For the blind and those with vision impairment, the touch-based system of writing called Braille opens a world of reading and literacy. The traditional system devised by French teacher Louis Braille is still widely used today, along with technical aids such as computers.
The Braille Institute of America, a non-profit organization based in Southern California, has helped the blind for 85 years. Among the 200 courses it offers, some focus on the 19th century system of reading and writing called Braille. Named after its creator, it is based on combinations of raised dots imprinted on a page. The institute maintains an extensive braille library and imprints more than 13 million pages in braille a year.
Adama Dyoniziak, the institute's regional director for Los Angeles, says its five California centers also teach living skills, sensory awareness, cooking and home management.
"This would cover the general daily living activities and tasks that a person has to take care of: getting up in the morning, taking care of everything for themselves, eating, and so forth," said Adama Dyoniziak.
The center also offers courses in computer literacy. A device linked to a computer converts text to braille on a panel of movable pins that can be raised or lowered to form a line of characters. Another program converts documents or text from Internet sites to spoken language.
"As you're typing, let's say, on your computer in Microsoft Word a letter or using email, in your ear you hear what it is that you're typing," she said. "And then you can go back and read it, it will read it to you, whatever it is that you've typed so you can check for errors," explained Ms. Dyoniziak.
Debbie Lawrence, who is 50, has been blind from birth, and says she learned at an early age to live with her disability.
"I always knew that I couldn't see, but my family never treated me any differently than they treated each other," said Debbie Lawrence.
She attended college, where she majored in Spanish and music. She works as a switchboard operator at the Braille Institute.
Ms. Lawrence finds braille invaluable, but also spends a lot of time using her computer, surfing the web for research and entertainment. Ahshira Santos had to cope with vision impairment since her early adult years. Now 27, she can see shapes and colors but otherwise sees little of the world around her.
"I started losing my vision when I was 20 because of diabetes," said Ahshira Santos.
Ms. Santos is studying business administration at Los Angeles City College, next door to the institute. She relies on her computer and other high tech aids to keep up with her studies. One device enlarges printed text on a television screen, and a software program enlarges text on her computer.
She is studying braille, however, because she knows that some day she will lose her remaining vision.
Adama Dyoniziak says vocational training is central to what the institute does today. Through a combination of classes and counseling, students get training in job skills, and through internships, receive some practical work experience. Ahshira Santos helps orient new students at the institute. A native Spanish speaker, she also teaches English to blind immigrants.