Touched by Braille

by Alice Jane-Marie Massa

Since I was five years old, my parents knew that my vision was diminishing; by second grade, I had a clear concept that my vision was not like that of the other 88 children in my rural grade school.  Although I was legally blind by the age of 16, none of my doctors ever mentioned the word "braille" because they all agreed that I would retain usable vision.  They were wrong - a factual statement that I have always found easy to accept.  I suppose that my only regret is that I did not learn braille earlier in life. 
Clearly, I remember the first time I saw a print representation of braille: the entire braille alphabet was pictorially displayed in my Scholastic Book "The Story of Helen Keller."  I was fascinated by this book and still have it on a shelf today.  Realizing the limits and pains of magnification, I, at age 30, began teaching myself grade-one braille.  After having borrowed a standard brailler from someone for a while, I purchased my electric brailler in 1983 and still use this marvelous machine.  Since I wanted to learn braille extremely thoroughly and well, I decided to take the Library of Congress braille transcriber course.  Well, I had to do a maximum job of convincing a local braille transcriber (in Indiana) to agree to check my work for the 18 lessons, prior to the final lesson that would be evaluated by someone in Washington, D.C.  The reluctant transcriber eventually realized my determination and became more understanding of my goal.  Being certified by the Library of Congress as a braille transcriber made me more proud than earning the B.A. and M.S. degrees that I had achieved by that time.  During this period, I had become tremendously intrigued with the life of Louis Braille (1809-1852) and tried to read everything I could about him.
After teaching braille as a volunteer, I had an opportunity to attend Western Michigan University, where I earned my second master's degree - this one in blind rehabilitation instruction.  After six years of teaching braille and other courses as a blind rehab instructor, I returned to the classroom where I taught English in a technical college until my retirement. 
Currently, I am studying music braille, also invented by the brilliant Louis Braille.  Having grown up reading print music, I have long wanted to learn music braille; now, thanks to a new course of the Hadley School for the Blind, I am able to work toward this goal.
Without braille, none of my goals would have been accomplished, and none of my dreams would have come true.  Thus, each Jan. 4, the birthday of Louis Braille, I give my respectful and abundant thanks to Louis Braille for how his gift has touched my life and the lives of millions of others around the world.  If a thoracic surgeon were ever to examine my heart, I think he or she would find braille in each chamber of my heart. 
Besides having taught braille to blind people from age 18 to 82, one summer vacation when my (sighted) nephews were 7 and 9, I decided to teach them and their mother (my only sister) grade-one braille.  I was delighted with their enthusiasm about learning braille.  Through the years, only my younger nephew Eric (a violinist and Ironman triathlete who served one deployment in Iraq and one in Afghanistan as an Army Ranger after graduating from college) has continued with brailling on greeting cards for me by using a slate and stylus.  Thus, 12 years ago, Eric's brailling was the focus of my Christmas poem for my holiday card of the year 2000, which follows.