Fourteen people gathered on a Friday morning in March for breakfast at the nationally acclaimed Brother Juniper's restaurant near the University of Memphis campus. While it is not unusual for a group to spend time together over a meal, it was apparent on this day that some individuals in the group were either totally blind, visually impaired or disabled in other ways.
"This is our Braille User Support Group, one of our outreach initiatives," said Dr. Lavonnie Perry Clayborn, research assistant professor and director of Mid-South Access Center for Technology, a non-profit assistive technology resource center located in Patterson Hall in room 119 on the U of M campus.
Mid-South ACT is a division of the Center for Rehabilitation and Employment Research (CRER), a member of the Alliance for Technology Access (ATA), and a partner with Advanced Multimedia Devices – a Partnership for Excellence Program. It was founded in 1998 and provides resources for teachers, clinicians, parents with children who have disabilities, and individuals with disabilities.
"We're trying to get individuals who are not familiar with Braille to get interested in it," said Clayborn, who has headed the resource center since 2003. "We also want to partner with local businesses to make their restaurant menus available in Braille for the blind and those individuals with low vision."
According to the National Federation for the Blind, it was estimated in 2011 that 6,636,900 American adults age 16 and older reported having a visual disability. Of that number, 3,665,200 were women and 2,971,600 were men. There were 183,900 in the state of Tennessee alone.
The data was derived from various sources such as the National Center for Health Statistics, the United States Bureau of the Census, and a 2011 National Health Interview Survey. It is the latest representative sample of individuals reporting that they had trouble seeing, that they wore glasses or contacts, or were blind and unable to see at all.
Those who are a part of the Braille User Support Group hope their lives are made a little easier once they learn to use Braille. The group meets the third Friday of each month from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Mid-South ACT office.
The meeting is facilitated by an experienced Braille user who demonstrates how individuals can use Braille in their daily lives and provides tips for learning the embossed (or raised dots) tactile writing system.
June Mangum, totally blind since he was 12 years old, has demonstrated the use of Braille at the group's monthly meeting and facilitated the breakfast meeting as well. He volunteers his time trying to encourage individuals to become more interested in using Braille in the community. He's also trying to convince businesses, particularly restaurants, to use Braille for individuals with low vision or totally blind.
"People with low vision or totally blind can function a lot better if they are using Braille," said Mangum, who has been teaching Braille at the Braille User Support Group meeting for a few months now. He also is a rehab instructor for the state of Tennessee, teaching Braille for more than 16 years.
"The rate of Braille usage has been down over the years," said Mangum, explaining the way Braille works. "It's a maximum of six (raised) dots to form the alphabets. For most people, it doesn't take long. It's not as complicated as it seems."
The Braille system also includes symbols to represent punctuation, mathematics and scientific characters, music, computer notation, and foreign languages. According to a report released by the National Federation for the Blind in 2009, fewer than 10 percent of the legally blind people in the United States read Braille.
The objective, said Clayborn, is to convince restaurants to use at least one Braille menu that the Braille User Support Group will provide. The menu would look like blank pages without photographs and text and bound together in book form. The number of pages depends on what's on the menu.
If restaurants are interested, Clayborn said the Braille User Support Group would take their existing menu and convert it into Braille. "Braille menus are not provided in most restaurants. We will provide one menu for the restaurant preferably in a Word document."
Janikquea Journey is ecstatic about using a Braille menu in restaurants. She's known about the tactile writing system since she was a kid and gives Mangum his props for demonstrating during the breakfast meeting how Braille can be used.
"He came around and showed everybody what it felt like," she said. "He demonstrated for people who couldn't use Braille at that level how to use it. Everybody got a chance to have hands-on experience with a Braille menu."
Journey has had some difficulty with food selections at restaurants. A friend or family member, she said, has had to read the menu to her so she could make her selection. She's had to depend on their eyes to get what she wants.
"They'd have to go through sections of the menu to figure out what I want. When they do read the menu, some waitresses don't know disability etiquette and will ask the person reading the menu what they want. They need to ask me what I want."
She said the wait staff doesn't know any better when serving the visually impaired or individuals who're totally blind.
"They have to be patient with people."