Better Living Through Severed Shoestrings

“Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know,” played on repeat throughout my time in public school. I was better off than many blind students, since my school division rarely hesitated to fund what I needed, and my educational assistant’s skill far exceeded her salary. Despite this relative abundance, I was never permitted to forget how lucky I was to receive basic educational tools. Fellow classmates were forever losing or damaging their books and equipment, while I was reprimanded for so much as bending a binder. I was threatened with a $700 fine for misplacing one volume of a Braille book. If a piece of expensive equipment malfunctioned—usually because I had not received the most rudimentary lessons on how to use it—I was held solely responsible, my attempts to explain myself summarily dismissed. Almost nothing I used belonged to me, so a broken coil or missing stack of Braille paper was grounds for outright hysteria. In fact, my first panic attack was triggered by a problem with my school-issued laptop. It had been drilled into me by a few overzealous adults that I could either be a faultless steward of my assistive technology, or I could surrender the right to have any at all. Panic seemed warranted.

University was a welcome reprieve. Generous grants and scholarships covered all my equipment. There was an expectation that I’d take care of my technology to a reasonable extent, but no one was hanging over my shoulder, evaluating the way I carried my Braille display. Grant money wasn’t unlimited, so I still had to be cautious, and when something broke down, there was no guarantee I could afford to repair it. For those fortunate enough to be uninitiated, specialized technology seems to break down a lot.

Then, as if to cement this shoestring pattern, I started working in the nonprofit sector. Anyone who has worked in nonprofit organizations for any length of time knows that you can’t assume you’ll have reliable access to stamps and functional phone systems, let alone costly assistive devices and software. Funding is available for Albertan employers, but I had already developed the habit of accomplishing all tasks with bare-bones resources. Years of living on the disability shoestring meant I was a convenient employee, but not necessarily an optimal one. In the disability world, you often get what you pay for, and the nonprofit tendency to use no or low-cost alternatives to standard products spurred me to avoid asking for anything at all unless my job depended on it. My employer checked in periodically to make sure I didn’t need anything new, but I insisted I was just fine, thanks. Again and again, I chose the long, winding path to every goal—whether at work or in my personal life–because it meant conserving other people’s money and time. What could be more important than that?

Recently, I switched to a position in which employees are expected to make any reasonable request that will increase their productivity. Nothing is promised, but much is delivered, and my shoestring habits are neither lauded nor useful. Profligacy isn’t encouraged, but neither am I praised for taking hours to perform simple tasks just because I used a cheaper option, or refused to ask for help, or failed to request an accommodation. In my new environment, resources are plentiful, and I’ve had to do major soul-searching to become comfortable with that.

It has taken me years to pinpoint why I find the hard way so easy. The trouble with the shoestring lifestyle is that while it’s not enjoyable, it’s comforting. If no one can accuse you of being a drag on the system because of those dreaded “special needs” of yours, you can indulge in self-righteous piety. Doing everything the difficult but economical way is a bulwark against societal pressure to take as little from a harsh world as you can. I convinced myself I had to earn my right to work, which meant ensuring that no employer or disabled peer could view me as financially burdensome. Amid all my anxiety about costing too much or needing too much help, I forgot that employers are typically more attached to excellence and efficiency than economy. If I proved to be valuable and competent, employers would find ways to accommodate me. On the other hand, if I cost them next to nothing but lagged in terms of productivity, they’d be well within their rights to trade me in.

A lawyer friend said it best: “A good dose of get-sh*t-done is important, but time is money.” Cultivating an independent, innovative spirit is worthwhile, but it’s equally important to identify what you need, and have the guts to ask for it. Shoestrings make great security blankets, but when resources are within reach, it’s best to snip those strings. The severing exposes you to potential criticism, yes, and it means someone might conceivably make the case that you’re too costly to keep, sure …

But it also means you’ll do your best work, in good time, with minimal risk of burnout. What could be better for your work-life balance, your health, and your employer’s bottom line?

I’ll keep my ability to improvise and adapt. I’ll hang onto my talent for working under tight budgets and tighter deadlines. I’ll learn multiple ways of circumventing disability barriers, because the ideal environment will not always be there.

As for the scarcity-based, shoestring mentality? I think it’s time I let that go.

