Highly Commended

"A Journey with Braille"

Ms.Rosemary Loughran (48) Victoria,Australia

It was the underwear which made my decision for me.There I was,freezing,hurrying to get dressed before hypothermia set in.It would seem simple enough to line up a pair of knickers,thrust the feet through the appropriate openings and slide them up.But on my first attempt,I had managed to put them on backwards.Impatiently I dragged them off to try again.But,alas,in my haste I had mistaken one of the leg holes for the waist opening,and,as I struggled in vain to haul them past my knees,I lost my balance and fell like a trussed-up turkey?complete with goose-bumps?to the floor!

Nothing was broken except my pride and rapidly diminishing dignity.I threw the offending undergarment into where I imagined the corner to be.My first decision that day was to rid myself of any underwear that did not have a little bow firmly attached to the centre-front.If I should ever require an ambulance,I would at least be dressed for the occasion!

For years,before blindness,I had assumed the manufacturers of ladies' "intimate apparel" paid their workforce a mere pittance to sew tiny satin bows on the centre-front in order to double the price.But now I understood......I rummaged about and found a desirable pair,felt for the little bow,and I instantly knew which way was up,the right way round and the correct side out.Just one small bump of a bow could tell me all this,so how much more information could be conveyed by two bumps,or three,or maybe even six? That was my next and most important decision; it was time to learn Braille!

When I became legally blind,at age forty,my life turned upside-down.Over the next couple of years,any little remaining vision rapidly disappeared,and with it my world became ever more restricted.Even though I have a wonderful,helpful husband and three children,I felt increasingly isolated and dependent.When I first inquired,I was told,"Nobody learns Braille any more.Everyone uses computers." But regardless how many times I held an unopened can up to it,my computer would not disclose its contents! So I continued to exist in my ever shrinking and frustrated world.

During this period,I began to meet more vision impaired people,fortunately one,Mark,had learnt Braille and would explain its many uses.My youngest son was doing a communications project and he selected Braille as a topic.Mark provided him with some Braille labels and sentences,and when we asked the local blindness agency for a sample,a Braille bookmark was found.I also attended a Blind Citizens of Australia (BCA) meeting here in Bendigo where I obtained a Braille bank-note sorter.I realised I could actually feel the individual dots,and if I could just learn the alphabet and numbers,buy a Braille dymo labeller,I would not have to spend my life guessing or waiting for someone to ask......

At last I was put in contact with Carol,a Braille teacher,and my journey to reclaim my independence began.At first I thought that grade 1 would be enough as I only wanted a tool for identification purposes.I sewed tiny beads onto my clothes.No longer did I have to ask my husband to locate what I wanted to wear.With a dymo labeller and magnetic tape,pantry items were labelled.I would not have to ask one of the kids to find the spices,cans or jars I might require later,when they were at school.What a pleasure to be able to select the CD I wanted instead of taking pot-luck! I was making my own choices again!

For a while I was content with this.But I began to think how much easier it would be to have,for example,recipes in Braille rather than having to ask someone to read them to me and hope to remember it later when I was cooking! Yes,I had started to crawl,and now I wanted to walk! Once again Carol came at regular intervals and I began learning grade 2 Braille.

The best part was the satisfaction of learning.I loved the sense of achievement as I mastered a few more contractions or word signs at a time.It was so enjoyable thinking up the stories,poems,or utter nonsense to incorporate as many words containing these latest symbols to impress Carol when she came next.She provided me with reading practice and I would labour for hours,slowly deciphering each character,decoding the words,forming the sentences.Would I ever become fluent? Would I ever read a Braille book?

The journey did not always run smoothly however.When I was about halfway through,in September 2001,I encountered a couple of major potholes.The agency was suspending grade 2 lessons in regional centres to focus on teaching grade 1,and also,I was diagnosed with advanced,ovarian cancer.One might assume I would have abandoned my pursuit of Braille?my prognosis was (and still is) not good.However,Braille has given me a great deal of comfort.Initially,after extensive surgery,I had some pretty harrowing chemotherapy.During those months,I found myself spending quite a lot of time on the couch accompanied by my trusty bucket.During the less energetic moments I revised every previous Braille lesson,re-affirming all I had learned.Some months later I resumed the lessons with Carol on a private basis.I was going to finish this,read a Braille book,dare I say,"If it kills me!"

Since then,over the past couple of years,I have completed grade 2 Braille.I have had 55 doses of chemotherapy so I've had plenty of quiet days slowly reading Braille books.I type up recipes,knitting patterns,addresses and phone numbers.I even have a Braille pen-friend! I have lost count of how many Braille books I have read.I get a great feeling of accomplishment sitting here typing up this story.I may not get to climb Mount Everest or gaze upon the pyramids at sunset,but I can snuggle up under a rug on a cold winter's evening and visit them in books.I can choose my own clothes,phone a friend,read a pattern or a recipe by myself! I don't know what the future has in store for me,but I'm damned sure these last few years have been all the better for learning Braille.I have learnt to walk,and now I fully intend to run with it!

Affiliated Organization: Blind Citizens Australia

Career: Housewife

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