A couple of stories I heard recently made me so thankful that I live in the generation I do, even though I complain about the stupidness and all that. If I was older, oh my. I don’t think I would have survived as a blind person. If I did, I would have been miserable.
The first story I heard just about made me want to cry. It was all about this blind high school student years ago who was preparing an essay. Now, this was before the computer. So, to present this essay to a teacher, she had to type it out on a typewriter, and typewriters didn’t talk. There was no such thing. Ok, right there, I would have been fucked. First off, as I’m writing, I’m constantly changing my mind about how the sentence should be structured. Ok, I guess I’d write my first copy out in braille, but even that method didn’t make for easy changes of course. It wasn’t like a computer where you could just cut out and paste. You would have to scratch out the unwanted letters and either go on from there or write over them and try to not make a total mess. Second, I make a zillion typos, some of them see the light of day before being quickly fixed. In that sentence alone, I fixed five typos. There. I fixed another! And another! Ok, my point is made, and my typing accuracy revealed. If I had to start over again every time I made a typo, well…the typewriter would learn to fly.
But that’s not the part of the story that truly made me cry. This girl was merrily typing her essay and got it all done. Pulling the last page from the typewriter, she asked if it looked good. The person replied, “The ribbon was out of ink.”
Luckily, she had brailled it first, but oh my god! I’m a terminal procrastinator, and if that were me, I probably would have been five minutes from class, finishing up, all proud of myself, and then discovering that I was completely out of time and out of luck.
I’ve already whined about the abacus. Let’s go through another exercise in elementary school torture that my braille teacher tried to tell me was the way of the future. It was called, and lots of blinks will shudder while others laugh at the shuddering blinks, the slate and stylus!
For all of those who don’t know, this is how it works. In case you don’t know this, the braille cell, or the thing from which all braille symbols are derived, has six dots. The formation of the cell is two columns wide, three rows deep. Down the left column are dots 1, 2, 3, and down the right are dots 4, 5, 6. Just so we’re clear, 1 is directly across from four, 2 from 5, and 3 from 6. If I knew of a place where I could import a graphic of a braile cell, I would, but I don’t, mainly because I wouldn’t know how good the quality of the graphic was. But all of this crap becomes important.
So, the slate…ug! It was a portable way to braille. That, I will give it. It was a set of two long pieces of metal held together by a hinge. The top piece had four rows of braille cell-shaped holes all the way down it. At the inner edge and the outer edge on the bottom piece, there were two sets of picks that you would spear your braille paper on. Again, I wish I had a picture of a slate so you wouldn’t have to go on my crappy description. Ah hell, here’s a picture.
Basically, you would open the slate up so the top piece was laying with the holes facing down so the picks and the bottom piece were fully exposed. You would take your braille paper, line the top up with the top of the bottom piece, spear it on the picks, then grab the top piece and flip it and slam it over the paper so that the cell-shaped holes were now facing up and ready for you to start work. This slam would, in theory, fully hold the paper in place so you could then work away without fear that it would slide. Mwa ha ha ha ha. IT is a fine theory.
So anyway, now let’s explain the holes. These holes, my friends, represent the braille cell, only backwards. This is because you are punching through to the other side of the paper with the stylus, creating the dots on the other side. So now, 4, 5, and 6 are on the left, and 1, 2, and 3 are on the right. Aren’t you grinning with joy? So now you have to do all your letters backwards.
And to make things even more enjoyable, you have to punch a letter out dot by friggin dot! Maybe it’s time to step back a bit. When you’re brailling using a Perkins Brailler, or a braille typewriter as some call them, the device has six keys and a space bar. When you want to type a letter, you hit all the keys for the dots required for that letter at once. Then the letter is done. If you are doing it on the slate, you have to punch it dot by dot. So let’s take a q for example. It consists of dots 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. I had to punch every dot, and punching a dot involves driving a stylus through relatively thick paper, because normal paper just doesn’t survive the abuses of being poked until it’s full of dots and holes.
Now let’s get into the stylus for a second. This shithead of an implement was very small and very round, perfect for getting lost at the bottom of a napsack or rolling when you set it down or dropped it, and the slate had no mechanism of attaching the stylus to it when you were done using it. That’s just great for a blink. Let’s give him something that’s perfect for rolling in all directions whenever it comes in contact with, oh, any surface. Also, the tip was easy to break if it went to the bottom of a napsack full of heavy braille books, or if you pushed on it with a little too much force while trying to drive it through the paper. Just dandy.
Then there’s the art of trying to make sure that your stylus is in the correct spot in the cell-shaped hole to make the right dot. If you want a dot 2, but you’re too low, you may get a dot 3. If you’re too high, it’s a dot 1. And, since you’re punching through the paper, you can’t check your work. And god forbid you get distracted! Oh, you can put your stylus in the hole where you left off, but what if it gets bumped? And, what if you forget which letter you just made? Gaaa!
If you successfully made four lines of braille with the slate, some extra fun began. You would open the thing up, top piece laying holes face down and paper exposed, and you would remove the paper from the picks. There are two picks on each side, one at the top of the slate and one at the bottom. You would move the paper up so the holes where you had speared it with the bottom picks were lined up with the top picks. You would drive those picks into the paper, and make new holes with the bottom picks. This, in theory, made sure you didn’t braille over previously brailled spots. Mwa ha ha ha, beautiful theory. Then you would re-slam, and start anew. “Where was I at?” I would think, trying to remember the last thing I wrote before going through this exercise. “Hmmm…”
Sometimes, while moving it up, the holes would disintegrate or the paper would rip, or you’d line it up wrong, thus brailling over your previously brailled text. At this point, you just want to scream. Add to this that you’re often in class, so you’re trying to move quickly to keep up with the class, but you keep slipping, and jabbing, and your hand cramps up. They tell you to get good, because this is how you will take notes in university. Double Gaaa!
If this had been a few years earlier, my teacher would have been right, and to every blind person who got through school and still uses the slate, I give you a medal. I also give a medal to a girl who is learning braile, and *chose* to compose a note to me via slate, which made me think of this. But I was saved by technology. Enter portable but expensive specialty technology that allowed me to make quick, effective notes when I was at school without using that goddamn slate.
Maybe, if I had been born earlier and had no Braille ‘n Speak or other funky technology, I would look at this post and call me a whiny bitch. But good lord I consider myself infinitely lucky that I never had to take feverish class notes at university with that horrible slate. I never got good at it, and if I tried to write with the slate now, I would probably only produce jibberish. I’m so happy I never had to typewriter type an essay either. I always had a computer, whether it be an Apple 2E, or a dos computer, or a windows 98 beast, or this pile of crap that is my xp beast, but it’s an xp beast nonetheless. To all those people who had to type with a typewriter and take notes with a slate, you are made of stronger stuff than I. You have more determination than I ever will. If I had to do that, I’d be howling at the moon by now.