Recently I was reminiscing with a friend of mine about what we were doing in 1970, fifty years ago. As it happens, we were both attending a special school
for blind children, and the time was inching closer (as only time can do) to when we would leave to complete our secondary education in a mainstream school.
During the course of our conversation, my friend said, “when I left North Rocks it felt like the gates of paradise had closed behind me”. This wrench –
this emotional dislocation in her life – was not because she was leaving friends behind; it was not because she wanted to complete her education in a special
school; rather, the gates of paradise were closed by books. Braille books.
Braille was the bedrock of our education: in our early years of school we were taught braille every day, and we were chastised if we forgot to do our braille
homework. We learnt braille just like sighted kids learn print – day by day, week by week, year by year.
Outside school my parents worked hard to create a brailleoasis in our home: Christmas and birthday cards had their messages in braille; my fledgling collection
of 45’s and LPs (long live vinyl) was labelled in braille; They gave me braille books as presents and they would write little notes in braille inside the
I remember one year on my birthday (I think it might have been my 7th) they set up a maze made out of string. As I followed the string all over the house,
I’d come to small presents that had braille on the paper wrappings. The string ended tied around the leg of a stereo record player (it was called a Stereogram).
On top of that was a record of audio stories based on Hans Andersen’s fairy tales. On the cover was a braille label that said, “The Ugly Duckling”. I still
have it, over half a century later.
But it was when we were in the braille library at school, browsing through its thousands of braille volumes – some thick, some thin, some brailled on paper,
some on plastic, some with plastic dots glued onto paper, but every one of them readable and an avatar of Louis Braille – it was then that we felt intoxicated
by liberation, empowerment and inclusion.
The immersive experience of living and breathing among books that we could read without assistance, without requiring conversion to an accessible format,
without needing an explanation of the pictures and other visual content, and without a voice (synthetic or human) forming a barricade between us and the
words on the page, was about as close to a literacy paradise as it got back then.
Today is Louis Braille’s birthday – his 212th. Each year we celebrate it anew, invigorated not because we remember that he learnt to play three musical
instruments, but rather by the cunning ingenuity and audacious longevity of the braille system that he invented.
The blind school braille library no longer exists, just like the school itself. But today I can put all the books in that school library on an SD card
smaller than my thumbnail, with plenty of room to spare, and read them on an electronic braille display that weights half a kilo and fits neatly into my
dilapidated backpack. Thanks to technological developments and computer software it is easier to produce braille today than at any other time in history.
Two of the six musical instruments that I’ve learnt to play with various degrees of proficiency over the years are also ones that Louis Braille played
(piano and cello). But I had a big advantage, in that I was able to learn using the braille music code that Louis Braille developed as part of the Braille
Today is Louis Braille’s happy birthday, so I won’t give time or space to the brood who cackle and crow that braille is a shibboleth – an outdated, unimportant,
superseded, and thoroughly discredited form of fake literacy. I will leave them to peddle the worn-out heresies of their snake-oiled oculocentrism. Instead,
I will close the gates of paradise: to keep them out, and me, my friend Kathy and all the other braille warriors, in.