An Introduction to Braille

Beloved sage and scholar Rabbi Hillel asks all people a rhetorical question in the Hebrew writings Pirke Avot known as […]

Beloved sage and scholar Rabbi Hillel asks all people a rhetorical question in the Hebrew writings Pirke Avot known as “Ethics of the Fathers.” The query is: “If I am not for myself, who is for me; and if I am only for myself, what am I;and if not now, when?”

That long ago inquiry brings us to a moving tale told about touch. More to the point, or might we say “pointer,” it concerns 15 women in the 48-year-old Braille group at Congregation Ahavath Chesed. They are training to help the blind to read.

On a recent Thursday morning at Congregation Ahavath Chesed, 15 women began training to join the congre-gation’s Sisterhood Braille Group. Seated in front of Perkins Braillers at 10 am at Ahavath Chesed, some of the women said they expected the nine-month course to be difficult.

The Perkins Brailler the women use at first is known as a Braille writer, and years ago Braille writers were costly, noisy, heavy, and needed frequent repair. In the 1930s, Dr. Gabriel Farrell, director of the Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts, wanted his printing department to produce a better machine. In the woodworking department, he found teacher David Abraham, who had training as a mechanic and experience designing and building machines that made stair railings. Dr. Farrell asked him to design a new Braille writer. With the help of Dr. Edward Waterhouse, a math teacher, the three men developed the specifications, and the prototype was completed in November, 1939. After World War II, production began.

A century before in Coupvray near Paris, harness maker Simon Braille and his wife, Monique, had a growing family. After they welcomed their fourth child, Louis, they discovered he was bright and inquisitive. But at age three, playing in his father’s shop, Louis injured an eye with a sharp awl. Infection set in and spread to the other eye, leaving him completely blind. At 10, Louis was sent on scholarship to the Royal Institution for Blind Youth in Paris.

It was French army captain Charles Barbier de la Serre who invented the technique of using raised dots for tactile writing and reading to allow soldiers to compose and read messages at night without light. Barbier adapted the system and presented it to the Institution for Blind Youth, calling the system Sono-graphy, because it represented words according to sound rather than spelling. Louis discovered the potential of the basic idea and the shortcomings. By age 15, he developed the system that is now Braille, employing a six-dot cell and based upon normal spelling.

Back at Congregation Ahavath Chesed, Kaynn Davis saw the Braille transcription course as “an opportunity to help those who may need to read books in Braille. It sure will be a challenge, but I like learning something new.” Kathy Balistreri added, “It is something I always wanted to learn.”

The City of Jacksonville, FL purchased a computerized transcriber which can take an e-mail in Microsoft Word format and turn it into Braille material. “Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, we do that for city-related events if need be,” said Jack Gillrup chief of Jacksonville’s Disabled Services Division. “In that regard, as a municipality we’re rather ahead of the curve.” In the Twin Cities, such projects are usually referred to the American Foundation for the Blind.

Bernita Gilberstadt Congregation Ahavath Chesed Braille Group founder, and one of the two blind proofreaders, told the Florida Times-Union she appreciates the 15 women viewing the course as a challenge because many people are needed to learn how to turn printed words into something blind people can read. Gilberstadt says it’s “necessary because more children are being mainstreamed into public school, and I think any child or even grown person in danger of losing their sight should learn Braille.”

The Braille group dates back to 1957 and now proclaims 60 members. They translate the written word into Braille and prepare embossed maps and diagrams so a blind person can “see” a road. At present, the group is printing textbooks for students in Jacksonville and Arkansas. Past projects include cookbooks, manuals for the American Red Cross and religious texts for rabbis, priests, and ministers.

“Braille groups aren’t numerous,” said group president Jacqueline Lasky. In fact, her group is the only one in northern Florida. The group gets financial support from the congregation’s Sisterhood and from some Lions Clubs. It does projects for the School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine, FL, and “we are working for a little boy in Arkansas. His mother called to get textbooks together because he has a whole year’s worth. She was desperate.”

New group members are sought annually, since an average novel ends up being seven to eight volumes of Braille characters, and each volume takes a trained translator about a week to do. Members must learn the Braille system. Instructor Thelma Lebowitz told the present 15 students the letter “A” was one raised dot in the upper left of the left-hand column. By 11 am, the students had typed “A” through “J” in Braille, and by the time you read this —in print, mostly—the majority of the students will transfer to a computer that uses translation software provided by the state of Florida.

For the record, Ahavath Chesed is Hebrew meaning “the love of kindness as required by God.” For more information, contact the Congregation Ahavath Chesed at 8727 San Jose Blvd., Jacksonville, FL 32217, 904-733-7078.

Herb Drill writes and edits www.notaccessible.com and is a charter member of the now International Society of American Business Editors and Writers. His e-mail address is herbdrill@ableme.com