Minding Your P’s and Q’s: Learning Braille as an Older Adult

Ah, that subtle difference between P and Q!braille alphabet One dot, two millimeters of space. As if there is anything unsubtle at all about braille when you are learning it later in life. I was 51 years old when I began to learn braille, and it was well worth the effort. I would like to offer some tips I used to help my body pick up braille as I went along in my learning:

  1. Most importantly: I ignored the frequent warnings (however well-intentioned they may have been) that I would never be a proficient braille reader when learning at my age. I set out towards sure victory.
  2. I warmed my hands before reading. This sensitizes the finger tips.
  3. I moisturized my fingertips with shea butter. This helped soften calluses I’d gotten from guitar-playing. I can now, however, read braille with calluses. The brain-finger connection does strengthen and sensitize over time.
  4. I did my “own thing”: I wandered from the prescribed “read with the right hand, track with the left” process. I’m right-handed, but my left hand fingers were more sensitive to braille for the first year. So I fashioned my own process of reading and tracking. I did begin to “encourage” my right hand to get the braille, too, just to have more hands seeing the dots. I’m still left hand dominant for reading, but my right hand now sometimes is “itching” to read, I think, because I encouraged it, but did not stress over it.
  5. I mixed things up: I alternated skimming, steady reading, and picking up my hands and landing, to practice spot reading. I did this to activate my ability to be spontaneous and relaxed.
  6. I sniffed an essential oil before and during my practice sessions. I used anything invigorating (like peppermint, eucalyptus) to enliven my neurological involvement.
  7. I talked it out, giving myself age-appropriate (kindergarten-age, really, because that’s what I felt like) encouragement as I went along. I basically had a conversation with the braille and with myself as I went along: “Oh, look at that…I know what that is….!” Later, that process opened into reading out loud.

The hands-down (no pun intended) most important factor in learning braille later in life is having total belief in yourself. If you want it powerfully enough (as did I), you can do this. It is worth it. Eventually, minding your p’s and q’s is easy.

Feeling the Power of Braille Literacy

In the last few months with the support of Trustee, Chris Babcock, NBP has hosted two luncheons in areas in which we have a large concentration of braille readers and supporters. Both in Pittsburgh and Boston, we have been elated with the responses to our gatherings as well as the enthusiasm for our work and braille literacy.

As the person who has been organizing these luncheons, I am inspired by the first-hand accounts about the impact of our work. NOAH 006A 57 year old woman shared that she bought our Noah’s Ark book with tactile graphics, “Even though that book was for kids, it was great for me because I finally was able to fully understand the story. The tactiles gave me additional understanding of what it was like to have all of those animals on the ark.”

A young man spoke about how he was reluctant to learn braille when he was a kid. However, as he rode the bus every morning and afternoon to school, he noticed that everyone around him was reading. He began to feel left out and his desire to read like everyone else motivated him to learn braille. Soon enough he was reading his first braille book, The Mediterranean Caper, on the bus alongside his fellow commuters.

Our goal with these luncheons is to update our braille readers and supporters on our new publications, projects, and our work. More importantly, this is our opportunity to get their feedback on the future of braille and what role NBP can play in strengthening braille literacy. To hear from our attendees that they want to be “a foot soldier for braille and NBP,” and “You keep doing your great work, now, it is our turn to figure out how we can help,” is inspiring and empowering.

We are looking to host gatherings like this in a few cities across the country: Seattle in April, Washington D.C. in May, and possibly Chicago, San Francisco, St. Louis, New York and Philadelphia later on in the year. Who knows, maybe NBP will be coming to a city near you. But don’t wait for a luncheon invitation to share your story about braille and what you need from NBP. We welcome your thoughts!

If you would like to share your thoughts, learn more about NBP, or talk with me about organizing a luncheon in your city, please contact me at jquintanilla@nbp.org.


Information Is Power

It is said that information is power, and for those of us who are blind and read braille, the impact of that statement can be huge. To wit:

About 30 years ago, the personal computer was making its way onto the stage as an empowerment tool for those of us who are blind. It had the potential to make us a lot more independent than we had been without them. Old IBM PCWith considerable foresight, NBP published A Beginner’s Guide to Personal Computers for the Blind in 1984. I read the book with great interest. I wanted one of these computers, and I wanted it yesterday. Only problem was, I didn’t have the money to buy one. At that time, PCs cost thousands of dollars, and a bad investment could mean that you’d be stuck with a very expensive paperweight, along with severe buyer’s remorse.

