This is A Blind Writer’s Notebook, a monthly column by M. Leona Godin about her experiences as a writer and the monolithic trope of blindness.
Jewel was the name of the woman who first taught me braille. She was in her sixties and I was in my teens. We had the same kind of eye disease, a degenerative one. She was almost completely blind, and I was mostly sighted. Except for normal-sized print and other details, as well as some difficulty with my night vision, I could basically see, but I had loved to read before I started losing my vision, so I decided to learn braille.
Jewel’s apartment featured exotic knickknacks from her world travels as an advocate for blind rights. I remember small sculptures as black silhouettes against pristine white walls. The shapes of my first braille characters were similarly black-on-white—Sharpie dot drawings on a large white sketchpad.
“The braille cell consists of six dots,” she told me at my first lesson, and had me draw a full braille cell and number the dots: Dots one, two, three run along the left side of the rectangle, and dots four, five, six, along the right side. Dot one is the letter “a,” dots one and two are “b,” dots one and four are “c,” and so on. All the dots raised together form a full cell (or the word “for,” but that’s a later lesson).
I did not know then that the size and shape had been the particular innovation of Louis Braille, that he had not invented the use of raised dots as a great improvement over the lines of embossed Latin characters. That invention is generally credited to Charles Barbier de La Serre, a former artillery officer in Napoleon’s army, who had an interest in exotic writing systems and cryptography. Barbier invented a tactile means of sending secret war communiqués in the dark. He called his invention écriture nocturne — night writing—which I took for the name of my master’s thesis, but that was years after Jewel, after I realized I was never going to be very good at reading braille. Although I’m obsessed with braille—its history and aesthetics—I really suck at it. These days, I mostly use it to label my lipsticks.
Captain Charles Barbier brought his Écriture Nocturne to the school for the blind in Paris in 1821, where twelve-year-old Braille was a student. At that time, the students learned how to read using embossed letters that were very bulky, hard to read, and nearly impossible to write. Barbier’s system was also pretty bulky, but the improvement of dots over lines was obvious—points being more readily comprehended by touch than lines. And not only could blind people read the punctiform system, but with a few simple tools, including what are now known as a slate and stylus, they could also write it. But Barbier’s system had drawbacks, one of which was its size.
“N ight writing was based on a combination of twelve points, which was too much to permit synthetic tactile reading,” writes Zina Weygand in The Blind in French Society from the Middle Ages to the Century of Louis Braille. “The cell of dots representing a character was larger than the optimal zone of a finger’s sensitivity and, in consequence, required an exploratory vertical movement as well as the horizontal movement of reading. ” After years of tinkering, Braille’s great innovation was to cut the cell in half so that a single finger could run along a line of text without having to rub up and down.
This is the technique Jewel taught me for reading braille: The left index finger starts a line of text at the top left corner of a page, and runs smoothly along the line until it meets the right index finger that sits in the center of the line waiting to take over. While that right finger travels the rest of the way, the left drops to the next line and waits to start again. Thus an awesome braille reader’s fingers will move smoothly across the page and down in a kind of zipper pattern. My fingers, however, move slow and waveringly like a couple of caterpillars on Klonopin.
My reasons for sucking at braille are varied and teeter on the edge of excuses, but the point is that it’s not easy, just like learning to read print is not easy, especially when you are an adult and puzzling over words that you know perfectly well takes minutes instead of a fraction of a second. My inconsistency regarding practicing combined with impatience has kept me from ever getting good enough to make braille my go-to choice for reading. I let an electronic voice named Daniel read to me instead. When it comes to reading braille, I fail. Perhaps because of this failure or perhaps despite it, my hackles rise when sighted writers toss out braille similes as if there were no blind readers around to notice.
Often it happens that when characters feel something intently without comprehension—a bumpy surface, the trunk of a tree, or the pages of a book—it is like they are reading braille, but a sighted reader touching some inscrutable surface is not at all the experience of a blind person reading braille. Reading with your fingers is like reading with eyeballs: It involves—necessitates—comprehension. But reading braille is so foreign to most sighted people that they seem not to think of it as reading at all.
I could feel my eyes making contact with the words on the page, but no meanings rose up to me anymore, no sounds echoed in my head. The black marks seemed wholly bewildering, an arbitrary collection of lines and curves that divulged nothing but their own muteness. Eventually, I did not even pretend to understand what I was reading. I would pull a book from the box, open it to the first page, and then move my finger along the first line. When I came to the end, I would start in on the second line, and then the third line, and so on down to the bottom of the page. That was how I finished the job: like a blind man reading braille. If I couldn’t see the words, at least I wanted to touch them.
