Category Archives: Braille stuff

Dear Louis

Dear Louis, happy birthday buddy. At your age (200), you probably take birthdays in stride. I am writing to pass along greetings and best wishes from a few kids here in Halifax. I gotta tell you, I was a little disappointed in the overall lack of interest at the Braille 200 Day booth at the mall today. I was feeling a tad depressed about the whole thing for a while there, having schlepped so much stuff over to the community booth, including my Perkins Brailler, a Braille alphabet chart the size of Manitoba, some items for the raffle, a ton of pamphlets and information sheets telling people all about you and the system you developed for blind people. I had made (lovingly and painstakingly), commemorative bookmarks. Preparation for your celebration have taken their toll on my wallet (Braille card stock, printer ink etc) and my time. I had day-glow yellow posters  made up to  advertise my offer to Braille anyone’s name for FREE!!! I had a neat display of Braille children’s books, metal tags (you know the kind I sew into  my clothes to identify their colour- PK=pink, GN=Green, RD= red etc), phone and bank statements, playing cards etc. I got so bored sitting alone at my booth, that I started to write nonsense on my Braille machine, just to pass the time…”If one more person comes to ask me for directions to Athlete’s World or the washroom, I will ask Opal to attack…”  I couldn’t believe that thousands of people could be so hell-bent on shopping and totally uninterested in you and your special day. Finally, some kids came to ask me for their name in Braille. I cheered up instantly. I sent them off with sticky labels and cue cards with the appropriate names on each. I told them about your birthday and they asked me to wish you all the best. Only ten people picked up my bookmarks and I have plenty left…looks like I may need to do another mall shift in the next week or so (groan). Maybe they’ll have shut down the Christmas music by then…Hey! Maybe I’ll bring some to church tomorrow and see if any UU’s want to feel you up! Take care, my friend. I hope you make it to 300 and beyond.

Louis Turns 200

January 4th 2009 will mark the 200th anniversary of Louis Braille’s birth. Louis is the guy who poked himself in the eye with an awl at age three, then lost sight in the other eye, just to make things symmetrical (actually it was caused by sympathetic ophalmia). He went to the Royal Institution for the Blind Youth in Paris which turned out to be a major hell-hole kinda place with the usual bad food, tyranny and general beatings and abuse that gives residential schools a bad name. The kid had smarts, no doubt about it. He  fiddled with the cello and played organ all over gay Paris. In school, he got bummed out about the raised letters they taught him to use for reading, so he improvised a bit with Barbier’s (French soldier dude) 12 dot and dash code used for passing tippy-top military secrets in the field.  Louis came up with a  6- raised dot  cell system to represent letters of the alphabet. Voila! Braille was born and would later become  the revolutionary method of communication for the blind. Louis  later dreamed up Braille music notation (being a music buff and all) and years later, a guy named,  Nemeth would create a code for mathematics . The really sad thing about this great achievement, is that Louis died of Tuberculosis at age 43 BEFORE BRAILLE CAUGHT ON!

Look for Braille 200 events in your community. Regardless of whether you have vision or you are blind, if you use Braille or not, support Braille 200 Day activities! Buy that lame demo bookmark! Pretend you understand the explanations given by the volunteer at the mall display of Uncontracted (grade 1) and Contracted (grade 2) Braille and how they differ. Ooo and ahh when you are asked to ‘read’ sample Braille sentences and say, “This is so hard to do” in genuine amazement. Make like it matters! ‘Cause it does. It is critical to promote and maintain the teaching of Braille to blind children and adults all over the world. Why? It’s a neat method of communication.  Example; You can write obscene Braille messages all over your boss’s memo’s and he’ll never know what you said…PLUS you can read in bed without waking your sweetie (no audio, and no lights)…AND  maybe someday, it’ll come in handy when there’s  a global power shortage and all the talking book machines and computers will grind to a halt…like now!

