Guest Post by Laura Eberly: A Capital B in My Bonnet

Accessibility enthusiast Laura Eberly, author of this wildly popular post about using screen readers as a sighted person, is back with new research to share. She started with a simple question: Should braille be capitalized? In typical Laura fashion, she found the ultimate rabbit hole. She dug through archives, consulted experts, and read all about the controversial history of blind people reading, so you don’t have to. Now, she’s presenting the best and weirdest of her findings to us.


I was on a mission. Wrong was being done, and duty was calling me, just like in this comic:

Voice from outside the room: Are you coming to bed? Person on computer: I can't. This is important. Voice: What? Person on computer: Someone is WRONG on the Internet.

Photo source: xkcd.com

You see, I was eager to find the right way to handle the capitalization of braille — the writing system, not the person — and I was pretty much ready to shout to the world that I needed answers. Why did I, as a sighted person, care so much? Well, I’ve been working in accessibility testing for years, and I grew to see things as neatly categorized:  pass/fail, bug/feature, process /chaos. But capitalization of the word braille always stuck out to me as being inconclusive, a grey area, defying categorization. Over time, as my auto-correction software kept changing the capitalization of my writing, it grew from a minor point of confusion into a big, glaring disruption whenever I saw it in print.

The Braille Authority of North America (BANA)’s position statement from 2006 said I should use lower case, but some of my friends and colleagues, actual braille users from around the world, often preferred an uppercase B. If I asked them about it, they’d usually say that they were taught to do it that way and didn’t care to change it. But what good was a seemingly official standard if braille users weren’t using it? What logic was behind braille teachers’ decisions? What was going on?

I’d long been touting the BANA statement’s lowercase recommendation, which recommends lowercase b. BANA’s intention was to make braille an eponym like ‘sandwich’, a word that used to be named after a person but became a standard part of the English language. However, I’ve also seen the argument that writing braille with a capital B is a sign of respect for its inventor, and prominent organizations like the National Federation of the Blind use upper case. I felt it was time for me to consult some experts!

I reached out to a Teacher of the Visually Impaired, Dr. Ting Siu, who recommended I talk to Dr. FM D’Andrea, one of the authors of the BANA statement. She generously consulted the extensive collection of journals on her shelf, finding lowercase b usage dating back to 1973.

Dr. D’Andrea also referred me to Mike Hudson, the museum director at the American Printing House for the Blind. He helpfully sent me reports from administrators of schools for children who are blind from around the US dating back to 1834. To my frustration, the older reports only referenced “embossed books,” (which used raised print letters rather than dots), and included horrifying language like “… whose zeal in the cause of the Blind entitles him to the gratitude of this unfortunate class of beings.” I was thoroughly shocked and disgusted by encountering such a view of disability and troubled even more that this was written by the adults trusted to run these schools. I had to move on from these sources.

I soon discovered capitalization was just one of many disagreements surrounding writing systems for the blind community. In the US, around the 1800s, there was a decades-long battle over different forms of tactile writing, including braille and New York Point, a name that is always capitalized, by the way. The stakes of this debate grew higher when the government of the state of New York wanted to standardize the writing system taught in schools and used for printing books. Emotions boiled over during the extremely heated 1909 hearings of the New York board of education, where “protests were so violent that a second hearing was held.”  For the hearings, Helen Keller wrote a letter arguing against New York Point, writing braille with a lowercase b while she was at it. The fact that New York Point books were almost never printed with capitalization was part of what led to its demise at that hearing. This intrigued me and guided me further down into a research rabbit hole.

Whenever braille history is discussed, like in this excellent podcast episode called “The Universal Page” it often references “The War of the Dots,” a chapter in a collection called As I Saw It by Robert B. Irwin, a blind educator and supervisor who held a master’s degree from Harvard. I dug deep into the internet archives to find the original book so I could scour it for clues about capitalization. I read about Miss L. Pearl Howard and Mrs. Elwyn H. Fowler, representatives of the Uniform Type Committee from 1911, who travelled to 36 states collecting data to determine which writing system was better. They brought in braille and New York Point readers, timing them for efficiency and accuracy as they read a sample set of dots. They used nonsense dots written in the style of each system to avoid skewing the results with readers’ existing knowledge. I was so pleased to have found some process-loving kindred spirits from over 100 years ago.

