Deliberate Communication

Subtitle: A letter for Henry

I have decided to break out the Perkins braillewriter. Henry and I are going to exchange braille letters with the hope of improving my braille skills. As the novice, I must write the first of these missives. Henry says this will force me to remember my skills, but I suspect he wants me to write first, so he can chuckle over my garish braille spelling.

I’ve cleared a space for the machine on my desk and pulled out four sheets of thick braille paper. The paper measures 8.5 x 11 inches and already has holes punched along the left margin. I flip back the two levers on the brailler and slide the first sheet of paper between the long, thin rollers. I flip the levers forward, securing the paper. I begin to turn the knobs on either side of the machine, causing the paper to retract into place.

There’s nothing glamorous about a Perkins brailler. It’s a sturdy, no-nonsense machine, built for endurance. Made of a dull, bluish-gray metal, it offers two rows of three keys, much like the Home Row on a print keyboard. Just before these rows sits the space bar. The “backspace” key sits in the “shift” position to the right of the two rows, and the “next line” key sits in the “shift” position on the left. To go to the next line, I press down on the small carriage and slide it to the left, across the front of the brailler. It dings just like a typewriter, but the click-click of the braille keys is lower, deeper, more sonorous.

The first row of three keys corresponds to dots 1, 2, and 3 of the braille cell. The second row of keys embosses dots 4, 5, and 6. Since the keys are arranged horizontally on the brailler and the dots are arranged vertically inside the braille cell, typing the correct letters requires a specific set of cerebral gymnastics.

With my paper in place, I begin my letter. October 9, 2012. I press dot 6 for a capital sign and dots 1, 3, and 5 for an o. Perfectthis is easier than I thought. Thinking of the word “October,” I type a t (dots 2, 3, 4, and 5)—and realize that I’ve already missed a letter. Immediately, I remember Henry’s stern commandment:

“You must think in braille, not in print.”

I realize that I have been thinking about the holistic look of the word October, not how it feels, letter-by-letter. I reach over the keys and feel the o, perfectly embossed, and the t, which shouldn’t be there. Carefully, I use the nail of my left index finger to scratch out the extraneous dots (2, 3, and 5). Then I press the “backspace” key and emboss a dot 1. Now, I have a c (dots 1 and 4), but, as I type the rest of the word, I remember another piece of our conversation:

Henry, grinning with the enjoyment of his superior knowledge, tells me not to bother with a braille eraser (a small wooden tool with a blunt tip for rubbing out extra dots). “Just press all 6 keys over your mistake,” he says calmly. “That will cross it out.” His tone becomes admonishing, “Don’t you dare try to scratch out your mistakes with a fingernail! I’ll know—I’ll be able to feel that for sure!”

Well, I am certainly not going to cross out a word on the very first line of my letter! I’ll leave the fingernail marks in there, just to see if he’s paying attention.

I continue with the letter, trying to imagine each word in braille before I type it. My fingers hesitate over the two rows, the balls of my fingers nestling into the indentations on each key. I feel like a four-year-old at the piano, excited and reticent all at once. As I move into the first paragraph, I am amazed at the effort needed to press each key. My fingers start to ache, and I’ve only typed three sentences!

However, the brailler offers certain aesthetic compensations. Each time I complete a line, I am rewarded by the musical ding of the brailler bell—which adds a strange spatial awareness to my epistolary efforts. I find myself choosing different words because I know their size and contractions. I choose shorter words when I’m nearing the end of the line. The hesitation and deliberation over each letter forces me to meditate on the words I emboss. When my thinking becomes too fast, I slip back into print and make careless mistakes. I type an sh (dots 1, 4, and 6) instead of an -ing (dots 3, 4, and 6). I must think word by word—breaking each word into phonemes, or sound-components.

In the middle of the second paragraph, I realize that I am typing much more quickly. Contractions I learned years ago are dancing into my conscious mind; I easily recall the shorthand for the, have, this, and just. The click of the brailler keys synchronizes with the rhythm of my thoughts, and the melodious ding at the end of each line keeps me aware of my place on the page. My mind fills with the notions of space and texture, and I occasionally check my progress with the index finger of my right hand.

At the bottom of the first page, I decide to stop. My hesitant thoughts have given way to cramped fingers. I feel a sense of relief, amazed that the braille seems so familiar after only a page of embossing.

I cannot ignore the contrast between my slow, deliberate embossing and the rapid, intuitive process of typing on my familiar laptop keyboard. Something is blossoming in my consciousness: an awareness of the effects of the medium on the process of writing. It is not that the brailler makes me think more slowly or choose different words; using the brailler, exerting more physical effort when I write, changes the shape of my thoughts.

Now, I want to attempt a writing task using different media—pen, computer, brailler, and even slate and stylus (the pen and paper method for braille) to see how each would change the timbre of my writing.

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2 Comments

  1. Lois Gray

     /  October 12, 2012

    Emily, first of all congratulations for having your “Green Tea” blog being accepted and sent out to a wider audience.

    I wanted to comment on this present blog about Braille because it brought back some memories to me as well as giving me more insight into Braille’s impact on its true users! Right after I retired from full-time work (1994), I signed up to take Braille lessons at the synagogue out on San Jose. This group of dedicated folks taught Braille to volunteers who would then translate books, local restaurant menus, various bulletins from any interested organizations that wanted to reach the visually impaired for whatever reasons. The class was interesting and it was taught by sighted people but there was a coordinator who had been blind from birth. She planned the lessons, proofread assignments, and generally acted as our resource person.

    In my class there were about 12 “students” and all of us were eager to learn and challenged by the class. One woman, a local radiologist’s wife, was particularly quick & an excellent typist as well. She turned out assignments & projects much more quickly than the rest of us. Anyway, she was our standard bearer.

    I found learning the alphabet fairly easy but since I am not a very accurate typist, the Perkins was my true bugbear. However, I persevered and gradually gained in skills and enjoyed the camaraderie and the learning. Just about the time that I thought I might be able to give something back to the program, the coordinator & teachers reluctantly announced that they were going to disband the group because a computer software program could do the translation work rapidly & and with less chance of errors. They did offer us the chance to do regular typing to put the material into the software program, but I declined because, as I have already said, I am not a great typist.

    Anyway, I have always been glad that I joined the class and now am happy to hear that Braille is still useful as is the venerable Perkins machine!

    Thanks for all your blogs, Emily, they entertaining and honest and give me insights I greatly enjoy! Lois

    Reply
    • Hi Lois, it is too cool to learn about your braille experiences! I’ve considered getting my license in literary braille transcription. The only drawback is that the program is a nine-month course, and the classes are offered at the same time as the classes I teach. Someday, though, I will do it!

      I’ve heard wonderful things about the Temple Braille Group. In fact, they’re working on a collection of Seamus Heaney’s poetry for me right now!

      As always, thanks for dropping by. I really enjoy your feedback!

      Reply

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