Voting Day Blues

I have been very hyped about this election. Why?  I have chomped at the bit in anticipation of dramatically and meaningfully casting my inaccessible ballot at the polling station. Let me remind you about the core elements of a democratic vote; secret, independent and verifiable. I have gone on and on, to EVERYONE who will listen and to some who won’t, about the importance of these elements, the sanctity of the electoral process, and how I am denied this right by virtue of inaction on the part of Elections Canada. I am blind, as are hundreds of thousands of other voters. We do not have electronic voting in Canada. We do not have telephone voting. We do not have voting machines at the polls. We do not have Braille ballots. I thought that today I would be pumped and ready to let loose my schpeel at the Presbyterian church where I would be voting. I ran through my dialogue, my diatribe, my kvetching complaint, like a Shakespearean actor preparing for Stratford.

Here’s what really happened. I made it to the church, and found myself outside with a woman in a wheelchair attempting to open a monstrously large door (no automatic opener). I opened it for her, but it was not wide enough. A worker from the poll came and helped to open another door. I commented wryly about Elections Canada and their accessible voting sites. She commiserated. By this point, I had, for some reason, already lost my oomph.  Maybe it’s the time of year, or ‘my time of the month’.  Some one came over as Opal and I walked into the large church basement. The usual useless pointing and “over there” was followed by an arm-grab which I yanked away.  Someone else gave sensible directions to the table I needed.  My ID was requested and checked.  I did NOT give a long-winded lecture on the difficulty blind people have in meeting ID requirements, given that we don’t have driver’s license and many of us have no passport. Some of us choose not to have or use a charitable ID (CNIB) for reasons which are too numerous and complicated for this blog.  I provided my stunning photo ID cards which have a photo of Opal and me posing together (CGDB and the Attorney General of Ontario), but my Guide dog ID cards do not have my address on them, so I added a phone bill. I had considered bringing a Braille bill, but I did not want to be turned away. At this point, the DRO asked if I wanted a Braille template. My interest peaked, as I thought I had discussed this ad nauseum with Silvestre from elections Canada and had confirmed there would be no Braille on the ballot, and to expect the usual flaky template. Now I had no idea what they were offering me.  I asked (just to confuse them) if it was contracted or uncontracted Braille. The had no clue, so I let them off the hook and told them that I knew both, so it did’nt matter.  The DRO put the ballot into the ‘Braille template’ and then came the offer to “come into the voting area with you”. I said I would pass, given that I had this allegedly accessible Braille template in my hand.  Opal and I parked ourselves behind the privacy screen at a little table. I started to read the template. Numbers. Just numbers! I called out, “um, there’s no names here, just numbers”.  The old lady who had grabbed me when I came in, offered to read the names to me. I said that would not do. The DRO guy came over and offered to read them “as they appear in sequence. then you pick the braille number”, he said with full expectation that somehow this would be acceptable to me. I had PLANNED to make a big ‘to-do’, maybe proclaim myself the Rosa Parks of the voting blind, given that I am repeatedly told that blind people ‘have found this acceptable for years’. Instead, I told him “no thanks”, and ” if I can’t read it for myself”…( in a country where government material must be provided in alternate formats by law),  “I’ll have to  spoil my ballot”. He apologised (as everyone always does). I scrawled multiple X’s in allthe holes in my template and ballot and handed it to the old lady. She wisely did not attempt to go into the  insufferably patronizing routine of allowing me to put it in the box, but quickly disposed of it, stuffing it into the ballot box herself.   I walked out, declining someone’s eager offer for me to use the elevator, saying, “my legs are fine, we’ll use the stairs”. I left deflated.   I did not call the media, or my party delegate, or the PM (who doesn’t give a flying f…k anyway), or the queen, or Silvestre at Elections Canada (who I’m guessing was pretty busy today). Instead, I went for my routine blood work and called it a day. I wish I was one of those clever musicians, ’cause I’d be writing a tune tonight…’Voting Day Blues’.

