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Local girl Lailah celebrates World Braille Day

Thursday 4 January is World Braille Day and marks the anniversary of the birth of Louis Braille (1809-52), a French man who became blind aged four. As a teenager, Louis found 63 ways to use a six-dot cell in an area no larger than a fingertip and this system grew to be used across the world.

Though now 200 years old, Braille is as vital as ever, and made even more so because of the advances in new technology, says leading sight loss charity RNIB NI (The Royal National Institute of Blind People in Northern Ireland).

In a world that relies more and more on computer technology, you would be forgiven for believing that traditional Braille is now overlooked by children and young people with a vision impairment. However, school students still feel Braille offers that vital first step on their education journey – students like Lailah Canning from County Armagh.

Lailah, aged nine from Lislea, near Newry, has been through a lot in her short life. From a very young age, mum Natalie was concerned about her vision and night-time seizures. Just before her third birthday, and after a long struggle by Natalie to get a diagnosis, a simple eye test turned their world upside down.

Natalie explains: “The eye examination took 45 minutes. I knew there was a problem when the time just kept ticking by and the optician didn’t speak. He sent us for an emergency appointment at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast and less than a week after that Lailah underwent an emergency MRI. It was a really scary time for us all.

“The scan revealed Lailah had not one, but two tumours. One in her brain and other on her optic nerve, which was causing the visual disturbances. She started on a gruelling course of chemotherapy straight away and spent Christmas 2017 in hospital fighting a series of infections.

“Thankfully, the intense treatment was a success and the tumours shrunk considerably. Unfortunately, the damage had been done to Lailah’s eyesight. She has no vision in one eye at all, and very little remaining in the other.”

In the six years that have passed, Natalie says the whole family unit has learned to adapt. “We just do things now without even thinking,” Natalie, who has three other children aged 16, 13 and four, says.

“For example, we don’t leave things lying around the floor where she might trip over them or, if we’re watching a movie together as a family, I sit beside Lailah and describe it all to her.”

Now in primary five, Lailah has the full-time support of a classroom assistant. Natalie explains: “Lailah missed nursery because she was undergoing treatment but we wanted to get everything in place for her for starting school to give her the best chance possible. We worked closely with the Education Authority and decided that a dual pathway – learning both Braille and the written word – would be best for her.

She added: “She uses an old style Perkins Brailler and It’s amazing how fast she is! She does the same work as her peers and I’m so glad she has learned Braille from such a young age because it would be a million times harder to pick up from scratch at an older age when she’s likely to lose her remaining sight.

“The RNIB’s Children, Young People and Families Team are amazing and have been involved with us from very early on. The social side of what they offer is amazing. Lailah has particularly enjoyed dance classes that they’ve organised, because it’s hard to find that kind of activity elsewhere that can cater for her needs.”

Natalie, who’s planning on taking an online course in Braille herself, says she’s constantly amazed by her daughter. “She’s so bubbly and everyone who meets her will remember her, she says. “All I want is for her to be included and Braille has helped make that possible.”

RNIB continues to champion Braille and the rights of blind and partially sighted people to have access to information and the opportunity to express themselves in written word. Since RNIB’S first Braille book was published in 1871, the RNIB library now shares over 25,000 Braille books and music scores with members every year and the sight loss charity remains the largest publisher of Braille in Europe.

Jackie Brown is a Technology for Life Coordinator with RNIB in Northern Ireland and advocates passionately for Braille to unlock the world of literacy and numeracy for people living with sight loss.

She says: “Close your eyes and think of all the ways you use the written word in your daily life. Those scenarios are just the same for a person who can’t see. That’s why Braille is still so important.

“Don’t get me wrong, advances in computer technology and screen reading or magnification software can be life changing, but if you’ve restricted access to computers or need to read independent from other technology, Braille is still the go-to because Braille exists with or without computers, tablets and smartphones.

“My love of Braille began when I started at a school for children with a visual impairment at the age of four. Being totally blind, I learnt Braille as my first medium to read and write. I did all my schoolwork in Braille and even now, I still use Braille each and every day.

“Growing up, I was acutely aware of how much Braille enabled me to do. I think it’s still so important in order to teach kids with a visual impairment numeracy and literacy. Aspects of grammar like spelling, learning punctuation and capitalising letters, all of which are quite difficult to teach using speech software or audio books.

“There’s no doubt that it’s easier to learn Braille when you’re younger but it’s never too late. There are so many reasons why Braille should continue to be offered as part of the curriculum. The younger a person learns to use it, the better as far as I’m concerned.”