Being born blind meant braille was a life saver growing up in the 90’s

A man and woman walk arm in arm through a large hall. The man has a white cane and is wearing a cochlear implant

The amount of braille based devices on offer was the one thing that really stood out to me when I attended last year’s Sight Village assistive technology show.

As Sense’s Technology Officer, it got me thinking back to my own relationship with braille over the years, and why I think that even in a world where there’s so much assistive technology, braille – certainly for me – has been incredibly important.

I was born completely blind

A smiling man wearing a cochlear implant and assistive technology glasses

I was born with a rare genetic condition called Norrie disease, meaning I was born completely blind and, as I grew older, my hearing deteriorated.

It’s probably fair to say that, as a youngster, I was a reluctant learner. However, once I came to the conclusion that learning to read and write was a better use of my time than inventing elaborate games involving Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, things moved on apace… or at least, more quickly than they had done before!

Growing up in the 90s, braille was essential

Fingers touching raised braille dots on white paper

When I was first introduced to braille in the early 90s, there wasn’t the amount of technology there is today – Screen Readers for computers, for example, were still in their infancy, and certainly weren’t as widely available as they are now.

As a child, I loved books, a passion I still have. Back then braille and audio books were my only source of reading material, so learning to read braille was essential for me.

I learnt to write braille on a braille machine called a Perkins Brailler. The Perkins Brailler is a “braille typewriter” with a key corresponding to each of the six dots of the braille code, a space key, a backspace key, and a line space key. Like a manual typewriter, it has two side knobs to advance paper through the machine and a carriage-return lever above the keys.

Like a type writer, it was also pretty noisy. Believe me, the noise of eight students in a class brailling away is not to be underestimated!

Advances in assistive technolgy

Fingers typing on a refreshable braille display

After leaving school, I used braille a lot less, as assistive technology was really beginning to advance. Also, the need to produce my university work in print meant I moved to mainly using computers, with my text books provided mainly in audio format. After graduating, I found I was using braille even less.

I had a Refreshable Braille Display in my first job but it was a supplement to my screen reader rather than the main way I interacted with my PC.

Braille was a ‘life saver’ when my hearing started to deteriorate

My hearing deteriorated over the years, to the extent that I was being considered for cochlear implants in my early 30’s. This had a huge effect on my confidence, meaning I was isolated at home, struggling to go out and engage with friends due to the difficulties of profound hearing loss.

I was also unable to access reading and news, due to not being able to hear a radio etc. The period before I received my first cochlear implant therefore, it would be fair to say that braille became a life saver!

Technology now means I can connect with friends in new ways

I recently discovered it’s now possible to connect a refreshable Braille Display to my smartphone, meaning I could access the features of the phone in braille. Oh joy! Oh rapture! This connectivity meant I could keep in touch with friends via social media, read books via the Kindle app, read the latest match reports of my favorite football team’s latest humiliating defeat and much much more.

Even now that my hearing has been, to a great extent restored due to my cochlear implants, I still use my Braille Display on a daily basis. My Braille Display and braille more generally have played a vital role in my life, and, I’m so glad today that the stroppy child I was back in the day, finally realised the importance of learning braille.

Find out how we work with technology at Sense, and about different types of technology and communication aids that could help you.

Author: Steven Morris

Policy and Campaigns Officer at Sense

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