Is braille relevant in a digital age?

May 20, 2015

Marco Salsiccia is a huge movie buff. He owns hundreds of DVDs. They fill his small apartment in the Sunset District. Some are piled on his dining room table, others are organized in spinning shelves in his living room.

“I have 400 movies in my collection, more than the library!” he says.

He has action films, horror films, comedy flicks, and lots of animation. Those are his favorite because animation is a big part of Salsiccia’s life.

“It’s what I went to school for, it’s the industry I was part of for 12 years, it’s everything I wanted to be ever since Toy Story came out in 1995…and now I can’t do it anymore.”

This is because one day last year, Salsiccia suddenly lost his sight.

“I was at home one night, I was struggling to use the computer and all of a sudden my vision just slowly went dark and didn’t really come back until the next day. But, after that it was pretty much downhill from there,” he says.

Salsiccia had radiation treatment for eye cancer as a child. He was cured, but no one knew it would affect his vision down the road.

“It wasn’t even on the radar. We had no idea that could happen, or was going to happen,” he says.

Learning to read, again

After he became blind, things that seemed simple just weren’t anymore. Things like getting money from an ATM,  hitting buttons on a microwave, or doing the laundry.  So Salsiccia decided he would learn braille. He enrolled in classes at the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired - an organization in San Francisco that helps rehabilitate people who have little or no vision.

“I originally thought that each letter was like a tactile representation of what the letter actually was, and that was a mistake,” Salsiccia says. “But once we started learning, it made perfect sense. I picked it up really quickly.”

"See" in braille
Credit Artwork by Angela Johnston

Inside the LightHouse classroom you hear the humming and clicking of the braille embossing printers. They are used to print pages of braille newsletters, San Francisco Giants baseball schedules, and Muni maps.

Some of the maps being printed are called "talking maps." You can point a special digital pen at a symbol on the map and it tells you specific details about what’s on the paper. But even though there are these incredible forms of digital technology, there are certain things technology can’t do.

“An audiobook will not tell you the spelling of the words, it will not give you the punctuation marks, or show you how the sentences are arranged,” says Divina Carlson, Marco Salsiccia’s braille teacher.

“[Braille] opens the world to you. You’re not being limited to just audio or large print,” she says.

 

Braille dots are really tiny, so when Carlson teaches, she starts out big - really big. She uses things like muffin tins and tennis balls.  She says the brain can grasp learning braille better when objects are larger. Once students learn the alphabet, Carlson will start to teach them how to read sentences, in children’s books. And there’s even a modern take on reading braille.

"Feel" in braille
Credit Artwork by Angela Johnston

Digital dots

Scott Blanks is the Deputy Director of the LightHouse and he uses a braille display. It’s about the size of a keyboard and instead of keys, there are sets of holes.

“It’s a device that you can connect either wired or wirelessly to a computer, a smartphone, or a tablet and access anything that's appearing on the screen of that device,” Blanks says.

Here’s how it works. First he selects the book he wants using his iPhone’s screen reader. The screen reader sounds like Siri on steroids, sped up so he can move around quickly. Then, the braille display reads words from the e-book, and the braille starts to pop up on the display through small rubber bubbles. For Blanks, this tactility is part of the experience.

“I found that reading something in braille was such a deeply connected experience. It mirrors the experience of reading something visually. Even though you’re using your fingers, it’s hitting your brain the same way when you read it visually,” Blanks says.

This is why Blanks likes to read things in braille, digitally. But there are times when he just feels like ordering a big old fashioned braille book from the library.

“It’s still nice to open a book and smell the paper and hear the binding creak a little bit when you open it up,” he says.

From braille to “the big screen”

Marco Salsiccia hasn’t gotten to the stage where he can read his favorite novel yet. Right now, he’s using braille for the more practical things, like labeling that huge collection of DVDs. His girlfriend will tell him the name of the movie, and he uses a braille typewriter - called a Perkin’s Brailler - to type out the titles onto label paper.

Since Salsiccia lost his sight, he says he pays more attention to the storyline and sound effects, using a special audio description feature for the visually impaired.

“While the movie is playing on the screen, there’s a pre-recorded description track that pops up when no one is talking, so it does it’s best to describe what’s happening,” Salsiccia describes.

After he finishes labeling a big batch of movies, he scans the cases, feeling and reading his newly learned braille. He finds Interstellar, pops it in the player, and listens.