As part of National Braille Week, we invited Dolphin’s in-house braille expert, Aj Ahmed, to tell us his experiences of growing up with braille.
We learn the positive effects braille had on his education and working life, his thoughts on the continued importance of braille for young people who are blind and visually impaired, and the future of braille used in conjunction with assistive technology.
Aj has been blind since birth, he’s a father of three, a keen sports fan and a retired Paralympian. At Dolphin, Aj is a technical support adviser and product owner for Dolphin SuperNova software. He also runs courses that teach using braille with Dolphin SuperNova.
We're delighted to welcome Aj to the Dolphin Blog and to learn how his positive experiences as a braille user shaped his childhood education, and how braille continues to impact his career and family life now he has children of his own.
Learning to read braille as a child
I grew up in Liverpool and from the age of four I went to St Vincent’s School which is a specialist school for sensory impairment. The school had the advantage of teachers who were trained in how to teach and read braille.
My teachers first taught me how to use the brailler - to load it with paper and set it up - which was pretty difficult for a four-year-old to master. Back then it was like a massive clunky typewriter.
The first thing I remember doing with braille is learning how to type my name, which I was really pleased with! I followed the same principles of learning how to read braille as a sighted person would to read print as a child.
Braille throughout my education
As I learned braille from starting school, I had the same experience of learning as other kids do in reception and onwards in school. It came naturally to me, and I was learning alongside other kids who were blind and partially sighted. At my school, some of my classmates learned to read and write with a pen and paper and read with large print. Others, including me, used braille and we all followed the curriculum in the normal way, at the same time as each other.
Looking back on the positive effect it had on my schooling - and the specialist teaching I had access to - I do worry that school kids who are blind today might miss out from learning braille if they’re taught in mainstream schools with a Teaching Assistant who might not be literate with braille.
In my experience, having something to touch and read makes a massive difference, educationally speaking. Throughout my childhood, my education was all completed in braille and other, similar ways. For example, in geography GCSE, I used Minolta to read maps. This provides a raised outline to give a good indication of the shapes and placements of places on maps. Similarly with maths, I could feel what a bar chart was and what it showed using this method.
My positive experiences throughout school contrasted with my experience in higher education. During my degree studies, I was expected to learn and present information without access to this specialist equipment. The assistive technology like Minolta simply wasn’t available at the university I attended. This made it more difficult for me to identify certain things like charts - Gant charts used in project management, for example - which was a barrier to my learning.
Reading with braille and audio
If I’m reading a story or a book for leisure, I’ll always use speech on my phone. It’s portable and quicker than braille to read. If I am reading something I need to learn or really concentrate on and take in, then I’ll read in braille – usually on my braille display rather than braille on paper, as printed braille can be so bulky.
I always read my kids' bedtime stories using braille. I wouldn’t be able to read stories to my kids if I didn’t read braille.
I can’t read printed books, so my kids know to pass me the braille version. The braille versions of the storybooks I have for my kids have tactile pictures - so you can feel the shape of the image – while the braille tells the story.
How long does it take to learn braille?
I was so young that I don’t really remember how long it took me to learn to read and write using braille. I remember being really pleased at being to write my name at the age of four. I also remember reading books at the age of seven, so I guess I learned to read with braille in the same timeframe as any sighted kid learning to read print.
I remember in the late 90s when famous footballers’ autobiographies came out and the tech just wasn’t available then to be able to read these books straight away. You either had to scan in print every page, or wait for the braille libraries to catch up. This meant that as a young person I just didn’t really read books outside of the classroom. Then iPhone and Kindle came out and from then I could get a book to read in braille or audio on the day it’s published.
I also used to feel left behind on match day when I wanted to find out the football scores. I might have been able to find out the scores themselves, but my mates could quickly read the match report in the newspaper, whereas I couldn’t. Tech is a massive game changer in this respect. I can get match reports whenever I want now, and find news instantly on twitter and other channels.
How being a braille reader has changed in the last 30 years
In my opinion, its effect on braille is the one place where technology has had a negative effect. Because the technology is so good, so intuitive and so fast now, I feel that braille is being left behind by the people who should be teaching it. And also by those who should be learning it.
From my own discussions with younger people who are blind and people who learn and work in education, it seems that along with the move towards audio technology for reading, that braille either isn’t being taught, or isn’t being taught well. I really think we need more skilled staff and the willingness to teach and learn braille from the age of four in schools.
I appreciate that there might also be some reluctance from younger people to learn braille, too. After all, if you’re offered a way to learn that isn’t familiar and isn’t as easy as listening to something, you’re more likely to take the audio option! It’s there, it’s easy and you already know how to listen.
I believe too that there’s a bit of stigma for people who lose their sight when they’re in their teens. There’s a bit of a fear factor which has a role to play. When you are offered braille, it can be perceived as having to accept that you are blind - when you might not be ready to do that. Audio reading helps you fit in with your mates better.