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United English Braille: The Good, The Bad, And The Sketchy

In today’s guest post, Gregg Chambers, a long-time braille user, dissects the new (and supposedly improved) United English Braille. He discusses the good (changes he sees as sensible and timely), the bad (changes that are a little less sensible, really) and the ethically sketchy (the whole process of changing a reading system using questionable input). He’s done a little more digging into the whole affair than I have, so without further ado, I present you with his thoughtful analysis. Take it away, Gregg!


If you’re blind or visually impaired, or if you are close to someone who is, you have probably heard of Unified English Braille. UEB, as it is more often called, is quite the controversial topic among those who read braille, mostly owing to the plethora of changes that have occurred in the last few years in order to ostensibly make reading easier and the language itself more uniform. Opinions vary widely, with many singing the praises of the new UEB while many others are outraged by what they see as unnecessary and ill-considered alterations to the code. Below, I will offer my own perspective as a blind person who reads braille, and in doing so, I hope to demonstrate something approaching a middle ground between the two extremes.

Braille is both a code and a language by definition; both codes and languages are bound to change over time as the uses to which they are put also change. UEB is no exception to this trend. Many of the recent additions to the code are concerned with symbols that are often found on the internet, better allowing a braille user to write out such things as hashtags, email addresses and website URLs. This sort of progress, in my opinion, is not only inevitable, but useful. Although it may look strange to read at first for an experienced braille user, the new computer-oriented symbols and syntax offer much more flexibility than previously present in the language. Getting used to these tweaks alone should not take a particularly long time, and in the interest of looking to the future, I would argue that said additions and modifications are perhaps the one very good thing that UEB has done while attempting to keep with the times.

Unfortunately, the changes are not limited to computer braille. Braille, as most of you who are reading this probably know, possesses symbols which can substitute for multi-letter combinations, thus shortening the number of characters a person must read while simultaneously allowing braille to take up less space on a page. Some of these short forms, or contractions, have been removed entirely, while a few others have seen rules added to the language to limit their use. However, nearly all languages and codes have elements which are less than clear, and these unclear elements do not largely inconvenience the people using them. While learning braille between the ages of four and six, I almost certainly got confused a time or three while trying to learn the finer points, but it did not take me long to learn the rules of usage enough to figure out how to read quickly and accurately. Other blind people who share a similar perspective about braille feel much the same, suggesting that these changes are the equivalent of fixing something that did not require improvement. These changes force long-time users of braille to rethink how they read and write, and guarantee that braille will take up a little more space than it used to; neither of these results, in my opinion, justifies the fact that braille is now more uniform and supposedly less bewildering to master.

Worse than the controversial changes, worse by far than the need to learn a few new symbols and adapt one’s understanding of braille, however, is the fact that this written language for the blind was modified largely without the input or guidance of those self-same people. When a programming language evolves, it is because programmers decided to update the language in order to improve functionality. This newest incarnation of braille, however, was dreamed up mostly by people who themselves do not primarily use the language. Unlike a blind person, they do not readily understand what it will mean to essentially relearn bits of a written code that some of us depend heavily upon; no one is suggesting that printed letters be changed, after all, because even if there is some confusion between certain symbols, sighted people seem to make the best of it with few problems. As stated above, much of the rationale for the changes to UEB was based on ease of learning and understanding, combined with clarity of rules. This argument is not an altogether bad one, but if such things are to be considered, the blind have had decades to change things and have not done so. This suggests, to me at least, that even if there were a few confusing fringe cases where braille was not wholly clear, blind people were capable of circumnavigating them, and did not feel the need to update the language. It further suggests that those in charge of changing UEB made two fairly serious mistakes. First, they seemed to imply that their desire for uniformity and assumptions about ease of learning automatically trump the opinions of the blind about their own language. Second, they did not, as far as my research has led me to believe, even bother to seek out the findings and opinions of their target demographic when considering these changes. For me at least, there is something intrinsically high-handed in this pair of bad choices, a suggestion that the opinions of the blind were almost without value, and thus not worth pursuing before implementing changes which would affect them. I am not thin-skinned enough to feel personally insulted by the former judgment error, but there is no doubt that it feels like a pretty big step in the wrong direction.