However, after a quick trip to Nova Scotia, they discovered that the British braille used there was superior to both American systems for reading speed and comprehension. They immediately ended the study after this discovery. (Fantastic!) But their conclusion? Create yet another American system, called the Standard Dot, to compete with British braille. (Womp womp.)

Thankfully, by the mid-1920s, pushback from braille users stopped the Standard Dot and other schemes. A memorable example was a quote from an unnamed conference attendee who reportedly burst out: “If anyone invents a new system of printing for the blind, shoot him on the spot.” I was struck by the realization that I, too, was a sighted person arguing about braille when I had no real personal stake. Reasoning that other people might benefit from my findings, though, I continued my research.

At last, I turned to the origin of this intriguing saga, Louis Braille himself. He was expected to read using a system of raised letters that were invented with the thought that both blind and sighted people could read the same page. He mastered this despite raised lettering being hard to manufacture and harder still to make out by touch. We all know he went on to invent braille by simplifying night writing, but he didn’t name it after himself. In his 1829 book, Procedure for Writing Words, Music, and Plainsong in Dots, he simply called the system dotted writing (which the pedant in me just couldn’t help but notice was completely lower case). Tragically, his original writing and his school’s library were burned by the head of his school in an attempt to suppress its use. This is why one of Braille’s only surviving writings was written in raised letters, not braille, even though it laid out his thoughts about how braille should be written. For me, this loss was devastating to read about, and more devastating, I’m sure, to blind readers who will never experience most of his work.

I still wanted to see the earliest example, in print, of when Louis Braille’s writing system officially became named after him. In part, it was to see when he received long overdue respect, and in part, it was because I wanted to see how it was capitalized. I still couldn’t let that bit go. Late one night, while reading more of “The War of the Dots,” I came upon one answer to my original question about capitalization. In the 1932 Treaty of London, British and American braille code representatives agreed that “Capitalization was made optional with the publisher.” In this quiet moment, with me totally unsuspecting, history had spoken. There is no right way to capitalize braille. Uncertainty and ambiguity are baked into the process, and indeed, into life. Braille, like many systems, is a living one, that adapts over time and belongs to those who use it.

I never did find the first reference that changed the name from dotted writing to braille, but I did get close with a reference to a French pamphlet from 1880 that does not have its content online. I don’t know if the capital B in the title refers to the person or the writing system.

I now encourage capitalization of the word braille as a personal choice. I still use the BANA style in official writing for consistency’s sake. Really, though, I’m just like everyone else. I was taught to write it this way and I don’t care to change it. Even though this leaves a grey area, in my heart, I’m satisfied.

Special thanks to the folks I’ve mentioned who helped me on this post and of course, my wonderful editor, Meagan.

Here’s one more fact that didn’t make it into this writing: In 1952, Louis Braille was finally recognized by the French Government and his body was exhumed and reburied in the Pantheon in Paris, with other French national heroes. However, the Mayor of his home town insisted on having Braille’s hands removed and buried in the village cemetery. It seems that disagreements about Braille may never end.

The Woman Who Chose To Go Blind (And Why We Shouldn’t Hate Her)

Jewel Shuping’s story went viral when it was revealed that she convinced a psychologist to pour drain cleaner in her eyes and blind her. Naturally, people freaked out.

Wow. Jewel Shupingis a idiot

— #FlyEaglesFly(@One_Liner_Tyler) October 2, 2015

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Quite understandably, many people thought it was a hoax, but Jewel herself told her story, in an attempt to help others with what is called Body Identity Integrity Disorder. The disorder is similar to gender dysphoria in that the patient feels his/her body is not as it should be. In this case, Jewel, and others like her, genuinely feel that a part of their bodies—often a limb but in this case an organ—does not belong and they will feel incomplete until they get rid of it. For many, this results in amputations, but in Jewel’s case, she just needed to damage her eyes enough to feel blind. Jewel has never been happier.

