Emily Wharton’s epiphany came in college, as she faced a roomful of listeners at a coffeehouse poetry reading.
All her life, Wharton quietly compensated for her declining eyesight. She wore big, thick glasses and hovered over textbooks into the wee hours so that she could graduate from high school and attend Drake University, where she majored in English literature.
But there she was, about to recite her poem, and someone dimmed the lights. Wharton could no longer see her writing. Finally, a friend flipped a switch so she could perform, but she knew something had to change.
“Forget this,” she decided. “I have to learn Braille.”
She did that, and more. Turns out the poet also writes pretty good Braille curriculum.
Wharton, 37, is the 2013 recipient of the A Touch of Genius Award by the National Braille Press, and the Dr. Jacob Bolotin Award by the National Federation of the Blind. Bolotin was the first blind doctor, born in 1888.
The two awards, announced in June and July, carry gifts of $10,000 and $15,000, respectively. But those who work with Wharton, curriculum and technology coordinator at Blind Inc., in Minneapolis, say the biggest winners are thousands of people whose lives will open up thanks to Wharton’s “Code Master” system of Braille instruction.
The revolutionary system, they say, makes Braille easy and quick to learn, no matter one’s age or aptitude.
“The impact has been incredible,” said Dick Davis, assistant director of Blind Inc., a not-for-profit life-skills training center working with people of all ages.
“We had people who had been laboring and — boom — in six weeks, they were learning Braille. Even people who struggled with literacy were learning fast.”
Suddenly, clients were able to check baseball scores, organize their kitchen pantries with Braille labeling or read books to their children.
“She took a risk,” Shawn Mayo, Blind Inc.’s executive director, added, noting that Wharton’s efforts are receiving national and international attention. New Mexico, Colorado and Louisiana have requested more information about her curriculum. The Royal National Institute for the Blind did a podcast with her.
About 1.4 million Americans are legally blind, including up to 40,000 Minnesotans. Yet, Mayo said, “Braille teaching methods haven’t changed much in the last 100 years. That says a lot.”
That lack of innovation is likely why Braille has fallen out of favor with teachers of blind students over the past many decades. Just 10 percent of legally blind kindergartners through high school seniors are taught Braille nationwide today, Davis said, compared to upwards of 60 percent in the 1960s.
The dramatic shift away from Braille instruction toward audio learning is due, he said, to stubborn misconceptions, including that it is too difficult to learn, unnecessary in the age of technology, and that communication by speech alone can suffice.
“None of those things are true,” Wharton said. “Braille is extremely practical, with such a range of uses. I just love reading books in Braille.”
After college, Wharton began to learn Braille the old-fashioned way, but it was slow-going and cumbersome. There had to be a better way.
“It’s a system,” Wharton realized. “Hey, I like systems.’ ”
In 2009, she began developing a Braille textbook, which incorporated memorization, writing and touch, as well as several routes to learning: an audio CD for aural learners, for example, and charts for visual learners. A year later, she offered her first class at Blind Inc., integrating Braille and technology, the latter which has opened up the world to Braille users.
On students’ first day, they learn the first 10 letters of the alphabet, “then we drill the heck out of ’em,” Wharton said. They move from there to the rest of the alphabet, then to numbers, basic punctuation, contractions and more.
She’s taught the system to more than 100 students, from age 18 to 60. Marie Kouthoofd, 47, of Oswego, New York, is one.
She flew to Minneapolis last fall specifically to learn with Wharton at Blind Inc. A psychology professor, she has a degenerative eye disease and tried, unsuccessfully, to learn Braille 20 years ago when the process took a minimum of six months to a year.
“It didn’t go well,” Kouthoofd said. “You get the book, put your fingers on the dots. I got nauseated when I’d sit down and try.”
Wharton’s Code Master system was a revelation. A visual learner, Kouthoofd said, “I could see the code in my head.”
Now she uses Braille to read Dr. Seuss books to her grandson. With Braille labeling, “I can use my stove again, my dishwasher, my microwave.” She’s labeling her pantry cans, too.
“I’m like a kid in a candy store,” she said, “because I can read again.”
This is exactly what Wharton had in mind. She calls it having a good “Braillitude.”
“It’s just about being really positive and energetic. Braille’s not hard unless you make it hard.”