“I signed up for your Braille class, but I don’t think I can learn Braille,” said Vera, who appeared to my limited vision to be in her mid seventies.
We stood on the porch of the recreation building of the Wyoming Lions Summer School for the Visually Impaired on Casper Mountain where children and adults learned such skills as using computers, daily living, and orientation and mobility. New arrivals bustled into the nearby women’s dormitory with suitcases and bedding. Others were milling around and chatting. Tires crunched on gravel, as cars entered and left the nearby parking lot. An occasional breeze brought the fresh mountain scent of pine trees to my nostrils.
The next day would be the start of the two-week adult program, and although I’d attended the camp for years as a student, I was as apprehensive as students attending the camp for the first time. This was my first year as a teacher, and I was tempted to tell Vera I didn’t think I could teach Braille, either.
I’d originally planned to teach social problems, a class where students discuss challenges they faced because of their visual impairments. I’d taken the class many times, and because of my experience in facilitating a support group for the visually impaired in my home town of Sheridan, I figured I could handle the subject. But when Jerry, the camp director, told me over the phone the night before I was due to arrive at the camp that the Braille instructor was forced to leave due to illness and asked if I would teach Braille instead of social problems, what could I say? “You can do this, Abbie. You’re proficient at Braille,” he said.
I wanted to tell him that there was a difference between being proficient at something and sharing that knowledge with others, but he sounded desperate. He’d known me for years, and I figured he had more confidence in me than I had in myself. “I’ll give it a try,” I said.
When I arrived at camp the next day, Charlie, my former mobility instructor who used to teach Braille, showed me everything in the classroom. There were books and tactile and large print alphabet charts as well as Braille writers and plenty of paper. For a couple of hours, I went through everything and came up with a basic plan.
I still felt unsure of myself, as I stood on the porch of the recreation hall with Vera. As I tried to maintain eye contact with her, I found myself saying, “Why don’t you give it a try? You can always change your schedule in a couple of days if you don’t think it’s going to work.”
“Thank you,” she said, as she took my hand. “It was nice meeting you.”
In the classroom the next day, my heart sank, as my index finger scanned the Braille schedule. Vera was my first student. Why couldn’t she have been scheduled later in the day after I’d had a chance to practice my teaching skills on other students who didn’t exhibit a lack of self confidence? I realized it wouldn’t do me any good to dwell on that now, as the bell rang to signal the beginning of the first class period, and I put the schedule aside and got out a Braille writer, a stack of paper, and the first book in the Braille learning series.
Vera sauntered into the room and said with a sigh, “Good morning.”
“Good morning,” I said, trying to paste a smile on my face. “Why don’t you sit here?” I patted a nearby chair.
When she was seated, I asked, “What would you like to learn?”
“Well, I guess I just want to be able to make grocery lists and write down phone numbers and stuff like that.”
“Okay, let’s get started.”
I showed her how to insert the paper into the machine and explained to her that Braille numbers and letters contain one or more dots. I taught her how to write the letters A B and C, and instructed her to feel them with her index finger. When the bell rang to signal the end of the class period, I asked, “What do you think?”
“Well, I know how to write the letters, but I can’t feel them. My fingers aren’t as sensitive as they used to be.”
“Oh, I didn’t think of that,” I said. “Wait a minute. There’s a jumbo Braille writer that makes bigger dots. Let’s try that tomorrow.”
“All right. I’ll see you then.”
A quick consultation of my schedule told me that my next pupil was someone I knew. Emery was an elderly man from Sheridan who participated in my support groups. His wife Betty was also visually impaired. I realized that because of Emery’s diabetes, his fingers would be less sensitive. I put away the regular Braille writer and got out the jumbo machine.
Over the next few days, I discovered that different students required different learning methods. Betty found the large print alphabet chart most helpful. She could read the printed dots and write the letters in Braille. This meant she could work independently which was just as well because I had my hands full with another student in that class.
