Sitting under the shade of a tree, the warm breeze plays at the book pages under your fingertips. Perhaps the book you’re reading is an adventure story with pirates. Or maybe you’re learning about early United States history. Whatever the book is, your fingers are gliding along the pages of code revealing another world. Another time.
Dominique Hackett is a volunteer with the Braille Institute Santa Barbara Center. In 2019, she began assisting with teaching Grade One Braille while she was working on becoming a Braille Transcriber for another nonprofit called Philosophical Books For the Blind.
“Luis Arias, who is visually impaired and learned to read braille at the Santa Barbara Braille Institute, taught me to be a teacher,” she said. “And then I read as much as I could, watched YouTube videos and read various instructors’ suggestions for teaching how to learn braille.”
Her research and various studies with the Illinois Braille Series textbooks also helped her learn braille. Braille is a code in which words are represented by a pattern of raised dots, known as braille cells. A full cell has six raised dots in two parallel rows of three dots. Louis Braille, from Coupvray, France, invented the code at the age of 15 in 1824. He was blinded at the age of three.
“It is such a joy to celebrate a student’s successes everyday with mastering more and more Braille Code,” Dominique said. She works with Braille Institute students to have confidence in themselves and confidence in their fingers to convey information.
Students come to Dominique mystified when they first feel braille in a textbook, she said. They learn right away how to find the page number or title page of the book. She becomes their “living dictionary” in Grade 2 Contracted Braille where the students begin to memorize short-cuts to make reading braille much faster.
“My students start out doubting whether they will be successful,” Dominique said. “And then weeks go by and every day I congratulate them on being a Braille Reader. We laugh and keep it fun, which makes it easier for our brains to stay in the neocortex to build the long-term memory needed to make contracted braille reading easy.”
All of Dominique’s students are halfway through learning Grade Two Braille. They completed Grade One – Uncontracted Braille in a month or two, she said. Today, fewer than 10 percent of visually impaired Americans can read braille. A sharp contrast from 50 percent in the 1960s.
Dominique’s advice to someone unsure if they need to learn braille or not is, “Start the process, and relax and have fun with it. You are not in school. You are doing a hobby that brings you joy – reading for the sheer pleasure of life-long learning.”
If you’re interested in learning braille, even as a person with full sight, Dominique would gladly support you. “I would love to teach more sighted people to teach our visually impaired how to read braille,” she said. “If you would like to become a braille teacher, I’d be happy to support you! The visually impaired need the support of the sighted population. If you love reading, please consider learning braille and teaching, so more people can quietly sit under a tree and enjoy a good book! Life-long learning makes us all happy as individuals, and supports our community, and creates a better-informed global village.”