UEB appears to be here to stay, whether we like it or not. My suggestion to anyone reading is to try and look at the facts, each on its own, before coming to any strong conclusions or making rash or inflammatory statements. If you are a long-time braille user who is upset that you essentially have to relearn bits of the language you rely upon, your feelings are understandable, but your anger may be counterintuitive. I am one of these users myself, and while I have some genuine problems with a few of the decisions made regarding UEB, I also have to recognize two fundamental facts. First, everything changes, and some of these changes are for the better. Second, being unused to something is no reason to call something bad or worthless if you are asked to learn it. I also urge anyone with serious issues about UEB to remember that each of the positive or negative points one can find should be taken separately as often as possible. For instance, the way UEB’s changes were implemented may upset you greatly because it did not incorporate blind people, but that does not mean UEB is automatically bad across the board because of the way it was modified. Likewise, you may be annoyed with the adaptations to certain oft-used contractions, but you should not then grow angry that a few symbols have changed in order to vastly improve braille’s ability to cope with the internet. If one takes each point as separately as possible, one usually comes to a firmer stance in the end, and can more easily discuss their feelings with others.


Do you have any thoughts about UEB? Leave them in the comments; I’d love to hear them!

In Praise Of L’Occitane

I tore excitedly into a parcel sent by a friend in the UK, knowing there would be plenty of luxury inside. Sure enough, nestled among the high-end chocolate was a bottle of lavender-scented body milk. I didn’t notice anything special about the bottle, besides its impressively authentic scent, until my friend went over the contents of the box with me.
“The brailled stuff is L’Occitane. It’s very, very high-end. Don’t share it with anyone.” (In fact, I did share it, though I sent some of it to a friend in hospital to make her stay a little more bearable, so it was a good cause.)
Confused, I reexamined the bottle. Sure enough, there was braille inscribed right on the bottle itself: it read, “body milk” … and I fell even more in love with this French cosmetics company.
It’s such a simple gesture, labeling a product in braille, but it carried considerable weight with me. Here was this bath and body company, known for its posh products and sophisticated scents, bothering to braille almost every single product so we could shop with more ease and accessibility. Here was a company with, as far as I’m aware, no specific affiliations with the blind community, making a concerted effort to enhance our ability to shop independently. I had to know the story behind this, so I did some digging.
The story goes that L’Occitane founder Olivier Baussan noticed a blind woman browsing the perfume section of his store, taking in all the different scents with obvious concentration. He realized, then, that he had to make a change. From then on, more and more L’Occitane products with braille labels began to appear on shelves around the world. Even glass perfume bottles, which are difficult to inscribe with braille, came in brailled boxes. Their shower gel bottles look exactly alike, but I no longer have to pop them all open to tell them apart. My L’Occitane collection is well-organized anyway, but each time I take down a bottle of hand cream or some roll-on perfume, I know exactly what I’m holding before it even reaches my nose.
As I said, it sounds like an excessively simple courtesy to be grateful for, but for whatever reason, L’Occitane’s commitment to accessibility makes me incredibly happy each time I think about it.
So, thank you, L’Occitane, both for your excellent products and your efforts to make my life just a little bit easier. It hasn’t gone unnoticed.

Braille Is Not Dead (So Stop Trying To Kill It)

I’ve heard the case against braille books, and I agree with all of it. Braille books are bulky, because the braille alphabet is oversized compared to print letters. They aren’t terribly common, as the market for them is so small. They are incredibly expensive to make, so most of us don’t own our own books. We usually end up borrowing them from special libraries and resource centres. Braille is inconvenient: all throughout junior high and high school, my backpack weighed somewhere in the neighbourhood of 25 pounds, because it was crammed full of volumes and volumes of braille. If I also had to carry my laptop case, braille notetaker, and/or my Perkins Brailler, I’d be carrying something like forty pounds of equipment and books back and forth every day. That’s a third of my body weight, and I am quite sure some of the neck and back issues I suffer from began with all those books.

