Stories of One-of-a-Kind Braille Readers

After 27 years of teaching, you’re bound to have some pretty interesting stories. We asked Jerry Whittle, who retired last year from the Louisiana Center for the Blind to share some of his favorites.

One of the most remarkable braille reading demonstrations that I ever witnessed was when one of my students read more than 300 words per minute. Reading that fast was not so unusual, as I have timed over 90 people who could read beyond the 300-word mark…some exceeded 400 and 500 words per minute. Yet all of them used the two-handed method…except for this student.

This particular student used only one index finger on his right hand to read. He turned the braille book so that he read toward his stomach, running his entire finger and finger pad down the line; then, he would snap the finger up to the next line and bring it at lightning speed down the line toward him. He used his left hand to keep the page flat and to hold the next line at the left margin. He told me that his teacher had taught him this method as a child.

When he graduated, several students came to the Center reading more than 300 words per minute, and I showed several of them his method, since they all read with two hands from left to right across the page. When they turned the book and used only the right or left index finger, they could read competently in this manner…although not as fast as they did when using the standard method.

Before I started teaching braille at the Center, I met a remarkable young man named John Henry Jones while teaching English at the University of South Carolina at Aiken. He suffered from Hunter’s Syndrome, was a dwarf, and deaf-blind. I brought him the shortest NFB cane available, and he used it somewhat slapadashedly to protect his tiny frame. He had over-sized, pulpy hands which prevented him from reading braille in the standard way. His braille teacher had taught him to read with his upper lip, and—even at the age of eleven—he read in excess of 70 words per minute, using the skin just above the lip to keep from moistening the pages.

I invited him to my home and made shrimp Creole, and he attended Merilynn and my wedding. He came up to me after the wedding, tugging at my pants leg, and he said in his little tinny voice, “Why did you do it, Jerry? Why?”

Unfortunately, John Henry died when he was 18 years old, but I will never forget him. His spirit and courage were giant, and he was not deterred from enjoying a good book by using a most unorthodox method.

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Jerry Whittle
Jerry Whittle, a Louisiana native, is instructor emeritus at the Louisiana Center for the Blind in Ruston.

One thought on “Stories of One-of-a-Kind Braille Readers

  1. Mr. Whittle could write a memoir about his time in the trenches in that rather small braille classroom at the Center on Trenton Street. It could not have been more than 10 feet by maybe 18 feet.

    Teachers have written books about their time at the front. But his potential memoir covering the 27 years of active service would be an interesting voice opening a world that sighted people, even some blind people, rarely see.

    This one-handed gastric braille technique sounds most fascinating. While I do read braille one-handed, left handed, I could never go that fast. I think my speed was about 175 wpm. Using both hands which drives me crazy, I managed to break the 300 wpm summit! Right handed reading always looked backwards to me. The letters seemed strange. I should do it more, I know. Braille wpm speeds of over 400 seem absolutely amazing to me. I seem to recall having heard that Mr. Jernigan attaining such a stratospheric speed. I am not sure, however, that braille readers coming later to the science are able to do this. But I could be wrong.

    We won’t discuss slate writing speeds. I know of 2 LRS counselors who use slate and did even in college. If most lecturers speak at a minimum of 125-175 wpm, and the best slate writers using Grade 3 attain speeds of maybe 35 wpm, how can they keep up? Is slate writing more an
    aide-memoire than an actual record of the spoken word? Do the best slate writers also have superior memories? Has anyone ever tested this ability. I have always wanted to select a sample lecture from The Teaching Company and have an Olympic slatist transcribe it. The Olympian could select the general category: science or humanities. It’s a mystery to me how one does this. I used to overwrite words and lines on a slate, poke my fingers with the alignment pins, go crazy finding the middle dots, and cramp my right hand painfully. Remembering to forget to think of this as mirror writing was a challenge; equally frustratingwas trying not to tear fragile notebook paper with pointed styli which could also drag in the cells.

    When I learned Grade 3 from Hadley, I thought it would help. But it did not. No current braille software even tries to translate Grade 3. The Duxbury gnomes indicate that this is not officially recognized by BANA. Wintrans simply doesn’t work on my system. So it’s out. I have lost some of my Grade 3 for lack of materials to practice on. Alas. Grade 3 and slatewriting could have been an excellent one semester course at a good high school, but then finding someone to teach that might be impossible!

    Needless to say, when Mr. Braille Lite appeared I knew I had to have one and thanks to Mr. Tom Lye who provided 10 excellent reasons, my then Rehab counselor came through–that was in the days of better LRS, not the LRS of now! I still have it and use it some decades later. It is slowly dying. It is not cost effective to have weak pins fixed now. It’s unlikely I’ll get introduced to Mr. Apex. Mr. PacMate was ghastly and possibly overpriced. Seems some of thisstuffc ould be outsourced to China and sold at WalMart prices like everything else or nearly everything sold to the mega-consumption machine of America.

    Thank you.

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