After a specialist determined Ethan’s retinas had detached, we took him for surgery to attempt to re-attach them. One month later, we were told the surgery had not been successful and were offered a rather stark idea of what Ethan might be doing.
With a gift from my grandmother, I was fortunate to be able to leave my full-time job. I wanted to be completely involved in Ethan’s educational and developmental early intervention program, which began in our home when Ethan was three months old. Fortunately, our first teacher of the visually impaired (TVI) was wonderfully forthright, assuring us with an easy air that Ethan would naturally be a reader because my husband and I are avid readers. We were, to say the least, a little daunted.
We set out to learn all we could about Braille though, and were completely astounded to learn what would come to completely change our lives: as few as 10% of people who are blind or visually impaired actually read Braille. We wondered what the other 90% were doing to deliciously pass free time on a summer evening, or how they applied for jobs, or read to their children or grandchildren. We soon found out many people who are visually impaired are told to, “Try a little harder,” to read print, or that older people who’ve lost all or most of their sight think they are too old to learn. One man I spoke to was actually told by a professional rehabilitator, “You won’t learn Braille until you’re totally blind,” which he of course, believed. A professional should know, right?
How easy it would be if these thousands of people, young and old, knew how easy it is to learn at least alphabetic Braille at any age and how liberating it is to read and write Braille even if there is some residual vision. As one woman who is visually impaired says, “Reading print when you’re visually impaired is a little like trying to listen to a radio station that’s not quite within range. You have to work so hard to hear the music it almost completely negates the listening experience. So, when you learn to read Braille, it’s like hearing a symphony clearly for the first time.”
When Ethan was first receiving TVI services we didn’t realize, but quickly learned, not all professionals in the blindness community have the same philosophy about teaching Braille pre-reading skills to infants and toddlers as our first teacher. When Ethan was about two and a half years old, we asked when Braille books were going to be used during his class times. Our highly-regarded teacher replied, “Oh, Ethan’s too young to start Braille pre-reading.” When is any child too young for reading?
With all of this in mind, in 2001, when I began making and selling fashion jewelry, I soon noticed many items (most mass-produced) incorporated Balinese-style, almost Braille-like beadwork called granulation. Since Ethan was immersed in Braille for his first year, it was always around us and I started thinking about creating a fun, funky line of Braille fashion jewelry. I knew other lines of Braille jewelry were being designed, but I wanted something different; something that seamlessly combined the aesthetics of design and the functionality of Braille so that people would be as interested in and attracted to it as they are to jewelry or fabrics with Asian characters or 18th century French script. I wanted to offer pieces anyone would want to wear.
I started shopping the idea around to a variety of wholesale jewelers and got, “No,” or even, “Why should they care? They can’t see,” from most everyone. One day, as I was selling jewelry in a local Starbuck’s, two men looking at my jewelry told me they were mass production jewelers from China. After sharing my ideas with them (starting with explaining what Braille is) they told me, “If you can draw it, we will make it.”
After several failed attempts at transferring design ideas via telephone and Internet, I flew to China in January 2002 and had 2000 of the world’s first mass produced Braille heart pendants manufactured and sent just before Valentine’s Day.
Having launched my first few pieces, my intent is to promote Braille literacy within the blind and sighted communities by offering fun, reasonably priced fashion jewelry for everyone. By playing upon the visual elements of Braille, I hope to introduce the lyrical quality, as well as the importance of it, to people who know little about it.