STOP PRESS!!! Megan Leslie, newbie NDP canditate and personal acquaiantance declared winner of Halifax riding! Go get em in Ottawa, kid…and remember your roots…and your blind friends…

Opal goes to Sunday school

Actually,  Universalist Unitarians call it RE or Religious Education.  There are no Bible studies and I don’t think there is anything particular religious about it.  UU kids learn about many things with the hope that it prepares them to become good human beings and citizens who care about others.  Today, Opal and I visited with the kids ‘upstairs’.  Our church is housed in a historic building. Originally, it had been two large, private homes with several staircases and many rooms of all sizes.  We had pre-arranged our visit with the RE teacher.  The number of kids in the RE class varies from week to week. Today, there were ten or so. They ranged in age between 2 and 10. Opal knew something was going to be different the minute we entered church.  She wanted to take me to ‘my seat’, but I coaxed her to the front row. We sat on the floor with the young ones during the ‘Story For All Ages’.  Then, when the congregation began to sing, “Go Now In Peace”, to usher the kids out of the room where the service is held,  I asked her to “follow”.  Up the multiple stairways that twist and turn we went  with a backpack full of ‘stuff’.  We often go to schools to talk to kids about Guide dog etiquette and also about vision loss and ‘blind stuff’.  The difference today, was the age spread of our audience.  It’s difficult to keep things simple enough for everyone to understand.  Still, I think it was a good learning experience for them.  The first question was, “what happens if Opal becomes blind”?    This, oddly enough, is not the first time I have been asked this or something similar. I was once asked, if Opal’s mom had been blind.   Other questions have included, “Does she take a bath with you?”, “Does she chase cats?”, and “Will she always be your dog?”.  Jordan (the one who asked about Opal going blind) was tenacious.  Her follow up question was, “Would she still be able to work if she was blind?”  Once we established how unlikely that would be to occur, we talked about Opal’s job and why she must be allowed to concentrate.  I must confess, I had an ulterior motive in planning to  visit the kids… I have noticed that several of them come up and pat and talk to Opal as we are walking through the crowded church entry area and fellowship room.  My solution?  Be proactive and chat them up and sort them out as a group.  I offered ourselves as guest speakers, and the RE teacher was delighted to plan for our visit. ( I do most of the talking. Opal is the silent type).  The culprits who pat her, may or may not have been present today,  but kids tend to share their information with each other.   I hope so.  It’s always surprising for kids (and adults) to learn that the approximate cost of putting a Guide dog into the hands of a blind person, is in excess of $35,000.00.  We also brought gadgets which usually interest kids.  The talking calculator drew some “Neat!”s. The Braille kids books were also interesting for some.  I pointed out that blind people do not all know Braille but I find it very useful.  Out came the Braille tags which are used to put on clothing, the labeler to create stick on labels, and examples of a Braille phone bill and bank statement.  They peered through the vision simulator cards I had brought. These are plastic cards with circles to peer through, with each circle providing a simulation of what things might l0ok like with diabetic retinopathy, macular degeneration, cataracts or glaucoma.  Opal, meanwhile had a power nap.  She woke up periodicaly to comfort the little guy (2 years old) who was in the care of a family friend today (not too happy to away from mom).  When the service downstairs could be heard wrapping up,  the kids began to collect their things. Opal and I  packed up and left to find one of the many twisty stairways down to the ground floor.  We ended up in the fellowship room where everyone usually gathers to shares tea and coffee after the service. At least three older ladies and one man asked to pet Opal.   I realized that our work was not done yet!  Finally, I decided to have EVERYONE who wanted, a chance to greet her…”Get it out of your system today” I suggested. The UU church dog lovers gave her a pat or two and thanked me.  They said they would be OK from now on. I’m not entirely convinced.  We may end up having a similar talk on Guide dog etiquette  with the grown ups some time. 

Braille and the ‘Braille Crisis’

