Braille Is Sexy

The first braille I ever laid eyes on was a braille Playboy belonging to my blind friend, Edgardo, who lived on the third floor of my apartment building. It had the word Playboy emblazoned in black ink across the front cover
Playboy magazine in braille with the iconic rabbit-in-a-bowtie logo and National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped printed in the bottom left-hand corner. But when I opened the magazine up, it was completely blank—a vast expanse of white goose bumps, a blizzard of snowy dots.

I remember asking Edgardo, half jokingly, “Where are all the pictures?” and turning the magazine over and over in my hands, wondering if it was upside down or right side up. So many dots, each one casting a tiny shadow, like the view from an airplane flying over a country of igloos. “It doesn’t have any pictures,” said Edgardo, taking the magazine from my hands and reading it silently to himself. “But it has descriptions. And it has captions. And I have my imagination.”

Then he began to read aloud: “Becky Dupree, Miss March, leans seductively against a door jamb of the barn, wearing a cowboy hat and a button-down cerulean shirt open to her navel…” “Get out of here! It doesn’t say that,” I said. “Take a look at this,” he said, handing me back the magazine,Hands on braille his index finger-pointing to a row of dots halfway down the page, as indecipherable to me as a “You Are Here” sign in Mandarin. I was intrigued. So this was braille. But how on earth did it work? How were the letters represented? The punctuation? The paragraphs? Where was the alphabet in all this whiteout of dots?

It was right then and there that I resolved to learn it; to teach myself braille; to see for myself if Becky Dupree was indeed wearing a cerulean shirt unbuttoned to her navel. I was going to demystify this inscrutable code that most people, myself included, assumed was something that only the blind could apprehend. What did I have to lose?

Braille was the most interesting, the most provocative thing to cross my path since I’d broken up with my college girlfriend and run away to Boston where I was working a dead-end job in a delicatessen. With nothing to claim my interest or attentions, why not give myself over to braille?

“May I keep this?” I asked Edgardo, holding the braille Playboy to my chest in a protective, possessive attitude, as though it were Becky Dupree herself. Luckily, Edgardo was willing to part with the magazine, seeing as it was the March issue and we were now in the middle of July. He was months behind in his reading, the braille Playboys, Reader’s Digests, National Geographics and Washington Post Book Worlds in piles all around his apartment, leaning towers of braille growing precariously toward the ceiling like stalagmites in a dark cave.

The day after commandeering Edgardo’s Playboy, I signed up for a correspondence course in braille transcription through the Hadley School for the Blind in Winnetka, Illinois, and I spent the next twelve months learning the braille code. I kept Edgardo’s Playboy under my bed for that whole year, taking it out and dusting it off now and then to hunt for Becky Dupree, who, when I was finally fluent enough to find her, wasn’t even in there in the end. Once I’d read the whole issue, front to back, I finally realized, a little too late, that Edgardo had invented her. He’d made her up just to get my goat, which in the end is what goaded me on to learn braille.

An App That Would Make Louis Braille Proud

Ever since National Braille Press announced that the 2014 Louis Braille Touch of Genius Prize for Innovation would be for an accessible app to promote braille or tactile literacy, I have been trying to imagine what kind of thing app developers might come up with that would qualify as “genius.” As a braille reader and an iPhone user, I have a number of apps on my phone that, in one way or another, involve braille.

I know firsthand how difficult BARD Mobile logoit can be to develop a braille-related app. In 2012, my employer, The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, began developing both an iOS and an Android app for playing audio and braille books on iDevices. We had a collection of more than 12,000 professionally translated and formatted braille books as well as thousands of issues of braille magazines and more were being added all the time. We wanted to provide a reading experience that was as similar as possible to reading a paper braille volume.

Our iOS app, of course, got its accessibility from Apple’s VoiceOver. One of our first challenges for this version was realizing that the braille on an iDevice was simply a braille version of whatever the speech had spoken. There was no regard for formatting. We told our developer that we wanted users to be able to see things like multiple blank spaces and blank lines on their braille display. This took considerable finesse to accomplish. The challenges were numerous but with a considerable amount of effort; our developer was able to overcome almost everything and produced a braille-reading app that we are all enormously proud of.

The challenges for the Android app were even greater. We have not yet been able to produce an acceptable braille reading experience. Our work on the Android version of the app continues.

I have served on committees responsible for administering the Touch of Genius Prize since its inception. Each year, as we review the latest crop of entries, I hold my breath waiting to see the results of someone’s genius applied to braille. But, up until now, these folks have had the entire range of the physical world to draw upon. Does an app developer have such options? I suppose smartphones can be connected to things.

In the iOS world, we already have a good app for braille reading and we have several good apps for inputting braille. But there must be more. If an app developer is going to display text, they will need to be mindful of the relevant aspects of the braille code and think hard about how the braille will be used. Will the user need a braille display? What could be done that didn’t require a braille display? There are vibrations but they are sequential; there’s speech but that sequential as well. Hmmm, what could it be?

Perhaps an app could AirPrint to an embosser—send it a map or the results of my efforts at drawing. Maybe someone will make a modern-day version of the Optacon—a 1970s device that allowed a blind person to read print with a vibrating, tactile display—and, in my opinion, the greatest device that has ever been developed for blind people.

Angry Birds logoSo, the challenge is definitely on. But, the more I think about it, the more I realize that what I really want is a braille version of Angry Birds!