This is unthinkable to just about everyone—indeed, the disorder is very rare—and this story has inspired shock and outrage from sighted and blind alike. Sighted people cannot imagine going blind anyway (as I’ve previously discussed, it is one of their worst fears) and even blind people think she’s a bit nuts. After all, most of us would not necessarily choose this life, even though we may not welcome a cure. Entertaining the idea of deliberately disabling myself makes me shudder, and my first reaction to this story was anger. Being blind is hard enough without sighted people actively choosing the “lifestyle”. Further, what will sighted people think of us? The blind community suffers from ambassadorship syndrome, even if we try to combat that instinct, and I wondered what implications Jewel’s actions might mean for the rest of us? It’s very difficult to give people the right idea about what blindness is like, and viral anomalies like this one further distort the picture.

Of course, sensational news can lead one down many paths, some of them a bit ridiculous. I began imagining what would happen if more and more people did this sort of thing. Would people lose respect and compassion for disabled people in general? Would everyone I meet become suspicious, wondering whether I was a “real” blind person or just someone who poured drain cleaner in her eyes on purpose? Would we need to undergo rigorous testing to make sure we’re not voluntarily disabled during screening for benefits, accommodations, and other special services? I eventually managed to derail the hysteria in my head, which left me with the hefty question: how should I feel about Jewel?

Unsurprisingly, Jewel and her actions have sparked much controversy for two reasons. One is that she claims to suffer from Body Identity Integrity Disorder—as mentioned above—so the question is whether or not she is mentally ill or simply different. Disorders are not generally viewed positively, but trans people are steadily gaining social acceptance around the world. They can be said to have a disorder as well, yet most forward-thinking liberals would not tolerate bigotry directed at them, nor would they support the dismissal of the disorder as “mental illness” that needs to be “cured”. So, does Jewel need “treatment”? Is she “ill”? Or, like trans individuals, is she merely feeling an all-consuming desire to modify her body in a way that has felt right for her since she was a child? One might argue (and indeed I have) that trans people are different because they do not seek to disable themselves. Changing your gender, while involving much mutilation and modification of body parts that are in perfect working order, does not have the same result as someone wishing to invite disability. Disability makes life much, much harder. It’s harder to get a job. It’s harder to gain social acceptance. It’s harder to support yourself and others, particularly if disability accommodations require costly technology and services. Being a trans man or woman is difficult whether they transition successfully or not, so they may as well go ahead and transition, hoping that they will one day “pass”. Blinding yourself, however, is a whole other matter. Still, the temptation to make the comparison is strong. Jewel even decompressed in the same ways trans people do. Using a cane and reading braille were ways of decompressing so that she could feel “normal”, at least some of the time. So, is BIID similar enough to Gender Dysphoria that we should treat the two equally? Is Jewel no crazier than Caitlyn Jenner?

The other bit of controversy deals with objections and fears from the blind community itself. While some of Jewel’s blind friends have been incredibly supportive—one even calling her “brave”—there has been a lot of hatred directed toward her as well. What if she makes the rest of us struggle more than we already do? We don’t exactly need more negativity associated with us, right? Then there is the very thorny (and legitimate) issue of accommodation: should someone who has deliberately disabled themselves be entitled to benefits, workplace accommodations, assistive technology grants and so on? Should someone who has purposefully blinded herself receive help for a disability she actually chose and embraced? Certainly, Jewel has access to at least some of this at the moment, and despite her contentment with her new lot, she still occasionally complains about some of the things blind people have been grumbling about for decades. Thanks to the paratransit, I will miss my first class. They are going to arrive until 1030. My first class is at 10. I am very angry.z

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Does she have any right to complain about Paratransit when she chose a life that would force her to rely on it? Does she have any right to seek help that the rest of us need whether we want to or not? While I may not feel as angry as I did, I can certainly see why this angle, in particular, infuriates other blind people. We work so hard to be on a level with everyone else, even when we are perfectly content with ourselves, and it seems almost insulting to think that someone would handicap themselves and then have the gall to complain about it. It’s easy to get good and mad about that. But …

Is there any point in being angry? Is there any reason to hate her? Is there any good that can come from dismissing her as crazy? She doesn’t feel crazy. She feels very happy, and psychologists and neurologists have acknowledged that what she is feeling is also felt by others. Even if we choose to frame her condition as mental illness, we still have to respect the fact that she has cautioned others with BIID, asking them to seek treatment before resorting to drastic measures as she did. She went so far as to admit that it really is a disorder, and that while she is happy with her choice, it is worth seeking alternative treatment and, if people still decide to go through with it, they should do so using much safer channels. Wanting to modify your body in drastic ways may not be objectively crazy, but getting a psychologist to put drops of drain cleaner in your eyes might be a little crazy.