What is Braille?  Braille is a system of  6 raised dots, arranged in combinations in two vertical lines. There are 63 combinations. The space they occupy is called the Braille cell.  The positions of the dots within the cell are identified by a specific number;  top left is #1, middle left is #2,  bottom left is #3, top right is #4, middle right is #5, and bottom right is #6. Louis Braille was born near Paris in 1809.  His father was a shoemaker.  One day,  at age four,  while Louis was playing with a tool for punching holes in leather (awl), he ended up piercing  his eye.  The other eye soon became infected, and he lost all his vision.  He was sent to a school for the blind in Paris.   In 1821, a man named Charles Barbier visited the school.  He showed the kids his communication system called, ‘Nightwriting’. It had been developed for soldiers to pass information to one another at night.  While it failed for the French military, it did give Louis the idea to develop its use for the blind in 1827.  He expanded it to include codes for math(Nemeth) and music notation.  Braille would not become a big hit in his lifetime.  In fact, it was ‘banned’ from use with blind kids for a while.  Naturally, kids enjoyed the idea of reading the contraband books, so it did not die.  In 1868, Dr. Thomas Armitage led a group of four blind men to form the ‘British Society For the Embossed Literature of the Blind’.   Louis Braille died of tuberculosis in 1852 at age 43.  In 1952 his body was moved to the Pantheon site where National heroes of France are honoured.  One little know fellow is William Moon. He was born in Kent, England in 1818.  He developed the ‘Moon’ system of reading in 1845.  It uses raised curves and lines with 14 characters.  Moon  is easier to use, and is much easier to learn by people who loose sight later in life, particularly if they are elderly.  William Moon died in 1894. His daughter continued his work and founded ‘Moonworks’.  For more on Moon, visit…. Braille has been around for  over 180 years.  It has provide blind children with the opportunity to become literate.   Today, it is estimated that fewer than 20% of Blind adults use Braille.  The push and allure of technology has created an audio- dependent generation of Blind people.  I sit here, using a computer that is ‘talking’ to me, courtesy of screen-reading software allowing me to  write a blog on Braille.  Somehow,   I find the irony of that, to be both amusing and alarming.  I had the opportunity to learn the alphabet, grammar, syntax, phonics, use of punctuation, composition etc. as a sighted child.  When I began to loose my vision, I made it my business to learn Braille.  The emphasis of the type of ‘mainstream’ education Blind children recieve today, is not on Braille literacy.  We now have, what is called by many, a  “Braille Crisis” . In fact, legislation called the Braille Bill was passed in Minnesota in 1987.  Groups such as the National Federation of the Blind, have advocated vigourously for similar bills to be passed.  There are many more states that have endorsed Braille bills.  These protect the important need/right of  blind children to become literate.  Audio-heavy education does not foster literate children who can move ahead successfully in life.  

Traveling Blind

Interesting to note that travel accessibility for people who are blind or partially sighted has taken an even bigger step forward.  Cruises are now catering to the requests and requirements of their patrons who are Blind. In fact, some travel agencies are creating special packages for groups of people who are blind.  Guide dogs on board?  No problem. Appropriate signage and menus (Braille and Large Print) have become a more common feature on some of these ships.  Check the web site of the Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality  Also, one of the travel agents specializing in these cruises (Florida) is found at: 

Alternate Format Billing

I had time on my hands yesterday, so I phoned up my power company (Nova Scotia Power) and asked them if they could start sending me my statement in Braille.  I also asked them if they provided other options to customers who are Blind or partially sighted, such as Large Print, audio cassette or disc.  I mentioned that I was not certain, but I thought they might have a legal obligation to do so.  The clerk seemed confused.  She said she would call back after she checked with her supervisors.  Seven hours later, She did call back to tell me, “we don’t have the technical means to provide Braille or large print bills and statements”.  I then asked her to send that statement to me in writing.   I have no idea what our laws say about utility company requirements to provide alternate format billing, though I would bet that it’s in the books.  If it is not, it will be eventually  (grin). I will be a thorn in Nova Scotia Power’s side, until they ensure that alternate format billing options are available. The CRTC (Canadian Radio Telecommunications Commission) has issued all sorts of rulings for telephone, cell phone and cable companies, directing them to provide alternate format billing to customers who request it.  If you don’t know what your local telephone, mobile phone, and utility companies provide in the way of alternate format billing, ask.  Be specific. Ask if they provide Braille, Large Print, audio cassette, or computer disc.  while you’re at it, ask them if their web site is ‘accessible’.  They might not know what you’re talking about.  Their web site designers should. I don’t think people who are Blind or partially sighted should be expected to pay a utility bill they can not read themselves.