In the fifth grade, when most students were thinking of whether they would study Spanish or French heading to middle school, I started a time-consuming, difficult, life-changing project with the incredibly patient Mrs. Rowe.
This slow process was one that required me to learn how to place my hands on paper and move them from left-to-right, line-to-line; identifying letters of the alphabet that I had just learned to print a few years earlier. Those letters, that I once traced with a pencil, were now being represented as a series of six raised dots across the page. Combining these movements and the series of dots into words, sentences, and ultimately pages, I learned braille.
January marks the annual commemoration of Braille Literacy Month. Braille, for those who may not know, is a tactile writing system that can be read by the fingers of those who are blind. Braille was developed in France by Louis Braille who in 1824 at age 15 began to develop it as a way to produce more books for him to read independently.
Braille has a long and likely little-known connection to Boston. Prior to braille becoming the dominant tactile writing system for blind students in American schools before 1860, Boston Line Type. This was also tactile form of writing that, unlike braille’s use of raised dots, instead produced raised tactile versions of the alphabet was produced by the first President of the Perkins School for the Blind. We are also privileged to have the National Braille Press (NBP) located in Boston. NBP is the oldest braille printing-house in America and a national leader in promoting braille literacy. In fact, NBP’s history dates back to their involvement with producing America’s first-ever braille newspaper nearly a century ago in 1927.
Even in 2021, braille is a key skill for people who are blind to learn. I know personally that braille has benefited my life from the time I started learning it at age 10. When I was in school, braille was crucial for me to understand spelling and sentence structure in a way which listening to the written word could not. Braille was also important in my ability to structure and solve math problems on the page in front of me as a sited pier might with a pencil and paper.
And even today at a time when more and more technology is available, I still benefit from braille daily. I use braille to label papers, files, or even movies or CDs so that I can easily and independently find them in the future. I use it to find the right button to push when I am in an elevator or to find room numbers in a building. I also use braille to write talking points and notes to remind me what key points I want to communicate in a meeting.
Unfortunately, studies show that braille Is being taught less and less in America today and this is contributing to some very negative outcomes in the lives of those who are blind. Less than 10% of those who are blind are braille literate in America. The high school dropout rate amongst students who are blind is as high as 50% which is twice as high as the overall national dropout rate of 25%. And sadly more than 70% of Americans who are blind are unemployed. But studies have found that for those who are braille literate that rates of education, employment, and income are all higher for those who are braille literate proving how important it is that we teach braille to those of us who are blind.
Boston has always played a leading role in advancing the lives of people who are blind both locally and nationally. I want to encourage us, as a city and state, to fight to ensure that every resident has access to the skills and resources they need, such as the ability to learn braille, so that we can continue to be a place that both serves its residents and charts the course for others to follow.
Alex Gray is running for an At-Large seat on the Boston City Council. If elected Alex would be the only blind City Councilor in America and Boston’s first-ever blind City Councilor.