My Connection to Braille

September 9th, 2019 By Greg Stilson

Greg Stilson, VP of Product at Aira, with his wife, Leslie, and his three-year-old daughter, Lila.

“Daddy one more book,” my three-year-old daughter Lila says to me as I try to help her wind down for the day.

“No honey, it’s already late and time for bed.”

I know you are probably thinking she wholeheartedly agreed with my assessment that it was bedtime, but spoiler alert… she did not.

“Noooooooo Daddy, one more book!!!” She cries as she throws herself on the floor.

Like any good father, I completely cave in and agree.

“Ok Lila, one more book, but this is the last one and you are going to bed,” I explain as I reach into her bookshelf to find the shortest book I can find. My fingers lightly touching the titles until I find one that I know she likes, yet is quite short.

“Ok dad, deal,” she smiles victoriously.

To the average reader, this may sound like a struggle, but this is some of my wife’s and my favorite time with our daughter. Growing up, I personally remember listening to my parents and grandparents reading me books, so often that I memorized all the words and would stop the reader if they tried to get sneaky and skip over some pages of my favorites.

When preparing to become parents, this was a common priority that both Leslie (my wife) and I had from the start. It was extremely important to us that we had set aside dedicated time each day to read with our daughter. Aside from the known literacy benefits this delivers, it also offers us all that essential opportunity to connect on a daily basis.

Leslie and I are both blind and both read braille today, but our paths to braille literacy were far from straight forward. I would love to tell you that I fell in love with braille the second my fingers touched those raised dots – but I’ve heard that I shouldn’t lie to the internet. The truth is, like the majority of other low vision kids, I felt like reading braille would make me stand out more to my sighted classmates. So I always fought against reading braille. Never mind the giant CCTV Magnifier on my special table in the corner of my classroom. Move along, nothing to see here.

But thankfully my parents and teachers of the visually impaired had different plans. They always knew my vision would worsen, and learning braille early would offer me the best path to becoming literate.

“Today, thanks to these bedtime routines, both Leslie and I read more Braille, probably than we ever have in our lives.”

Throughout my educational career braille was always a struggle. I used it specifically for certain classes such as science and mathematics, but when it came to reading large amounts of text I often used audio and supplemented with braille when necessary. I was not going to win any braille challenge speed competitions in the near future and I needed to get things done then. This is why today I am such a big supporter of the technology toolbox for students. I was not one to retain information well when reading braille but could memorize things extremely well when listening to content.

I’m sharing this history to illustrate that my relationship with braille has not always been sunshine and roses. However, as I matured I realized that my parents and TVIs were not just trying to make my life miserable, but rather helping me build a foundation of skills which would serve me the rest of my life.

Ironically, it was the blending of Braille and technology that led me to a career in accessibility advocacy and assistive technology. When I was introduced to the original BrailleNote in high school, it was my first experience of accessing information in a medium and interface that was truly efficient for me, a blind Braille reader. My love for technology drove me to read more Braille on this device and with its ability to instantly print out documents, I was now turning my assignments in at the same time as my sighted classmates. Teachers could hand me documents on thumb drives at the same time as my class was receiving the content, offering me a more efficient way to consume information.

As I progressed through my career at HumanWare, I had the privilege of hosting several training sessions and workshops at various school districts around the world. I met so many students who reminded me of myself back when I was their age, and I’m honored to be asked for advice by many TVIs and parents about how they should approach teaching Braille to their student or child. I have designed Braille software and hardware products and watched elementary school students who used these products to graduate from high school still using Braille. All of these experiences – and so many more – have connected me deeply to Braille on a logical level. 

Adult me understood that learning Braille provides a blind person essential literacy skills which transfer to countless other aspects of their lives, and learning these skills at a young age equip blind students with an extra tool in their toolbox that will serve them well in their future. It took me becoming a father to connect with Braille on a more personal and emotional level.

As Leslie and I prepared to become parents, we knew we wanted to read with our child, so we started researching sources of Braille children’s books. Thanks to resources such as National Braille Press, Seedlings, Braille Institute, and so many more, we now have a library in our daughter’s room.

Have we been able to find every book we wanted in Braille? Unfortunately not, but this is where a resource like Aira has been instrumental. When we heard of a book we could not find in Braille, we simply purchased it online and used Aira to have the pages read to us so we could transcribe them onto Braille label paper. The agent also identified where to place the Braille so we didn’t cover any pictures. The end result is a Braille children’s book, ready for bedtime. 

I sit back down in the rocking chair in Lila’s room and she climbs back on to my lap. The book I chose was an animal facts book with tactile graphics of the various animals. As we read through the animals, Lila pointed at the various body parts of different ones, telling me what they were.  By simply following her finger on the page I could verify if she was correct or not.  

As I was about to say “The End,” Lila takes the book from me, lays it on her lap and begins running her fingers across the Braille dots.

“What are you doing Lila,” I ask?

“I reading Daddy,” she replies with a huge smile on her face. “I read with my fingers and my eyes. Mommy and Daddy read with their fingers.”

It was at that point I realized that Braille has given me more than just skills. Unknowing to me, Braille offered me a way to connect with my daughter and family on a fundamental, emotional level. It also helped show her that not everyone accomplishes things using the same methods and that everyone is unique. Today, thanks to these bedtime routines, both Leslie and I read more Braille, probably than we ever have in our lives. And to those TVIs and parents who made me keep reading Braille all those years ago – thank you, from the bottom of my heart.  

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