In a world of e-books and homework apps, tactile braille dots speckled across a page may appear archaic, but for eight-year-old Maggie Wehrle, braille unleashes her imagination.
Born blind, Maggie bubbles over with enthusiasm when talking about her favourite books, and can’t resist bouncing in her seat.
“Right now I’m reading The Lord of the Rings, but I’ve also read the whole Harry Potter series and I just finished The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” says Maggie. “I think reading all of these books gave me the influence to write.”
Maggie recently took first prize for her age category in CNIB’s (Canadian National Institute for the Blind) national braille creative writing contest for her story called, “The Underground Festival” – a fantasy world where the dirt shimmers silver, dragons soar and people’s shadows are being stolen to nourish the hungry land.
When trying to describe what writing means to her, Maggie is at a loss for words. “I just love it so much,” exclaims Maggie. “It’s more than a hobby… I don’t even know the word for it. Passion is the closest word I can think of.”
In the 1950s, nearly 50 per cent of North Americans with vision loss knew how to read braille. Today, that number is only about 10 per cent.
A number of factors play into this decline, including the prevalence of blindness amongst seniors who are less likely to learn braille later in life, the mainstreaming of special education, and a growing reliance on digital technology.
“No matter what stage of life someone is in when confronting a loss of vision, the ability to read braille is an essential life skill,” says Jessica Leonard, Independent Living Specialist who teaches braille on Vancouver Island for CNIB. “Simply put, braille equals literacy.”
For children with vision loss, being able to read braille is the key to life-long learning, successful future employment and achieving independence. “Computer and audio technologies can’t replace a child’s need to learn how to read and write,” says Leonard. “Can you imagine trying to learn math, play music or study a second language through listening only?”
Braille has opened a world of creative expression for Maggie.
Taking after her father Trevor, a musician, she reads braille sheet music and plays the violin at an advanced level for her age. Following in her mother’s visual arts footsteps, Maggie eagerly shows off her origami paper cranes explaining that her inspiration comes from where else, but the well-known book Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes.
“My teacher and I are trying to make it to one thousand,” Maggie says giggling.
At only eight-years-old Maggie’s determination is apparent and it is clear that blindness doesn’t hold her back.
“I’m often woken up by the sound of Maggie clicking away on her brailler very early in the morning,” says Melissa, Maggie’s mother. “She’s such a great little writer and she gets so much enjoyment out of it.”
“I’m inspired by J.K. Rowling,” declares Maggie. “I’d like to be an author who writes sci-fi or just completely crazy fiction.”
Like any new language, braille takes time and practice to learn at any age.
CNIB offers braille instruction in accordance with an individual’s personal goals – whether that means learning the basic alphabet in order to label medication and household items, play tactile games like cards or Scrabble, or to become an advanced reader of literature, CNIB will help you get there.
“Braille is the one thing that gives me access to what other people can see,” says Maggie. “Without it, I don’t feel like I’d fit in.”