Michael was in his mid twenties, and although he was an advanced student, he didn’t always focus on the task at hand. When he failed to insert a piece of paper into the Braille writer properly, it became so tangled in the machine that I had to find someone with better eyes to remove it. Charlie had worked with him in the past, and she admonished me not to let him put paper in the machine again. He also had a habit of reading the Braille with his eyes. I kept reminding him to feel the letters, but when my back was turned, I suspected he was using his vision instead of his finger.
While eating lunch in the dining hall with Jerry and his wife Susan who taught public speaking at the camp, I told them about this. Susan laughed, and Jerry said, “Why don’t you try turning out the light?”
I thought this was a great idea. Since the room contained no windows, without the light, we’d be in total darkness, and Michael would be forced to use his finger instead of his eyes. But since Betty needed the light to read the large print alphabet chart, and Michael wore glasses, I did the next best thing.
“Okay, Michael, off with your glasses,” I said to the young man, as he sauntered into the room that afternoon.
“You heard me. Take off your glasses and give them to me. I’ll put them in my pocket for safe keeping until the end of class.”
“Without your glasses, you won’t be able to see that Braille, right?”
“No, I won’t,” he answered.
With a sigh, he removed his glasses and handed them to me. He sat at the table where I’d already inserted a piece of paper in to the Braille writer and placed his finger on the page in the Braille book next to the machine. When I turned around after helping Betty, his finger was moving slowly back and forth across the page. “Wow, this is easier,” he said.
By the end of the week, I felt more confident. Vera was improving with the help of the jumbo Braille writer. By the end of class on Friday, she had mastered the letters A through J and was writing words and phrases containing these letters. I was impressed by the progress of this student who didn’t think she could learn Braille.
At the dance on Saturday night, Emery, who’d learned as many letters as Vera, asked if he could write something else besides “A bad babe hid a big bag.”
Laughing, I said, “I’ll see what I can come up with.”
As the next week flew by, all my students continued to improve. On Wednesday, Vera said, “Why don’t you write in Braille the rest of the letters and numbers I haven’t learned, and I’ll mark them with my black pen so I can see them. Then, I can continue to teach myself after camp.”
“That’s a great idea.” I wrote letters, numbers, punctuation, and contractions in Braille. Vera labeled each item next to where I’d written it.
On the last night of camp, everyone was invited to participate in a talent show. Students in the music and public speaking classes sang and/or played instruments or gave speeches. Emery gave a clogging demonstration, much to the delight of those who could see him.
The next day, all staff members were required to attend an exit meeting. When it was over, Dad was waiting to take me home. I hurried to the women’s dormitory to collect my belongings and found Susan doing the same thing. “Abbie, you did a great job teaching Braille.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I hope to come back next year.”
“I’m sure you’ll be asked back.”
This made me feel good. I’d learned that I could teach anything I knew as long as I developed effective strategies. As Dad and I drove down the mountain, I was already formulating ideas for my classes the following year.
That was over ten years ago. Since then, although the camp still offers a week-long session for children, the adult program has been canceled due to a lack of funding. The camp has been funded by the Wyoming Department of Education, the Lions Clubs, and the Montgomery Trust Fund for the Blind, but as of late, these entities show no interest in funding an adult program.
This is too bad since many visually impaired adults are senior citizens who once had sight but lost it due to age related eye diseases. They must learn to care for themselves, cook, clean, do laundry, and do the things they enjoyed in life with little or no vision. As far as I know, there’s nowhere else in Wyoming where people can learn these skills.
I still facilitate a support group for the visually impaired, and the majority of participants are senior citizens. A year or so ago, I invited representatives from local Lions Clubs to talk to our group. One representative showed up, and we were informed that the Lions are renting the camp facilities to other organizations when not in use for the children’s program. When we asked about the possibility of funding for an adult program in the future, the representative said he would bring it up at the next state convention. That’s the last we heard. Go figure.
Abbie Johnson Taylor, Author of We Shall Overcome