From tactile Morse code to writing a book: Rachel’s Braille journey

Rachel Shardlow has been learning Braille for a year, but she wasn’t sure what to expect when she first started.

“I thought it would be really hard,” says Rachel. “I had the impression that learning Braille would be like learning a tactile form of Morse code—all dashes and dots—and that I’d have to memorise long sequences to learn one letter. But once I learned how Braille actually worked, it was much easier than I thought it would be.”

Rachel was born with an eye condition called nystagmus, where her eyes sometimes move rapidly and involuntarily. She describes her visual experience as “looking like the world is constantly moving”, and this makes reading and writing tasks challenging.

“I found reading frustrating at school, when everyone else had a tiny book and I had a huge stack of A3 paper with large print. I hated looking different from everyone else,” Rachel reflects. “I also got told off for writing with a black pen instead of blue, even though black pen was easier for me to see.”

Rachel completed a degree in writing and communications at university, but struggled with eye strain and fatigue from the increased workload. “I got to a point where large print wasn’t enough. Large font on a computer screen wasn’t enough, I just wanted to read a book without getting a headache.”

It was when Rachel was working two jobs, having just finished her degree, that she decided to try Braille.

“I got a job at the Blind Foundation in the marketing team, and thought that this was the perfect time to start. I would study Braille one-on-one with a Braille instructor during my lunch break or after work. The difficulty was keeping up the motivation to practice at home, because sometimes life gets in the way.”

“Everyone was very supportive,” says Rachel. “I’d have friends over for drinks and they would see my Perkins Brailler on the table and ask what it was. I was excited about showing them, and teaching them a few of the things I learned.”

Rachel now uses Braille in a variety of situations she never thought she would. “I don’t have to taste-test baking powder anymore as I now have Braille labels on the ingredients in my pantry. I no longer have to feel awkward if people move things around, because I can easily find what I need. I can also read Braille numbers on elevators, and I feel like a Braille ninja when others are struggling to read them and I can help.”

Rachel has some big aspirations for the next step in her Braille journey. “I wrote a book in Braille about Brooke, the guide dog puppy I was raising and I’d like to get it made into a Braille and print collage book for children. I’d love to use the skills I gained from my degree to write an accessible book that will eventually be in medical centre waiting rooms, as I have strong memories from my childhood of only being able to read one of the many books that were there. I want to change that.”

For anyone considering learning Braille, Rachel has some encouraging words. “Just do it. It’s useful and fun. When you’re bored, it’s a puzzle. But when you need it, it’s a skill that’s well worth learning. It fits in with the other skills you already have and you never know when you might use it.”

The Blind Foundation has a range of flexible learning options available for Braille learners of all abilities. Whether you are curious to learn more about braille, or you are a more advanced reader looking to improve or enhance your skills.

If you’d like to find out more about the benefits of learning Braille and how it works, call our national contact centre on 0800 24 33 33, or send an email to braille@blindfoundation.org.nz.

If you are a budding Braille writer like Rachel, you may be interested in the international Onkyo Braille Essay Contest.