Intro: Are you someone who loves to read and write? Then you will enjoy Dr. Judith Dixon’s unusual hobby. Judy, who is head of Consumer Relations at the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped in Washington, D.C., collects slates and styluses of every kind. She pursues this uncommon interest from her home in Arlington, Virginia.

The Story (along with a bit of history): Prior to Braille’s breakthrough, many attempts had been made to create a tactile alphabet. Most of these systems were based on print or some variation of the Roman letter. The few blind persons who were being educated in the first half of the 19th century were reading a myriad of round and angular raised letters, but these were reading systems only. The attempts that had been made to develop a tactile alphabet that could also be written by blind persons had been largely unsuccessful.

Enter Louis Braille. His alphabet had many advantages over other tactile reading systems of the day. The six dot configuration had great flexibility and the characters could be easily recognized by touch. True literacy is not only reading but also writing, and Braille’s system could be quickly and easily written by hand. With the invention of the slate and stylus, blind persons became truly literate for the first time.

Through the years, braille writing devices have evolved into some very sophisticated pieces of equipment. Louis Braille’s slate consisted of two parts; the top part was a two-line metal guide with the familiar cell openings, and the bottom part a very thick piece of wood with only horizontal grooves instead of the now familiar pits. Because they are fairly simple to make, braille slates were the primary writing tools throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Because they are inexpensive, lightweight, portable, and quiet, many blind persons today still find the braille slate to be practical and well-suited to a variety of purposes.

Hi, my name is Judy Dixon, and when I was in school and using a slate frequently, I often wished for one that had a full page of cells, eliminating the necessity to move the slate down the page after every four lines. I also imagined a slate that would enable me to write very small braille so I could fit more material on a page, and a slate that would write on both sides of the paper. I did not know then that such slates were available.

About ten years ago, a friend gave me a slate from England that had braille cells about two-thirds the size of the ones I had been using. On a 4 by 6 inch card, I could fit 11 lines of 26 cells. Later, I obtained a full-page slate from Germany which had 21 lines of 28 cells. When I saw the German slate, I was hooked, and became interested in collecting braille writing equipment as a hobby.

British slate designed for bookkeeping Currently, there are 92 different slates and 14 braillewriters from 12 countries in my collection. Some are historical, but most are modern and still available. The largest slate that I have was made in Austria and has 30 lines of 36 cells. The smallest, called a margin guide, was made in England and has only one line of four cells. It has no hinge and is designed to simply slip over the edge of a page like a paper clip. It is used to add a page number or make a note in the margin.

The variety of braille slates available throughout the world today is enormous. Each slate in my collection is somewhat different from every other. There are as many different sizes as there are shapes. They are made of aluminum, zinc, brass, steel and several kinds of plastic. Most are in fairly subdued shades of gray and black, but one plastic slate is a startling fluorescent orange. Instead of pins, some have magnets or spring-loaded clips to secure the paper, and in place of a hinge, some have stiff tape or heavy plastic to hold the two parts of the slate together.

In the United States we encounter only two sizes of braille—standard and jumbo. However, the size of the braille cell in slates from other countries varies considerably. The Japanese slates typically produce braille that is somewhat smaller than the American standard, while many of the German slates produce braille that is slightly larger than ours. There are two slates from Japan that produce braille so small that it is actually difficult to read; unfortunately for the collector, these are no longer being produced.

A feature of many modern slates that I simply took for granted is the little notches on the sides of the cell which guide the stylus to the desired dot. There are slates sold today by Germany, Japan, Austria, Czechoslovakia and other countries that do not have these notches; the opening for each cell is rectangular with perfectly smooth sides. The lack of these guide notches is most noticeable when writing dots two and five, but with practice these dots can be brailled with accuracy.

slate for check writing designed by a US bankThere are several rather creative designs which allow the braille to be read while the paper is still in the slate. But the most intriguing slates in my collection are the ones which are designed for interpoint braille and those designed with a special purpose in mind, such as banking.

One hears much these days of the declining use of braille. It is said that blind children are not being taught braille in public and residential schools and that professionals in the rehabilitation system are not encouraging newly blind persons to learn braille. I believe that the responsibility must be on blind persons themselves to reverse this trend.

It is up to blind people who know braille to encourage others to learn braille. We must stress the benefits of knowing braille to the professionals and to those blind persons who could use it. We must let them know that braille is not only a reading system but also an inexpensive, rapid, and efficient writing system. An ability to read and write braille is certainly the only pathway to true literacy for many blind individuals. And we must ensure that our writing tools are the ones that can best meet our braille writing needs.

It is also up to those who do not know braille to demand their right to literacy. Literacy for blind persons is a relatively recent achievement and we must not allow ourselves and those who come after us to slip back into the dark ages.

You can enjoy my collection of rare and unusual slates and styluses by going to my Special Exhibit: Reviving the Braille Slate. Questions and comments are invited.

The Contact: Judy Dixon