My post raises far more questions than answers, I know. I worry: I worry that Jewel will continue to be the target of intense bigotry, hate, and derision. I worry that other people suffering from BIID will be dismissed, or shunned, or silenced. I worry that people will begin to see Gender Dysphoria as crazy again, and direct even more bigotry, ignorance, and hatred towards trans people. In short, I worry about more hate, more anger, and more myopia. Will people want to view this issue from multiple angles, or will they simply refuse to think about the matter long enough to see a grey area? I can just imagine all the sighted people taking one look at this headline and picturing men in white coats hauling Jewel away. I can also see blind people taking one look at this and feeling powerful anger and contempt.

I hope good can come of this. Jewel is happy, and other people with BIID have the potential to be happy—or at least happier. Jewel’s message of caution and alternative treatment is just as important as her own choice. She’s not trying to lead a movement here. We’re not likely to see a huge wave of BIID sufferers coming out of the woodwork, dismantling the whole disability accommodations system as we know it. However, it is very dangerous to treat this like a happily-ever-after scenario. This has so many complicated facets, and I know there will be a huge outcry from the trans community if they feel delegitimized by BIID. We need clear heads, and open minds, and rigorous research. We need objectivity. This is not a good time for black-and-white thinking. Do me a favour, and spend five minutes looking at this from every angle. Then, tell me what you see.

“May I Pray For You?”

“Excuse me …”
“Yes?”
“What’s your name?”
“Meagan…any reason you ask?”
“Yes. Meagan, would it be okay if I prayed for you?”
“Why…”
“Well, I’d like to ask Jesus if He might help you with your eyes.”
“Ah.”

This one. It happens to most of us at one time or another. I admit that I’ve heard about it plenty of times, but didn’t experience it myself until I was eighteen or so. I hear all kinds of derisive comments about the situation, even from religious blind people. They hate pity as much as I do, and they consider the prayers insulting, or at least misguided.

I tend to react differently, and I must say that my approach is very unpopular. No, I’m not wild about the idea of people asking God to fix me. I wager that He would cure me (or not) with or without entreaties from strangers. I fight the good fight where negative stereotypes are concerned—you all know this, dearest readers—and I discourage pity as often as possible. And yet …

There is something so earnest and genuine about these offers of prayer. The requests might be misguided, yes. The desire to see us cured is misplaced, certainly. In many cases, we’re at peace with our lives as they are, and a cure is potentially frightening to many of us. So no, I don’t actively encourage anyone, stranger or otherwise, to pray for or even wish for a cure.

On the very few occasions when someone goes out of their way to ask if they can pray for me, I do my best to respond with grace. I respect and appreciate their openhearted compassion, even if I wish there wasn’t a need for it in the first place. I know in my heart that they have the purest intentions, at least most of the time. And, while I generally take issue with the “good intentions” card, there are, in my mind at least, exceptions. Will my life change in any way if a stranger goes home and prays for me? I suspect not. Will it hurt me, though? I don’t see how. Will I gain anything by berating them for even asking? No. Will I further my own cause by being harsh with them? Definitely not.

I’m at a point now where I decline these offers of prayer as graciously as I can. I spend too much time battling the idea that we’re just waiting for someone—anyone—to “make the blind to see” as it is. Still … I have to celebrate the goodwill of these people. Society is apathetic and individualistic to such a degree that these small kindnesses, however I might feel about them, remain special to me.

If you must pray, then pray for me, by all means. I ask, though, that you pray for my well-being. Pray that my various issues remain manageable. Pray that I continue to cross paths with fortune.

Don’t pray for the blind girl. Pray for the girl.