Headphones resting on an open text book above a Braille Edge refreshable braille display

The Power of Not Knowing

How a seemingly small gesture opened my mind to how I needed to learn and changed my experience of learning and learning media.

I was introduced to Braille in elementary school when we knew I had a visual impairment that was impacting my ability to read, but we didn’t have a diagnosis. It would be another two years before I received the correct diagnosis, and another ten years before we really understood the effect of that diagnosis on my ability to learn. The year I received my diagnosis, my educational team decided to stop pursuing braille and stick with large print because I was resistant to reading braille with my fingers when I could still see it with my eyes. At ten, I didn’t understand why my teacher could read braille with her eyes and that was ok, but I couldn’t. It felt like a double standard that no one could explain on a ten-year-old level. Had I known then what I learned in college, my K-12 education would have looked very different.

I didn’t grow up around blind or visually impaired kids or adults. I didn’t use a cane. There was another girl who was totally blind in my elementary school, but in my kid mind I had way more in common with my sighted peers than I did the totally blind classmate. So why would I need to read the way she did?  I could read my textbooks… at least I thought I could.

You can’t know what you don’t see. I had no clue that other people didn’t get physically tired reading or that I was still a visual learner and Braille was a visual reading/learning modality. Had someone explained that to me, maybe things would have been different.

In high school I was using almost entirely regular print. I couldn’t explain why I was legally blind but could read “it”. I couldn’t explain why sometimes large print was better and sometimes it was worse. But more often than not, it was worse, or at the very least equally difficult.

My junior year of college I took a class called “anatomy and physiology of the speech and hearing mechanisms.” This professor had no idea how he would change the course of my life and how I learned. As part of the class, we had to learn the different areas of the brain. I knew I had experienced brain damage. This professor took hours of his time to look at my brain MRI and explain to me exactly what areas of my brain were damaged and how that might be affecting me and my ability to learn, travel and live. He helped me create a model that demonstrated for me in a tactile way what other people could see and visually process. I finally could begin to understand why braille might be a good idea. I realized just how silly the idea of not pursuing braille was. I mean I had been reading print for years before being introduced to braille. Why wouldn’t I still read print faster or at least more emotionally comfortably than braille? I decided that year to give braille another chance. Not as my sole reading medium. It will probably never become that, but as an add-on way of learning.

By the time I entered graduate school I had memorized the entire braille code and while I wouldn’t say I was fluent, I began reading some of my materials in electronic braille. I decided that I would read one assignment a week entirely in braille and most of the rest simultaneously in audio/print. After a year, I found myself gravitating to audio alone or audio/braille together only looking at the print if I needed to see a diagram, chart, or item that wasn’t translating well in my mind.

I used to joke to my family that the only reason I could keep up in an accelerated graduate program was because I could now read till my eyes gave out, read till my fingers gave out, and finish before my ears gave out. No more needing to take breaks to let my eyes recover. No more misunderstandings because I am not an auditory learner. No more not doing readings/assignments because reading was physically difficult. I could concentrate on learning the material rather than on physically interacting with it. But most importantly, I had the knowledge and experience to come to that conclusion. To understand why I needed to know braille in order to have a full learning experience.

Had someone explained to ten-year-old me that I might not even know I was struggling because struggle was my normal and that with practice, braille might lessen that struggle, I might have given it a fair chance. All I know is that once I gave being a triple media learner a chance, I could actually do all of my work and get the grades everyone else knew I was capable of earning. So, when it comes to learning media, I ask you to never underestimate the power of what a learner does not know and help her acquire the self-knowledge she needs so she can be open to how she may best learn now or in the future.


By NatashaB

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