At her West Valley home on July 9, Janelle Ruby traced her finger along the raised dots of braille cells.
Ruby, 35, is in the midst of the challenging task of learning braille.
Opening a thick binder filled with highlighted braille lessons, Ruby is in lesson No. 11 out 20 required to complete Library of Congress certification in braille transcribing through the National Federation of the Blind.
Ruby works at West Valley School as a paraeducator in the special education department. Now in her fifth year, Ruby has found a calling in education.
The mother of four started out as a parent volunteer at West Valley School where her children Matthew,15, Caleb,13, Lacey,10 and Jade, 9 attended.
“One day I stopped to check in the office. The secretary at the time asked if I would like to sub,” Ruby said. “The first day she called me to substitute, she asked me, ‘how do you feel about subbing in the special education department?’ I said, ‘great, kids are kids to me.’”
Ruby ended up substitute teaching for the rest of that week. Until that point, she was a full-time stay-at-home mother.
“My husband [Scott] is in the Marine Corps and was deployed a month after we married. Three months in Jamaica,” Ruby said joking that he got to go on a honeymoon first. “Shortly after he returned I got pregnant. We had four [children] super close together and there was no job that was going to pay enough for childcare. Once my youngest was in kindergarten that’s when I started substituting.”
When a paraeducator position opened in the special education department, a staff member suggested she apply. She did and was hired.
In addition to working in the classroom, Ruby is a Special Olympics coach and this coming school year will be the eighth-grade volleyball coach.
When the chance to learn braille presented itself Ruby took it on. Braille is not a language. It is a code composed of six dots called a “cell.” The different combinations of dots represent a letter of the alphabet, for example, or a short-form word such as “ab” for the word “about.”
“The first thing you learn is the alphabet. Then you learn numbers,” she said flipping through the pages in her binder. “The numbers are represented by ‘A’ through ‘J’ and you just put a number sign in front of it — a number indicator. ‘A’ is for one and ‘B’ for two,” she explained.
She started the braille program in the summer of 2017. While she knew it would be intense, she didn’t realize the extent of the complexity. However, she remains steadfast in achieving her goal to complete the course next summer. A visit to the Montana School for the Deaf and Blind affirmed her determination after she saw how life-changing braille is.
“I am willing to do whatever it takes to give a child an opportunity to learn and support the child after they learn,” Ruby said.
From accent marks to Greek letters, “Anything you see you have to be able to translate,” she said. “It’s hard, but I do find it fun. It’s definitely a challenge, and I like to be challenged.
“I feel like it’s also being a good role model for my kids of you know I ask them to do their best, be their best selves or study really hard, you know, and by showing them hey I’m doing it you can do it to.”
Eventually, Ruby will learn Nemeth Braille used to transcribe math.
“Basically, all your algebra symbols and signs,” Ruby said. “There’s also braille for music. I haven’t looked at that yet.”
It is important to study every day Ruby said. She is required to turn in a completed lesson every three months. Each lesson has a practice drill and an exercise she types up using a braille program on her laptop. She prints her finished work on a braille embosser to check for errors, makes corrections then emails it to be graded by an instructor. The instructor, who is visually impaired, prints it out, grades it then reads feedback to her laptop, which is transcribed to text that is emailed to Ruby.
According to Ruby, she cannot have more than 10 mistakes in a completed lesson and only gets three attempts.
“On the third try, if the lesson is still not accepted you’re removed from program for six months and have to start over,” Ruby said.
She likened each lesson to pieces of puzzle, each one revealing the bigger picture of how the rules work together.
While Ruby uses a laptop and a braille embosser, the Perkins Brailler, which looks like a typewriter with six keys is a mainstay in writing braille. Ruby demonstrated an older form of technology — a braille slate and stylus used by her husband’s great-great uncle.
“He was 14 and had a baseball accident and was then blind,” Ruby said. The accident occurred in 1928. “He went to the Montana School for the Deaf and Blind.”
Ruby picked up the slate, which folded in the center, and opened flat and placed a piece of paper on it. She closed one side of the slate, sandwiching the paper in between. Holding the well-worn wooden handle of the stylus, she began punching dots. The challenge of using this style of slate is that a person must write from right to left because once finished, they have to flip the page over and need to read it in the normal left to right pattern. Ruby continued the story of her husband’s great-great uncle.
“At the school for the deaf and blind he wound up meeting his wife who was also visually impaired,” Ruby said and went on to work at the Kalispell Post Office and as a door-to-door salesman.
Although Ruby once imagined becoming a flight nurse when she in high school, she views the opportunity to work with special education students, and now learn braille, as gifts life has given.
“I have enjoyed learning to look at life through different eyes — what struggle really means, what acceptance really means, what perseverance means. It’s made me a better mom. It’s made me a better person,” she said.
Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or email@example.com.