Enter my brother Stephen, the businessman of the family, who could look at things objectively and technically, and who would eventually help me buy my first computer. National Braille Press was featuring a demonstration of six personal computers and screen-reader software as part of its book launch. Prior to the “competition,” I read the book, explained everything to Stephen, and he agreed to fly up to Boston to attend the demo. The room was so packed with other blind observers, my brother and I barely found room to sit on a piano bench.

After the demo, we made our decision, and a few months later, I got my first computer: an IBM PC/XT with a then whopping 10mb drive. Since then, I’ve never looked back! I even used my computer to write a review for a follow-up book NBP published on computer peripherals. Since reading that first book, I’ve bought and used lots of computers, smartphones, and other devices. In fact, to this day, I use computers to make my living.

None of that would have happened if NBP had not been on the cutting edge of technology, providing us with TIMELY information that would and did, and still does, empower us. The knowledge gained from that first book enabled me to continue to be gainfully employed and to better adapt to a changing work environment. Long story short: Knowledge is power, and to that end, thanks, NBP!

What Do Braille Readers Want?

I arrived at NBP the same year EPCOT Center opened at Disney, gas cost $1.59 a gallon, and the world’s first compact disc player was released in Japan. My job was to ask blind people what they wanted in braille and to “make it happen.” At that time, braille books were primarily on loan from NLS or from a network of volunteer home transcribers.

Asking braille readers what they wanted elicited a common refrain: “One thing we don’t need is more religious material—do people think all we read is the Bible? We want current stuff: major newspapers, bestselling novels, cookbooks for every palate… and we don’t want to wait two years to get it.”Getting Started with the iPhone and iOS for Blind Users book cover

The two-year wait ended around the time Bookshare was founded in 1989, WebBraille became a reality a decade later, and refreshable braille devices joined the Internet to offer real-time access to everything imaginable.

So what do requests from braille readers sound like today?

“What do you have on iPads for blind students?”

“What do you have on using the iPhone if you’re blind?”

“What do you have for my nine-year-old niece who’s blind and wants to cook?”

“Do you sell braille Valentines?”

“Do you have a book on exercise programs for blind people?”

“My blind son needs a science fair project.”

“Do you, by chance, have a Catholic Bible?”

Wanting access toStir It Up! Recipes and Techniques for Young Blind Cooks book cover “bestsellers” has evolved into needing “information specific to the lives of people who are blind”—information that cannot be found from mainstream sources.

For the record, these requests are being made the same year Texas opened BiblioTech, the nation’s first – and only – bookless public library, a braille-encoded crop circle appeared in California, and the brains of two rats were successfully connected to share information.

Future braille predictions? I agree with management guru Peter Drucker: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

Blind iPhone Empowerment

I bought my first iPhone 4S only after downloading the first of NBP’s great books on the subject in 2011. Just three weeks ago, I was visiting my youngest son, Getting Started with the iPhone and iOS for Blind Users book coverDavid, in New York City and we decided to trek to the big Apple store in Grand Central Station so I could finally consider an upgrade to the iPhone 5S. I really wasn’t sure I wanted to upgrade just yet, but having a really experienced user with me to perhaps interpret anything that the salesperson was doing would be a help.

Upon entering the store, David says “There’s a blind guy with a guide dog working the sales counter.” NYC Apple storeSo naturally, we walked up to him and I began talking to him about the pros and cons of upgrading my phone. After a minute, he stops me and asks “What’s your first name?” When I tell him, he grabs my hand, “It’s Kyle Street from last summer’s ACB convention.”

My partner Kae and I had gone out with them for a great dinner last summer in Columbus; I had never met Kyle or his wife Chevonne before. He had been working at the Apple store in Raleigh – Durham at the time and transferred up to the New York City store the first of the year.

Finding Kyle at work ready to knowledgeably upgrade my phone made the decision really easy. For the next 45 minutes, we talked about the most useful blind friendly apps, what we liked and didn’t, and he gave me some pointers on using the 5S from our shared unique perspective. Kyle’s boss came over to listen and watch and get educated. Apparently, she had never seen him interact with a blind customer. We talked about NBP’s books and the braille screen protector guide on my phone, resources with which she was not familiar.

Nothing really unusual, right? Just a customer and a knowledgeable salesperson engaging in a transaction. Or, a great example of blind empowerment.