The number of people in the world, who know Braille, is declining. This process is caused by the development of technologies — people with visual impairments now can listen to audiobooks, use screen readers and smartphones. However, in contrast to this fact there appear communities which try to make the relief-and-dot print popular. For example, in 2021 the “Braille-Active” union was established, which already held an action “I use Braille”, where its participants shared their personal stories regarding the Braille print.
While the benefits of the Braille print are clear, people who lost their sight in adulthood, often doubt if there is a truly need to learn it. We asked people with visual impairments to tell us, why they decided to learn the relief-and-dot print and where it could be best to do.
Motivate, not stimulate
Audio description: photo in color. A young blond girl in a pink sweater is sitting close to a young guy in a white shirt, at a white table. Both are wearing dark glasses. There is a tool to study the Braille print lying in front of them. It looks like a long pencil case, divided into 10 sections, each section has 6 tiny cells. Silver metal pins can be seen next to the tool right there on the table, and the girl is holding few of them in her open palm. A folded white cane is lying next to the man, on the table.
An adult person, who lost the sight in adulthood, has to be very clear about why he or she needs the Braille print. This is what Valentina Demchenko, a teacher for the blind and visually impaired people and a phycologist, believes.
“I teach Braille to adults privately, and people usually come to me with a certain motivation. In other words, they need Braille for their concrete practical needs — some, coming from music field, want to study notes in Braille, some need Braille for everyday matters, others — to finish school or college. In any way, the success of this process will always originate from the personal motivation coming from within, and not from outside (relatives insist, for instance), as it often happens”, Valentina Demchenko shares.
Sergey Kislitsky lost his sight at the age of 17, but learnt Braille only 2 years after. He was invited to a rehabilitation course in St. Petersburg, with the relief-and-dot print studies being part of it.
“After the complete loss of vision, I stayed in the Army Medical center, and we were visited by the staff members of the Rehabilitation center for the visually impaired, located at Zhambyl street, 3. They helped me to cope with the emotional side of my situation and invited to their rehabilitation course. That time I would take any opportunity to bring some new sense into my life, that is why I had no doubts about whether to learn Braille or not. Today I mostly use it when working in the library for the blind. As before, I love to sign with Braille some household things, as I see it as the easiest way. If I run out of species or shampoo or shower gel — I just need to buy a new bottle and re-hang the Braille sticker from the old one. No need to change anything else”, Sergey Kislitsky tells.
What adults find motivating when considering to learn Braille, is that it helps to stay confidential — compared to the sound technologies.
“My adult student say that they will prefer Braille to any sound marks in their private matters, when their relatives are around. Some don’t want others to hear what medicine they take, and some just don’t want to disturb their closest ones too much, as once a blind person gets access to technologies, his or her home will be inhabited by all kind of sounds of smartphone, player or computer speaking. A lot of sighted people find it hard to bear, and studying Braille may help solving this issue”, Valentina Demchenko says.
Sergey Kislitsky believes Braille helps to unload hearing. This really matters if a visually impaired person works or studies hard with the use of screen reader. At constant load the hearing might start to decline.
“It seems very efficient for a blind person to process the necessary information using both hearing and touch, equally. While working with computer it can be achieved with the use of the Braille display, for instance. Unfortunately, such displays cost enormous money, and very few have an opportunity to buy it”, Sergey shares.
Audio description: photo in color. An aged man, wearing blue jeans and a blue shirt, is studying a book, printed in Braille, which is lying on his knees. With his left hand he holds the book page, and his right index finger touches the text line.
Sometimes it happens, that an adult person wants to study Braille, while his relatives speak against. This is a true story of Margarita Melnikova and her family.
“My father stood against me learning Braille, as he sincerely believed I had to concentrate on finding the methods to restore my sight and not get distracted by anything else. He never listened to my objections, so I had my first introduction to Braille many years ago. Today I regret, that this emotional pain point of my family stopped me from diving into the world of books a lot earlier. Besides, if I knew Braille, I would be able to learn English faster and more effective”, she says.
Her case is not unique. This year Julia Lomakina, a specialist of St. Petersburg Rehabilitation Center for the visually impaired, welcomed a student, who could not neither read, nor write in his 35. His parents believed that a blind person didn’t need neither the Braille print, not computer or smartphone. However, most of the blind students face another problem.
“Studying Brielle for adults, who recently lost their sight, is a very delicate phycological moment. In fact, it is about accepting the blindness. Every teacher has to find the right key and motivation for each student. Some start to keep a diary or a phone book in Braille, some students need it to navigate the accessible city environment and read the medicine titles in the medical kit. A lot of elderly people enjoy the studies, because they find it interesting to learn something new. Maybe they won’t master computer skills, but they are quite capable of learning an alternative way of writing”, Julia Lomakina tells.
She believes that everybody needs the Braille print to maintain literacy, expand vocabulary, develop an ability to express yourself clearly. However, not all the students seem to understand it.
The biggest challenge in reading the Braille print lies in having to recognize the letters with the finger pads. For those who work with hands or often play the guitar it could be especially difficult, as their rough skin cannot differentiate the letters.
