"I love Braille... in fact, I created i_l_brl to have a community of people interested in it (sighted or blind) who can help each other out while learning it. But what I like about it is being able to read, the amazingness of the system, and the niftyness of being able to read in the dark without disturbing anyone. The feel of the bumps under my fingers is just part of the process."
Twenty years ago an eye specialist told me solemnly that I should start preparing myself for the likelihood that I would be blind. "Maybe in a year or two," he said, "maybe not for another ten years. But it would be best if you got used to the idea, because it's going to happen." This was scary.... more than anything else, it was scary because reading is such a huge part of my life. I decided, therefore, that what I needed to do first was learn to read Braille, and I ordered all the necessary materials to get started.
That project fell by the wayside for a number of reasons -- mostly because the need to earn a living took almost all my time, but also because I just didn't try hard enough. But I've kept the materials, and I've never stopped wishing that I could read Braille; touch is important enough to me as a sensory system to give the idea of reading by touch a powerful appeal.
One of the things we know about how visual reading works is that the interaction between the short term (working) memory and way the human eye takes in information makes it critical for the person doing the reading to read at roughly 200 words a minute. Otherwise, too much information gets lost as you go along. The information that was sent to me indicated that Braille reading didn't go that fast, and that puzzled me, because the limitations on the short term memory would remain the same whether the input was to the eye or to the fingertips.
And then I had the good fortune to observe a skilled reader of Braille in action. We were both reading papers at a linguistics conference, and in the question-and-answer period after her paper I asked her how readers of Braille are able to understand what they read at the slower speed. Her explanation was that Braille is read with both hands -- one hand following along behind the other -- so that the input is received twice. The following hand is always there to reinforce the information for the leading hand.
Because I'm hearing dominant, I find this even more fascinating. It seems as though the input from the following hand in reading Braille would be a distraction rather than a help, like the input you'd get from a microphone in a huge and acoustically inferior space where everything that was said was followed by an echo. But clearly that's not the case. I didn't want to monopolize the floor at the conference by asking her even more questions that weren't related to the topic of her paper, so I didn't pursue the matter; but I've continued to wonder.
Before I wrote this post -- because I'm starting to learn the blogging protocols, very slowly -- I thought "I should get online and do some research and find out what the average speed for reading Braille is now said to be, and find out whether the information I was given is still current, and find out what research has been done in Braille reading and visual reading since the last time I looked, and provide a batch of relevant links in the post." But I didn't do any of that, violating the very protocol I've just begun to learn. Because the past two days of bad weather have put me so far behind in my other work, I either had to post from a position of ignorance -- but with the knowledge that every one of you is perfectly able to do that Google search for yourselves -- or not post this for a couple of days while I did the research in the occasional spare moment. I decided to go for the position of ignorance.
I wish that all children in this country learned to read Braille in elementary school, just as I wish that they all learned at least the basics of American Sign Language in elementary school. Those two measures might go a very long way toward breaking down the bias against touch in our culture.