by Larry P. Johnson
(Editor’s Note: Larry Johnson is an author and motivational speaker. You can contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.mexicobytouch.com.)
I’ve been a braille user for over 75 years. Using braille has brought me more than a few chuckles. Checking in at the Hilton Hotel in Kansas City a few years ago, 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 mine, when suddenly my fingers came across a braille numeral that was upside down. Voila! Their mistake was my salvation.
I did my undergraduate study at Northwestern University in Evanston, just outside Chicago. The winters there are bitterly cold. I commuted each day to class, which meant a 30-minute bus ride, a block and a half walk to catch the train, and then a 6-block walk to the campus. Not a difficult journey when the weather was mild, but during mid-January it could be frigidly numbing, with the wind blowing off the lake at 20 miles an hour and the temperature hovering around zero. Arriving to my 8 a.m. radio announcing class, I asked the professor if he would 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. I guess I’ll just have to give you an ‘F’ for frozen fingers.”
Then there’s the other extreme. It was a wonderful surprise one sunny August afternoon here in San Antonio, when I was visiting the San Antonio Botanical Gardens, where I discovered that 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 it takes a really dedicated braille reader to be willing to run his/her fingers across those brailled copper plaques after they’ve been heated up a few hours by our ferocious tropical Texas sun.
One big advantage 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 a friend and commented: “Do you notice how nervous he is? He keeps fumbling with his papers.” The friend replied, “Silly, he’s not fumbling with his papers, he’s reading braille.”
On another occasion in college, as the professor turned to the blackboard and began writing and speaking, I began taking notes in braille. She stopped and turned around. So, I stopped writing. After a pause, she turned again to the blackboard and resumed her lecture and writing. I resumed my 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. I lifted my slate off my desk and showed it to her. “It’s me,” I said. She had never before seen braille or a slate and stylus. She was embarrassed. But, that day, she was also educated. For some, braille may be a “bumpy road to knowledge,” but for me, it has been a wonderful way to keep in touch.