I want to tell younger people with sight loss that learning to read braille is a key part of life that you will need in the future. It will help you stay independent, it’s important and it’s necessary.
Also, I wouldn’t be able to read stories to my kids if I didn’t read braille as it just isn't possible to read a book to little ones from an audio version! I can’t read printed books, so my kids know to pass me the braille version of their favourite story.
Where you might encounter braille
When I was growing up, I didn’t really encounter braille being used in the mainstream. I first noticed it on bottles of vodka when I was old enough, though not on other food and drink!
These days you’re most likely to encounter it on medicine packaging, (as long as the pharmacist doesn’t stick a label over it) which is helpful. Although braille isn’t on the dosing instructions leaflet, so you still have to remember what your doctor says.
It is on other stuff, but there’s still a long way to go.
Really useful places to have braille available
Some consumer goods are improving in terms of accessibility – so for example my TV has built-in accessibility features, which help me navigate the menus. Others are improving – but only for sighted people. Digital and visual controls can reduce accessibility for people without sight.
For example, controls and displays on household items like microwaves and dishwashers are becoming more digital. The settings increasingly rely on visual displays and controls. Where this is the case, there needs to be more non-visual controls and accessibility features, such as braille on buttons or speech.
Ideally, it’d be great to find braille on everything. It’s a requirement to have nutritional information displayed on a label, so why not accessible info as well?
It has improved over the years but is still far from ideal. Initiatives such as the collaboration between RNIB and Kellogg’s cereals and the RNIB Design For Everyone campaign are starting to raise awareness of the difficulties surrounding food shopping when you’re blind or visually impaired.
The Co-op supermarket did put braille on some of their own-brand products such as bleach and some frozen foods, but I haven’t noticed other supermarkets following suit.
It’s my opinion that if more manufacturers start putting braille on items, then it is likely to raise the profile of braille and show how important it is. Leading the way for other manufacturers and businesses to follow.
What assistive technology means to me
It opens the world up. Assistive tech allows me to access material and information and do jobs that able-bodied people can do. Without it I think this would be impossible.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that assistive technology removes barriers, and for visually impaired people it’s so important.
I am about to start a new role at a sight loss centre as a Digital Tech Coordinator. I’ll be advising people with pre-existing sight conditions and those who have recently lost their sight on how assistive technology can change your life.
As someone who has first-hand experience, I have empathy with their situation. I understand the challenges and understand the difficulties and I also know the benefits different types of technology bring.
There’s so much great tech out there now, to help people without sight to stay independent. I know that with tech like SuperNova and GuideConnect, in conjunction with a scanner, you can still read your post. There are apps to help you shop – where you can scan barcodes on your phone to get information on products and cooking instructions. With apps like Be My Eyes you can find people to help you complete practical tasks. For example, I’ve built a barbecue and installed software on my computer.
It’s great to have the choice we have now, so much better than even ten years ago.
Thoughts on the future of braille
As tech gets better, people will be persuaded not to use braille and my theory is that it will get phased out to the detriment of people with sight loss.
For literacy, braille is necessary. Even though you might be able to read things quicker with audio, they both have their place to make things truly accessible.
Realistically, you can’t use braille where it’s difficult to read and space is an issue. Using the example of medicines again, it’s simply not practical for braille instructions to be included, the box would be massive! But a barcode that’s available to scan and get the right messaging - along with the braille on the outer box saying what it contains - that’s a good combination.
Because of the tech available now, people think that braille might not be needed, but it really is just as important. Both audio and braille used together is the ideal situation.
Braille is a necessity.
SuperNova Magnifier and Screen Reader software gives users access to all on-screen information with magnifier, speech and braille display support. This software provides the flexibility to read, work and communicate in ways that suit your sight and your preferences.
With SuperNova Magnifier and Screen Reader, you can choose the level of information you read on screen, including announcements of text style information. As you're reading documents, emails, books or web pages, SuperNova has Monitor Markers to observe and announce - with speech or braille - a change that occurs elsewhere on your screen.
SuperNova Magnifier and Screen Reader supports more than 50 literary and computer braille codes. It includes Unified English Braille Code as well as Grade I Uncontracted and Grade II contracted codes.
SuperNova supports over 60 braille displays - including models from Optelec, Humanware, HIMS, Papenmeier and Orbit - simply plug in to use, read and type.
EasyReader for Windows is also available in SuperNova Magnifier and Screen Reader. It provides direct access to the world's largest collection of accessible book libraries and newspaper services. It's a fully-accessible reading app that enables you to customise the way you read with braille and audio.
EasyConverter Express converts Word documents into a wide range of accessible formats.
With EasyConverter Express, you or your organisation can create braille versions of any Word document, to read from a print out, or on a braille display.
It's quick and straightforward to create braille output with EasyConverter Express and it enables you to make written content accessible to more people who read braille.