WBU-NAC region Otsuki Award
“Breaking the Barriers with Braille”
U.S.A. Nijat Ashrafzada Worley(20/Mare)
photo: Nijat Ashrafzada Worley

Joseph Addison once said, "Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body." I am Nijat Ashrafzada Worley, a student at the University of Colorado at Boulder: double majoring in Political Science and International Affairs. I am originally from Azerbaijan: a former Soviet Union country located in the Caucasus, on the Caspian sea. At the age of 11, I came to the United States for eye surgery. The surgeries were not successful, but new vistas were opened to me as I remained in the U.S. to get a good education.
My love for the poetry and the literature of my culture came to me early. Even before losing most of my sight at around ten years old, my mother would offer to read to me. But I could not read; we did not know about Braille. After coming to America, I began to learn Braille as I learned English. My first Braille teacher was Mr. Bishop at the Lovell middle school in the Bronx. Mr. Bishop taught me all the letters of the alphabet and the numbers. He later started to teach me the one-letter Braille contractions such as b for but, c for can. Within two weeks, I had learned the alphabet and all the one-letter contractions. Sadly, not long after that, I switched schools and I was left to learn Braille on my own.
I have often said that the Harry Potter books taught me both Braille and English. I remember trying to read the Harry Potter books in Braille and not understanding what all the contractions meant. At the age of fourteen, I received a Braille 'n Speak. As I would read Harry Potter, I would enter the contractions into the Braille 'n Speak to hear what words corresponded to that contraction. At the same time, I received a Franklin Talking dictionary, which was very useful for me, especially when I was still learning English. Every time I came across a word that I did not recognize, I would type it into the talking dictionary and it would tell me the meaning of that word.
I use Braille at every level of my learning process. I use a BrailleNote note-taker with a Braille display. Most of my textbooks are either scanned and translated into BRF electronic braille file types, or are downloaded from a web site where there are books in BRF file types that I can read on my BrailleNote. I love the feel of Braille under my fingertips. Braille brings my insight, ideas, information, enjoyment, and beauty. But Braille books can be bulky and heavy. Reading Braille through the BrailleNote is very convenient because I can carry around hundreds of books, including all my college textbooks in a small note-taker and read them wherever I want whether it is on an airplane, in a car, on a bus, at a waiting room in a doctor's office, or under the covers late at night. I also use JAWS (Job Access With Speech) screen reader to read electronic files on the computer. JAWS has an amazing feature that allows me to attach a Braille display to my computer so that I can read all my electronic mail and Word document in Braille.
Since the start of the 2009-2010 school year, I have been learning Russian. I believe it would have been very difficult for me to tackle Russian without Braille. When learning the new language, it is important to be able to read the words, write the words, and understand the definition of those words. When one cannot see what words look like in written form, then it becomes impossible to spell in that language, and to speak clearly and knowledgeably in that language. For this reason, this autumn I started to learn Russian Braille. I cannot put enough emphasis on how useful Braille has been to me in the process of learning a new language.
Russian Braille is different than English Braille, because there are more letters in the Russian alphabet, and there are no contractions in Russian Braille. Some of the English Braille letters are also different in Russian. For example, the English letter W is a letter V in Russian. That is why at first it was hard to switch from Russian to English braille because some of the same letters made different sounds in Russian.
Two years ago, my mother who still lives in Azerbaijan visited me. She brought me some Azerbaijani Braille books. I was very excited. Before I came to America, my family did not know about Braille. I started to read the books my mother brought, and I was very slow. There are 32 letters in the Azerbaijani alphabet. Many contractions in English Braille become letters in Azerbaijani Braille. For example, the gh contraction in English Braille is a letter in Azerbaijani Braille, and for this reason all the words are completely spelled out in Azerbaijani Braille. My new future goal is to learn Braille music so that when I start taking piano classes, I may be able to read and memorize the music before learning to play it on the piano.
There is something special about reading Braille. I remember as a young boy, after I lost my sight, I would always walk around with a print book in my hand, begging my family members to read to me. However, now that I know Braille, I am able to read on my own and read whatever I want and whenever I want. Being able to read Braille gives me independence and freedom, and I would not exchange that for anything in the world, because as Joseph Addison said, "Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body", and I want to have a healthy mind.


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