Everything you Ever Wanted to Know about Teaching Braille but were Too Scared to Ask (Episode 29)

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“Most of us who know braille were taught it.” It sounds like such an obvious statement – so obvious, in fact, that it seems appropriate to conclude that the world has an abundance of braille teachers, and the methods and techniques that they use are mature, uniform and understood by everyone working in the field. Presumably, approaches that work well have been iterated over time, those that haven’t worked so well have been abandoned, and the entire process has been well-documented so that future teachers can learn from the mistakes of the past.

The reality is less clearly defined, although certain concepts which have withstood the test of time especially well have become accepted as common knowledge. Pre-braille skills, for instance, feature regularly in discussions about teaching braille, as do the differences between learning braille by touch and by sight and teaching braille to children and adults.

On Tuesday 29 June 2021, we explored this topic in more detail in a live panel discussion with three braille teachers:

  • Kirsten Roberts is a life-long braille user, a Qualified Teacher of the Visually Impaired (QTVI), and Deputy Braille Tutor for the Mandatory Qualification for Teachers of Children and Young People with Vision Impairments offered at the University of Birmingham. In addition to her university work, she regularly teaches braille to both primary and secondary-aged children.
  • Christine Williams recently retired from Exhall Grange Specialist School and Science College in Coventry, where she held the post of Lead Teacher of the Visually Impaired. In that capacity, she taught braille not only to the pupils at Exhall Grange, but also peripatetically to pupils of all ages in mainstream schools throughout Warwickshire (via the Vision Support Service). Prior to this, she taught French at Exhall Grange for a number of years, where braille also played a significant role. In her retirement, she teaches braille voluntarily at Coventry Resource Centre for the Blind, predominantly to adults who are losing or in danger of losing their sight.
  • Melanie Pritchard has an extensive background in teaching braille to adults, either with visual impairments themselves or who are sighted friends or relatives of people with a visual impairment. Most recently, she taught the Braille For Beginners course remotely for the Braillists Foundation.

Resources Mentioned in this Episode

JAWS and Braille: A Closer Look (Extra 29)

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In Using Braille on Windows, we introduced you to the basics of making a braille display work with various screen readers. In this session, we took this to the next level in the first of an occasional series of Masterclasses looking at the braille settings of a particular screen reader.

This time it was JAWS. There are lots of settings and we weren’t able to cover all of them in an hour, so instead we reviewed some of the most common questions we’re asked, found the settings that relate to them, and explained what they do.

We covered:

  • Adding and selecting your braille display
  • Choosing your braille code and grade
  • Status cells and their use in structured mode
  • Reversing panning buttons and panning by paragraph
  • Using JAWS Braille In ™

This session was recorded on Tuesday 6 July 2021. For further information please visit the Braillists Foundation Media Page.

The Most Inexpensive Braille Reading Setup in the World? Introducing Braille on the Amazon Fire Tablet (Extra 27)

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Over the years, blind people have benefitted from incredible enhancements in the fields of electronic braille and accessibility in general. In fact, it’s now possible to purchase a fully accessible Amazon Fire tablet for under £50 which, pared with an inexpensive braille display such as an Orbit Reader, and Amazons Kindle store which offers access to quite literally hundreds of thousands of digital books, makes for an incredibly cost-effective braille reading setup. But how does it work?

In this masterclass, presented by Ben Mustill-Rose, we provided a general overview of the Fire tablet, the basics of setting it up, how to connect a braille display and how to navigate the device using it. We then purchased a book from the Kindle store and walked through how to read it on a braille display.

This session was recorded on Tuesday 15 June 2021. For further information please visit the Braillists Foundation Media Page.

Braille in the Kitchen (Extra 26)

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This week’s Masterclass has a more low tech flavour as we take a wander into the heart of the household. If you’ve ever wondered how to read braille recipes without ruining them or what to do when the label is too big for the jar, this session is for you.

Emma Williams led the session – teacher of Independent Living Skills at New College Worcester, and a familiar voice to many from our Clever Cooking events last year. She drew on a wealth of personal experience of using braille in the kitchen, as well as things which have worked well (and maybe some which haven’t) for her peers and her students.

This session was recorded on Tuesday 1 June 2021. For further information please visit the Braillists Foundation Media Page.

An Introduction to Braille on Android (Extra 24)

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If you’re a blind Android user, you’re bound to have come across Steve Nutt at Computer Room Services. He’s blind himself, been in the accessible smartphone business for over 20 years, and has a vast amount of knowledge and experience when it comes to using smartphones with braille displays.

We’re delighted that he joined us on Tuesday 18 May to present an introduction to using an Android device with a braille display. He covered which braille displays work with Android, how to connect them, how to navigate the operating system, other key concepts, and how to use braille input.

For further information please visit the Braillists Foundation Media Page.

What is a BRF and Why would you Want one? (Extra 23)

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We’re starting to hear more and more about BRF files. They’re the default braille format on platforms such as RNIB Reading Services; they’re regularly used in the transcription industry to share braille versions of documents between producers; and notetaker users have used them to transfer files from one brand of braille device to another. But questions still prevail:

  • What, exactly, is a BRF?
  • Why would you use BRF files over more mainstream file formats?
  • What are the limitations of BRF?
  • How do you read BRF files?
  • How do you navigate through them?
  • How do you create them?

Matthew Horspool answered all these questions and more on Tuesday 4 May.

For further information please visit the Braillists Foundation Media Page.

