EBU (Senior Group) Fine Work
Braille as a career and a magical key
Switzerland Suzanne Kunz (67, Female)
“When I was 8 years of age, I started at the Sonnenberg School for the Blind in Fribourg, Switzerland, and began learning Braille from my earliest schooldays. All the schoolbooks provided for our use were in Braille. At that time, optical aids for people like me with severely impaired vision were still almost non-existent. I soon mastered the short form equally well and grew up with it. Even at that time I was a great fan of books. I avidly devoured everything I could get my hands on to read. I also smuggled books to bed with me because we were supposed to go to sleep early and were not allowed to chat with one another or leave the light on. Under the covers, however, I was able to read undisturbed for hours. In this way, I was able to while away the long nights happily, reading American Indian adventures in particular. I was forever running out of reading material. During the holidays my parents were driven almost to desperation on account of the fact that in next to no time I had read all the books and was complaining of boredom. The situation only improved when I received some strong magnifying glasses from an optical specialist and began to read printed books as well. I was an inquisitive child with a thirst for knowledge who loved books above everything else.
After my time in the boarding school and after subsequently completing a commercial apprenticeship, I chose to train as a Braille teacher and began giving lessons at the age of 21. I taught young people and adults who had undergone retraining or had started vocational training at the institution where I was employed and have worked for more than 40 years. Even after reaching the official retirement age, I did not stop teaching, but continue to work on a part-time basis. Sometimes I only give a few lessons a week, sometimes I work almost half a week. During my professional career, I have experienced and shared in the technical development at first hand, actively tried out and applied the first electronic aids such as the VersaBraille, got to know the first computer with Braille display, occupied myself with it enthusiastically and acquired the necessary expertise and proficiency. From the beginning, I have greeted these innovations with enthusiasm.
In my case, having only slight residual vision and being severely hearing-impaired into the bargain, doors opened up to new worlds, to knowledge and information, to communication with the environment. Thanks to the computer, Braille displays and various devices, I was then able to telephone, read messages, surf the Internet, keep in touch with people by e-mail, send and receive text messages. With my mobile computer system, a Braille device and a standard keyboard, I attend conferences and talks, hold conversations with doctors and therapists, with the banker, in the train and anywhere else I encounter people who are unfamiliar with and unable to use the finger alphabet for the deaf-blind. In this way, Braille has not only become my career, but also a magical key with which to unlock all sorts of things.
Over the years I have worked as a Braille teacher and taught countless people the standard and short form. I have been able to accumulate a wealth of experience for learning Braille and know about the challenges and hurdles students have to face up to and master. Time and time again I have succeeded in opening people’s eyes to the joy of Braille, increasing their willingness to train their tactile sense patiently und perseveringly, stepping up their reading speed and reading confidence. A number of my former students have trained to become Braille teachers and are giving lessons themselves.
Sadly however, Braille is declining more and more in importance. Audiobooks and speech output using computers and other devices is replacing it and markedly displacing it. The downsides of Braille mean that a large proportion of severely visually-impaired and blind people give up on it and are totally dependent on the acoustic aids. Learning Braille demands a great deal of time, lengthy practice and a considerable degree of effort, all of which discourage many of those affected. Nevertheless, my mission and strong desire is to maintain interest in Braille, to promote its spread and ensure that Louis Braille’s ingenious invention is not lost. For me, there is no other choice; I am unable to take advantage of audiobooks or speech output, as advantageous and desirable it would sometimes be. I am totally dependent on Braille and the Braille display. I used to have the option of reading with magnifying glasses or screen reading device. However, they tire me very quickly and tense up my neck and shoulder muscles. Moreover, I can read Braille much faster and in greater comfort. I believe I can read just as quickly as sighted people with printed books. Even when blind and severely visually impaired people can choose, they would not wish to do without Braille. They like holding a book in their hands, reading their mail themselves and being able to check and correct their computer work with their fingers. The task of the teachers is and will continue to be to impart Braille in addition to all these splendid technical achievements, to structure its learning in an attractive and interesting way and promote its use in everyday life.
Braille is an inseparable and indispensable part of my life. It is also an international means of communication because it applies everywhere. I can send and receive my Braille letters everywhere. Similarly, I can read books in other languages. I am an avid user of the Braille library in England and it gives me a great deal of pleasure to be able to read the works of English literature as they were originally written. The range of books available from the Braille libraries not only in the German-speaking area but also in English and French is extensive and offers a huge choice for every taste. Thanks to modern technology, it is also a good deal easier to convert books and documents of every kind into Braille.
I would like to conclude by expressing my appreciation and gratitude to Louis Braille for his priceless invention even after more than 200 years. Without it, countless blind and severely visually-impaired persons would have had limited or no access to literature, science and education. We have to take care to ensure that this splendid cultural asset is not lost.