“The skin sensitivity on fingers often appears impaired for plant workers or other people, engaged into some hard physical work. If such people lose their sight, due to an injury or a disease, they will have a really hard time learning Braille. But you can learn reading at any age, we had some success stories of people learning at their 80, or even 90”, Viktoria Vorobieva, a specialist in St. Petersburg Rehabilitation Center for the visually impaired, shares.
According to her, the skin sensitivity improves in the response to regular trainings. For example, you can, for a start, mix rice and buckwheat and then sort them out and put into separate plates.
“Such exercises usually help, in a while. The situation gets a lot worse if people have their neural pathways damaged by an injury or a disease, or the brain fails to correctly analyze and process information, received via fingers. It will surely require deeper work and longer time, but rehabilitation centers know how to cope with such cases too”, — Viktoria Vorobieva adds.
Some visually impaired people, who learnt Braille in their adulthood, do write, but almost don’t read, and some do read, but with one finger only.
“Learning alphabet doesn’t usually take that much time — from 20 days up to 2 months, approximately. While acquiring the reading skill might take years. The result depends a lot on the amount of time spent on studies, same as in learning any foreign language. The Braille basics can be learnt both in offline and online format, it is just a matter of explaining well the principles of the print system. I remember having a student, who managed to learn Braille in 2 months via Skype”, tells Aygul Nabiulina, a teacher of the Braille print in the school for the blind and visually impaired and night school in Krasnodar.
There are 2 different methods to study Braille — traditional and “key-based”. The first one makes the students practice the dot-writing skill with 6 dots scheme, and then emphasizes the ability to recognize these dot symbols and construct words out of them. This approach uses the a-b-c book as the basic textbook, that can be found in libraries for the blind in nearly every region, as Aygul Nabiulina claims.
“When studying the Braille print, adult students find it helpful to pull in certain associations from their past experience. It goes pretty well, when the student first looks at the convex letter of the regular paper print, and then find it and memorize its Braille equivalent. This makes the task much easier. It is easier to explain, how Braille system of reading and writing reflects the regular one, to those who lost their sight in adulthood, since they can easily imagine all this. While for kids you will most probably have to explain first the very principle of prints’ matching”, Augyl Nabuilina shares.
Julia Lomakina finds, that the “key-based” method shall be the optimal one, if you consider the speed of learning. A student will be offered to memorize 4 lines of letters and signs in Braille, each line containing 10 different symbols. The first line is the basic one for all the rest and consists of letters of Latin alphabet. This alone is already enough to construct words, practice to read and write them. The second line of the “key” — same letters, but with one additional dot. It means, that each sign from the first line transforms into a new letter, but the base stays the same. The third line has another one dot added, and so on.
“For adults mastering the Braille basics via the ‘key-based’ method might be a lot faster, compared to the one with the a-b-c book. Besides, adults don’t find it too fascinating to pore over Braille to read a simple ‘Mom washed a window’. That is why we work on building the words connected with the area of the student’s interest — be it music, sport, travel or garden. Everybody has different passions, but motivation will definitely increase the speed of learning”, Julia Lomakina says.
Audio description: photo in color. A close-up of a white book page with text printed in Braille. Female hands with neat nails touch the text lines.
Sergey Kislitsky was the one to study Braille print in “key-based” method. He claims, he acquired the reading skill in about 20 days.
“Having learnt the first 10 Braille symbols, I immediately got few Latin letters, and Arabic numbers, and 10 letters of Russian alphabet. Then I practiced building words with the available symbols, then started to read sentences, composed of small number of words, and then the rest would just follow”, Sergey tells.
Where to study Braille
It is possible to study the dot-and-relief print in many ways. First, you can take a course in Rehabilitation Centers in Biysk or Volokolamsk. In order to reserve a place, you need to address the local office of the All-Russia Society for the Blind. The program provides the stay and the studies in other city for a couple of months and is paid by the State. Apart from learning Braille, the centers will help to master other disciplines, like housekeeping or navigation and mobility.
The second option is to get a course in local rehabilitation center for the visually impaired or All-Russia Society for the Blind’s office. Normally, educational programs are available in the offices located in million-person cities. For instance, such courses may take place in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Perm, Ekaterinburg, Novosibirsk and other cities, in case there are enough people who want to enroll.
If your city doesn’t provide any courses, it is possible to find a Braille tutor for private lessons. The blind people themselves are the best Braille teachers. You will need to search for a tutor who graduated as a teacher for the blind and visually impaired and who has enough experience in teaching the dot-and-relief print. Such specialists can be found in the libraries for the blind, in special-needs schools for blind and visually impaired kids, as well as in non-profit organizations, that work with visually impaired people.
You can as well learn the Braille print on your own. This was how Margarita Melnikova did. “After I had been forbidden to even dream about Braille for so long, I was willing to study it anyway, even on my own. Forbidden fruit is sweet, so I just took the a-b-c book in the nearest library for the blind and little by little studied it myself, with no help”.
Some people with visual impairments go to Moscow or St. Petersburg to study the Braille print there, get temporary registration and go to local rehabilitation centers, running such courses on a regular basis.