be written in 15 characters. Not bad, eh? Admittedly, there aren’t many sentences that can be shortened this much, but it demonstrates how efficient Braille can be, which is just as well, because hard copy Braille is very bulky.

Having taken ownership this week of a new electronic Braille notepad, I felt very smug demonstrating my newly-acquired skills. Until, that was, my 12-year old daughter picked it up and showed that, just from helping me with my homework, she has almost learned grade 1 Braille without even trying. How annoying is that?

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