Then, there’s the multiple volume problem: most braille textbooks (and longer leisure reading books) are in multiple volumes because of braille’s bulk. My first braille dictionary (and last—I never got another one) was twenty-five volumes in length. My high school chemistry book, which was also stuffed with tactile diagrams, was 53 volumes long. Each volume only contained the equivalent of 20 or so print pages, so I would sometimes run back and forth during class to fetch the next volume of braille. When I had chemistry or math homework, I’d have to carry several volumes of braille, instead of just two books like every other student. It was a nightmare, especially when I’d miscalculate and bring the wrong volumes home with me. If you ask my parents, they’ll tell you about all the times I came home distraught, because I’d realized, too late, that I didn’t have the correct volumes with me. Oh, the tears I shed over braille books.

So, yes, I know the case against braille, and it’s a valid case. Knowing this, people are then astonished when I declare that braille needs to stick around, inconvenient as it is. People keep insisting that braille is dead. With screen readers and other text-to-speech products, what do we need braille for? Blind bookworms, students, and employees can just sit back, relax, and let their computers read to them. Who really needs to have the actual text in front of them, anyway? Isn’t being read aloud to enough?

No, it is not enough—not by a long shot. It’s not enough, because we still deserve to read. It’s not enough, because it’s still nice to be able to pick up a book (or, in some cases, to cuddle up with electronic braille). Most importantly of all, it’s not enough, because blind children still need a literacy tool. They still need to learn to read just like everyone else.

Imagine if, when you send your five-year-old to kindergarten, the teachers decide that reading is overrated. Instead, they just read out loud to your child, not letting her see or understand how print works. Now, imagine that the teachers then insist on teaching the child to write, without teaching her to read first. Sure, a child can be taught to type and never have to know how to write by hand, but how can one write if one cannot read? How can a child learn to spell if he doesn’t have access to the ability to read first?

Nearly everything I know about language I learned from reading. If you want to be a good writer, you have to watch other writers at work, and this necessitates a lot of reading. Yes, I can still learn by having my computer read a book aloud to me, but I do find that I don’t retain information quite as well just by listening. Not everyone is an auditory learner (I’m definitely not one) so reading on your own is still a crucial skill. It’s even more essential that a child learn to read on her own. While many sighted children are abysmal spellers, I continually encounter blind people who cannot spell at all because they have never actually “seen” the words on a page. It’s easier to be a good speller when you have the opportunity to memorize the words, and you can’t do that without reading. While I am a decent speller, any word I picked up in a braille book is much easier for me to remember than a word I picked up by listening. These days, I do the majority of my “reading” by listening to audio books or text-to-speech software, so I have more difficulty spelling newer terms. Here are just a few of the pitfalls a lack of braille access has caused in blind people:

• The Beatles becomes The Beetles
• Def Leppard becomes Deaf Leopard (logical, but still wrong!)
• Too, to, and two become hopelessly mixed up, even more than usual
• Names are almost never correct (Sarah vs. Sara, etc.)

Unless we are religious in checking the spelling of anything new, mistakes like these still crop up a lot in the blind community, and I really believe that a lack of independent reading is the culprit. I find excuses to read braille as often as possible, both because I enjoy it and to keep my spelling skills up to par. Sighted people will always have the luxury of knowing how a thing is spelled the moment it comes up. If a new restaurant opens in town, the sign will immediately tell them how it’s meant to be spelled. They’ll never have to ask, and they’ll probably never get it hopelessly wrong.

“But Wait!” you say, “isn’t spelling sort of secondary to all the other aspects of literacy? With the ever-present Spellcheck, isn’t the ability to spell less valuable?” Maybe, though I do know that Spellcheck won’t save you every time. Even if we discard spelling, though, grammar and general syntax still rely on the ability to read. Braille gives you the opportunity to read aloud to yourself, which will help improve grammar; grammar is another thing most people don’t have a healthy grasp of, and blind people are even more disadvantaged, simply because they “read” less. If you’re not an auditory learner, learning a new language–or improving your mother tongue–is much easier if you can read for yourself.

Frankly, we need all the literacy tools and skills we can find. The writing of the average person is bad enough without contributing to the problem by killing off braille. Braille is the only way in which blind people can read just like a sighted person. It’s inconvenient, and expensive, and problematic, yes. But it’s not redundant. It’s not pointless. It’s definitely not dead. Please! Stop trying to kill it.