How to Choose your Braille Display (Extra 21)

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We were delighted to be joined by renowned braille display expert Jackie Brown. Jackie is a freelance writer, regular reviewer of braille technology, and author of “Braille ON Display” (published by Mosen Consulting), a comprehensive comparison of braile displays and guide to choosing the right one.

On Tuesday 20 April 2021, Jackie talked us through the process of choosing a braille display. She outlined which factors to consider and why, and the key features of the braille displays which are currently on the market. If you’ve ever wondered “Which braille display is the best one?” you are sure to have the answer at the end of this session.

For further information please visit the Braillists Foundation Media Page.

Dr Robert Englebretson on the International Phonetic Alphabet (Episode 25)

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Based in Houston, Texas, Dr Robert Englebretson is widely recognised for his contribution to braille research. In 2008, his work on updating the Braille International Phonetic Alphabet was published by the International Council on English Braille, and in 2019 the Braille Authority of North America made him a recipient of the Darleen Bogart Braille Excellence Award in recognition of this work.

More recently, in his role as Associate Professor of Linguistics at Rice University, he has begun to tackle misconceptions around how students learn to read and write braille from the perspective of the cognitive sciences, with a large research project due to be completed in 2024.

On Friday 3 June, we caught up with Robert as part of our series of Stay Safe: Stay Connected conference calls, and we started by asking him to describe the International Phonetic Alphabet.

Links of Interest

What has the Federation ever done for Us? with Everette Bacon (Extra 20)

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On Friday 28 August 2020, Everette Bacon joined a Braillists Foundation Stay Safe: Stay Connected call to talk about how the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) promotes braille literacy across the United States.

Everette is a member of the Board of Directors of NFB and President of the Utah State Division. He told us how he has personally pushed to make assistive technology more widely available and explained the kinds of resources and programmes that NFB provides for its members, including the work it has done to promote equality of distance learning for blind students during lockdown. We also heard about some of the most exciting projects NFB has supported through the Dr Jacob Bolotin Award.

Your Braille Library Questions Answered (Extra 19)

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RNIB, which operates one of Europe’s largest braille lending libraries, has recently announced changes to the way books will be produced from April 2021. Since the announcement, there has naturally been much discussion about what these changes will mean for braille readers in the UK and around the world.

The Braillists Foundation and colleagues from RNIB explored these changes and answered questions from the public on Tuesday 23 March.

RNIB Braille Library – important update

Dear RNIB Braille Library Customer,

I am writing to let you know that from April 2021, RNIB’s Braille Library will be upgraded to offer Braille Library books on demand, a new personalised braille reading service designed to substantially increase access to hardcopy braille books for readers across the UK.

While you do not need to take any action to benefit from the new service, I want to share some of the changes you will notice in the coming months.

You will begin receiving freshly produced pristine Braille Library books that are recyclable. Your braille books will be more hygienic as you will be the first person to read them. Plus, your book is much less likely to be damaged or unreadable due to squashed dots. You will have access to a larger braille collection delivered straight to your door free of charge.

You will notice Braille Library books will be a more convenient format that will fit through more letterboxes, is easier to store and carry around. The smaller lighter volumes are much more comfortable for children and anyone with physical difficulties handling older heavier books.

Braille Library books on demand also means books are never out of stock. You will no longer need to wait for another Braille Library member to return a book you have requested. Multiple readers can receive copies of the same title simultaneously, ideal to meet shifting demand for new releases, best sellers and prize winners while preserving access to rarer books of special interest.

If you are already an RNIB Braille Library member, you will start receiving books in the new format automatically. You can continue to manage your book lists online or over the phone. You can change how often you receive books. If you manage a Braille Library membership on behalf of someone else, you can continue getting support via the RNIB Helpline or manage booklists online.

Unlike traditional library books, Braille Library on demand books are designed to be recycled and should not be returned. You can keep books for as long as you need them. You can also share your books with other braille readers.

As passionate readers ourselves, we appreciate braille is a vital literacy medium for tens of thousands of readers across the UK. Sadly however, the Braille Library in its current form is increasingly out of date and excludes some readers.

Large parts of our current collection are in old braille formats unsuitable for new braille readers. Many books are rarely borrowed, most of our collection has not left the warehouse in the past two years. Braille books occupy miles of shelving that is complex and expensive to maintain.

Older braille library books are bulky, heavy, and difficult for some readers to return. These books exclude some readers, especially those with physical difficulties.

After careful research and evaluation of braille library services around the world, we have found producing braille library books on demand offers the best opportunity for sustainable access to hardcopy braille for the widest number of readers for as long as is needed.

Please be assured that older books in our warehouse will be donated to customers and schools in the UK.  We will then donate books to our sister organisations overseas. If there is a particular book you would like to keep, please contact the library with your request.

Special braille items of cultural significance will be preserved as part of RNIB’s Heritage collection based in London.

Children who would like to keep a few favourite braille books in the old format are welcome to do so and we can arrange this by calling RNIB’s Helpline on 0303 123 9999, or via email [email protected] although they may find the new format easier to hold and read.

Combined with RNIB’s growing collection of electronic braille library books available to you on an SD memory card and download from our website, the braille library upgrade represents a renewed commitment to braille literacy and offers readers greater choice than ever before. In 2020 RNIB invested over £100,000 in providing electronic braille equipment and books to meet changing reader requirements. However, we recognise the continued value of hardcopy braille for many and plan to offer both services in parallel. However, if you would like to explore also receiving books electronically please contact the library.

If you have any questions about the Braille Library, please call our Helpline on 0303 123 9999 or email us at [email protected].

Yours sincerely,
James Bartlett
RNIB Reading Services Manager