How Braille Changed My Life by Jan Lavine

I love to cook.  I love to read cookbooks and try new recipes.  However, on March 25, 2006, while I was in the shower giving my eyes a good rubbing I heard and felt a "pop," and it was not a champagne bottle.  The next day I noticed my vision had begun to rapidly deteriorate due to leaking blood vessels behind my retina, filling the pigment epithelial detachment (PED) which was the "pop."  I could no longer read my print cookbooks.  What was I going to do?  I need recipes in order to cook.
 
Two weeks after my diagnosis, a university was holding a week-long Disability Awareness Fair.  I had a hands-on tour of the adaptive equipment demo room at Oklahoma ABLE Tech.  I learned to use a CCTV and screen-magnifying software and thought, "I can see myself with a CCTV on a wheeled cart moving it from room to room."  However, within weeks, I found that no matter how powerful the setting on the CCTV and the screen magnifying software, I could not overcome the vast distortions in my vision.
 
I never knew any individuals who were blind, but I did know they used braille to read.  But where to find braille instruction?  Our local office of the state Division of Visual Services only told me about vocational training.  I was a housewife.  I didn't want vocational training; I just wanted braille so I could cook from recipes and read books. 
 
During that summer, I found a resource listing that mentioned the Hadley School for the Blind.  Hadley offers free distance education courses in many areas to promote independent living, including braille reading and writing.  Before I married, I had taken correspondence courses for my job.  I knew I could do this since the great joy of correspondence courses is that you can take them at your own pace in the privacy of your own home.  I called Hadley and received their catalogue.  I found 16 courses I wanted to take and could not wait to start. 
 
My first Hadley instructor had no idea who I was, but she exuded such a warmth, caring, openness and concern.  Her friendliness to the stranger, me, stretched out over the distance to make a bond touching me deeply and making me so at ease.  It became obvious no matter the problem or time of day, I could always contact my Hadley instructor either by toll-free telephone, snail mail or e-mail and get a timely response back. Each and every time, I have found my Hadley instructors always go above and beyond the call of duty.  Furthermore, my first Hadley instructor lives on her own with a guide dog and is a cook.  She had great ideas and advice for independent living and cooking skills.  But I still needed braille for recipes.
 
Hadley has a braille series for a newbie like me without any previous exposure to braille.  The six easy lessons of Braille Literacy 1 taught hand movements and got my hands tactilely ready for braille.  The course arrived with braille workbooks and audio cassettes, which worked in my National Library Service (NLS) tape player.  All the information and lessons were on the cassettes.  I could sit down comfortably on the recliner with a braille workbook in front of me, put on a cassette and feel as if the instructor was right there with me.  I could also stop whenever I wanted and rewind the tape to listen to a particular part again.  I found myself able to complete sections in approximately 15 minutes.  Not bad - spending just 15 minutes each morning working on braille!  This was easy!  After completing a lesson, I had to complete a short assignment to send off to my instructor for grading.  An assignment is required once a month, but I was able to complete much more in that period.  In some cases, the assignments to Hadley courses can be left as a voicemail message using Hadley's toll-free telephone number or sent to the instructor via e-mail.
 
The next course was Braille Literacy 2, which taught the braille alphabet and how to make braille labels to use around the house.  There were 10 lessons, which again used braille workbooks and audio cassettes.  Hadley has been in the business of distance education for over 90 years and their experience and knowledge showed strongly in this course.  Furthermore, many of Hadley's braille instructors are lifelong braille readers who know all the tricks to help you learn.  There was no doubt, after completing this course, I would never forget the braille alphabet.  It was so easy to learn using a comparative type method, learning a few very distinctly different braille letters at a time. 
 
While the lessons in Braille Literacy 1 taught hand movements concurrent with starting Braille Literacy 2, I requested an uncontracted braille book from the National Library Service.  NLS sent me "Cinderella," which allowed me to actually practice the lessons in a real braille book.  I had just gone through the first lesson in Braille Literacy 2 learning the braille letters, "l," "c," "a," and "d."  With the "Cinderella" book on my lap, my fingers were on the search for those first letters.  Lo and behold, my fingers found a "c," "d," and an "l-l-a."  It was obvious this word was probably "Cinderella."  I was so ecstatic to find this first word, but then also shocked to find the word "Cinderella" filled up most of a braille line.   
 
During Braille Literacy 2, students receive a free braille label maker from Hadley.  Not long after receiving the braille label maker, our house's circuit breaker box required replacement.  Moments after the electricians left, that braille label maker was in my hands busy making labels for each circuit.  I wonder if I am the only person in the state with a braille-labeled circuit breaker box?  
 
For individuals who only want to learn the braille alphabet in order to make and read labels, they can stop after just 16 easy lessons.  But for me, I wanted to read braille, and I wanted to cook from braille recipes.
 
Braille Literacy 3 in only 9 lessons really got into the business of reading and writing uncontracted braille.  Hadley provided a free slate and stylus, and instructions on how to use them.  Now I could write braille myself!  After completing Braille Literacy 3, I again requested NLS send the uncontracted braille book, "Cinderella."  What exhilaration!!  Each and every embossed item in the "Cinderella" book was discerned by my fingers, whether a letter, number or punctuation sign.  Such excitement to see the progression in my braille literacy!!  
 
I attended the ACB national convention in 2008.  In the exhibit hall there was a booth for the Hadley School for the Blind.  Who was at the Hadley booth?  Why, my first braille instructor!  It was so exciting to finally meet in person.  What was even more amazing was the high percentage of people passing by the Hadley booth who turned out to also be her braille students! 
 
Since most braille books, especially cookbooks, are in contracted braille, I needed to take the Hadley Braille Literacy 4 course in order to learn the 189 braille contractions.  This course has 30 lessons.  As I started this course, I found NLS had my favorite cookbook in braille so I spent my mornings doing my Hadley lessons and the afternoons brailling recipes.  I brailled enough recipes to fill five volumes! Now I could cook.  I fell in love with braille and with Hadley. 
 
Prior to March 25, 2006, I had no exposure to blindness nor braille.  Braille made me whole again, giving me back what I had lost.  I was literate again, albeit in a different format, but I could read, cook from recipes, and even do my favorite Sudoku puzzles all in braille.  How wonderful it is to have a book in my hands and to turn its pages again! Do you know I can do things with braille which I could not do reading print?  I can read braille while lying flat in the dentist's chair, in unlit concert halls and in bed without a light.  Just think how much our electric bill went down! 
 
Braille is my passion.  I cannot get enough. I take a braille book with me wherever I go, since I want people to see someone reading braille.  I became an annual volunteer reader in the National Education Association's "Read Across America" Program.  I go into elementary school classrooms and show students my love of reading, which was not stopped because of vision loss. Rather, I learned a new way to read, using braille with my fingers.  Braille is also a great way to break the ice.  Since I read braille in public places, I often hear someone say, "Look, she's reading braille."  I invite them to touch my book and learn more about braille.
 
Over 10,000 students take courses from Hadley each year, ranging from academics to container gardening.  And if you missed the chance, you can even get your high school diploma through Hadley. But guess which courses are the ones with their highest enrollment?  You got it, braille!
 
For more information about Hadley's distance education courses, visit www.hadley.edu or call toll-free, 1-800-323-4238.