WBU-NAC region Otsuki Award
Braille Smiles
U.S.A Larry Johnson (83, male)
photo: Danielle Burton

I have been a Braille user for over 75 years and depend on it for both personal and business activities.

I began learning to read and write Braille in first grade, the same as sighted children learn to read and write print. I welcome the fact that today Braille is everywhere - on elevators, ATM machines, hotel guestrooms, restaurant menus, restrooms, airline in-flight information cards, business cards, greeting cards, soft drink vending machines, signs in museums, airports, parks, historical monuments, federal buildings and more.

Using Braille has brought me more than a few chuckles. On a recent business trip, checking in at the Hilton Hotel in Kansas City, I kidded the bell person because they had placed the Braille numeral outside my room upside down. Later that evening, I returned to the hotel, took the elevator up to my floor and promptly forgot my room number. Embarrassed I began walking along the corridor reading the room numbers and trying to remember my number, when suddenly my fingers came across a Braille numeral that was upside down. Voila! Their mistake was my salvation.

I will readily confess that reading Braille sometimes can be a serious challenge. I did my undergraduate study at Northwestern University in Evanston IL, just outside Chicago. The winters in Chicago can be bitterly cold. I commuted to class each day, which meant a 30 min. bus ride, a block and a half walk to catch the El (elevated train), a change of trains and then a 6 block walk to the campus. Not a difficult journey for my guide dog Tasha and me when the weather was mild, but during mid January could be frigidly numbing, with the wind blowing off the lake at 20 miles an hour and the temperature hovering around zero.

I remember once arriving to my 8 AM radio announcing class and asking the professor if he could schedule me last to read the commercials we were assigned to read over the microphone, because my fingers were so frozen that I couldn't feel the Braille dots on my script. His roguish reply drew raucous laughter from my classmates, "I thought I'd heard all the excuses before. I guess I’ll just have to give you an “F” for frozen.”

Then there is the other extreme. I now live in Texas and it was a wonderful surprise one sunny August afternoon a few years ago, when I was visiting our beautiful San Antonio Botanical Gardens. Volunteers had placed Braille inscriptions on copper plaques identifying the plants and herbs. I certainly appreciated their desire to make information accessible to blind folks like me, but, I will tell you this, it takes a really dedicated Braille reader to be willing to run his/her fingers across those copper plaques after they’ve been heated up a few hours by our ferocious tropical Texas sun.

One of the big advantages of Braille is that you can read your presentation to an audience while looking straight at them. However, some sighted people are confused by this. Recently I delivered a short talk to a group of seniors at an inauguration ceremony. As I was speaking, a woman turned to one of my friends and commented: “Do you notice how nervous he is? He keeps fumbling with his papers.” My friend replied a bit annoyed, “Silly, he’s not fumbling with his papers, he’s reading Braille.”

On another occasion in college, I was taking a graduate level course in economics. Apparently the professor had never before seen Braille or a slate and stylus. She turned to the blackboard and began writing and speaking. I began taking notes. She stopped and turned around. So, I stopped writing. After a pause, she turned again to the blackboard and began speaking and writing once more. I resumed my note-taking. She paused a second time and turned around. So I paused as well. She turned again to the blackboard and resumed her lecture and writing. I resumed by note-taking. Stopping this time in mid sentence she turned to the class and demanded to know who was making that tapping noise while she was talking. Everyone looked at me. I lifted my slate off my desk and showed it to her. “It’s me.” I said. “I’m taking notes in Braille.” She was embarrassed. But, that day, she was also educated.

Once, when buying a pair of shoes at a very upscale shoe store, I was feeling just a little mischievous. When the sales clerk asked me for my driver’s license, I pulled from my pocket a 3 by 5 card with Braille on it and gave it to him. He looked at it, turned it over a couple of times, hesitated and then stammered “I can’t read this.” “Well, it’s because it’s in Braille.” I replied. “That’s how they are issued to us.” He was baffled at what to do. After a half minute, I grinned, told him I was kidding and handed him my regular Texas ID.

For some, Braille may be a "bumpy road to knowledge", but for me, it is a wonderful way to keep in touch.


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