I read and reread this passage from Paul Auster’s Moon Palace and wonder why it makes my blood boil, or whether it should make my blood boil. It is, after all, a quote from a novel, and written by a narrator who is probably unreliable. Fogg had the boxes of over a thousand books given to him by his Uncle Victor who died, leaving him quite destitute. Before converting the books to money, Fogg felt compelled to read them all. Or rather, he would get through them all, because as the passage indicates, by the end, he was not reading, but merely touching. It would be as if I said of a sighted reader that he was looking at a book—that the act of seeing with eyeballs is the thing, when in fact the importance of reading is the integration of words into the mind—not the touching or the seeing or the hearing or whatever other methods might arise in the future for the beautiful process of incorporating the far-flung words of another into one’s own consciousness.
The act of running fingers—dare I say, blindly—over a page of print is much more like a blind man feeling an ink-printed page than like a blind man reading braille. More like me, when my eye disease robbed me of the distinctness of words, leaving me with decorative lines of inscrutable text. I have known the sadness of running my fingers over that text, pages and pages of undecipherable language. It is precisely why I wanted to learn braille.
“Like a blind man reading braille” is thus a pretty flabby simile. Reading is the point of braille, not touching. Just as reading is the point of looking at letters printed on a page, not seeing. If you cannot see yourself in a reader who is blind, you are not a very good reader.
Am I pushing political correctness where it doesn’t belong, or is my concern over such similes a natural and warranted reaction of a reader who is blind in a sighted world? I’m honestly not sure, but if I did not run into this kind of throwaway blind simile on a fairly regular basis in books I otherwise like, love, or admire, I would probably not feel compelled to write this.
In Meg Wolitzer’s novel The Interestings, the narrator Jules writes of her fortuitous encounter with the group of kids that would become her lifelong friends, or rather what would have happened to her if she’d not become their friend.
What if she’d said no? she liked to wonder afterward in a kind of strangely pleasurable, baroque horror. What if she’d turned down the lightly flung invitation and went about her life, thudding obliviously along like a drunk person, a blind person, a moron, someone who thinks that the small packet of happiness she carries is enough.
I get that our narrator is being flip and indulging in her newfound irony, but still, it’s hard to deal with the “blind person” stuck between “drunk person” and “moron.” People throw around blind slurs the way that most enlightened individuals would not dare to do regarding a person of color. Or at least it feels that way to me.
Literature has struggled, and continues to struggle, away from a tendency to exoticize on the one hand, or denigrate on the other, foreignness and difference. And yes, as writers we will sometimes tempt fantasy in rendering the Other—metaphorically as well as literally—and in doing so, we will likely be imperfect. Until blind people write about themselves with anything near the degree of frequency to which they are written about, the trope will remain just that: Blindness as metaphor, utterly devoid of all the dynamic and multiplicitous complexity of lived experience.
Not so long ago, audio books on tape, and then digital books on computers, suggested braille’s demise. Braille is so bulky and so expensive to produce that it seemed more than possible. According to the National Braille Press, “If your braille document is to be produced on a standard-size braille paper, typically 11” x 11.5”, you can estimate that a print document in twelve point font will be about double the amount of pages when produced in braille.”
They insist, though, that this is a rough estimate, because although the braille cell is a standard size, font size for ink print can vary widely, as can page size. Note the size of the standard braille page—braille books are held in laps and on tabletops, not a single hand as you might your paperback. And a quick Google search tells me that if I were to buy a copy of Celeste Ng’s second novel Little Fires Everywhere— the only book I could find in braille that I’ve read recently—it would cost me $85.95 at the Braille Superstore. I could not find braille copies of The Interestings or Moon Palace.
However, with the availability of so many electronic books, a visually impaired person can make the print bigger and extend the usability of their eyes; a blind person such as myself, not so good at braille, can listen with her ears to the electronic voice output; and braille readers can use their fingers to read a braille display, which pushes pins up into digitally-generated braille cells.
When I was writing the earlier passage about how fingers read braille, it occurred to me that I wasn’t sure if people read digital braille the same way as they do hard copy braille. After all, digital braille generally only displays twenty or forty braille cells at once. Twenty or forty characters appear, you read them, and then you push a button to advance. I decided to crowdsource for an answer, and turned to Assistive Technology Community for the Blind and Visually Impaired, a lively Facebook group that discusses everything from the latest AI camera app to the best wireless keyboards, text-to-speech software to braille displays.
I learned that most read it exactly how they read hard copy braille, but that different braille readers read braille differently. Some read it with both index fingers, some with only their left and others only their right. “I think I’m dyslexic in my left hand, because I see the exact opposite sign of what I see in my right hand,” Elli wrote. “I have to go up & down on the dots like a kindergartener with my left hand to make sure I’m reading the right thing. I don’t have to do that with my right hand, however, so I just use the left hand to keep the paper or book still.”
It turns out that the technique Jewel taught me all those years ago was just that—one technique among many, blind readers being as astoundingly unique and full of variety as those who are sighted.