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Our Letter, a magazine for the blind in Romania

By Lorelei Mihală

Published on February 8, 2012

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White pages. A stack of white pages covered with small raised dots.

There must be around one hundred sheets of paper nicely packed together into a A4 notebook. This is Litera Noastră, or Our Letter.

Our Letter is a monthly magazine for visually impaired people in Romania

Mihai Dima first shows me how to use a special nail with a wooden top to make a raised dot.

“Now you can touch the paper!” he says, inviting me to softly feel the page with my finger.

“You can easily learn to read the Braille code in only one day, but it will be with the eyes, not with the fingers”, says Dima. He is the editor-in-chief of the monthly magazine Our Letter, the only Romanian publication in Braille for visually impaired people.

Our Letter was founded in 1954 by the Romanian Association for the Visually Impaired. It was called Viaţa Nouă (New Life), in accordance with the communist ideology, but changed its name after the Romanian Revolution of 1989.

A portrait of Louis Braille hangs in the printing house of Our Letter

Reporting for the blind

Not everyone in the staff is visually impaired. “Our reporters cover the events they take part in, they reflect on the situation of the visually impaired, on the legislation for this group of people, on the measures that are adopted for them or that should be implemented. We have correspondents across the country, with or without sight problems, who send us reports on different activities taking place in their region. We translate articles from the foreign press dealing with issues related to the visually impaired. And we also pick articles from traditional newspapers, which our readers do not have access to, such as practical tips, cooking recipes, scientific pieces, interviews, cultural reviews, all the things that might interest people in general for their personal development,” Dima explains.

Our Letter does not cover political topics. “It was only during the communist rule that the magazine was required to publish columns about the socialist ideal and inform its readers on its guiding principles, such as the creation of the “new man” and the “golden era,” says Dima.

The Braille code

The Braille code was invented in 1829 by a young French man, Louis Braille, and became the official reading and writing system for the visually impaired.

Braille consists of patterns of raised dots arranged in cells of up to six dots in a 3 x 2 configuration. Each cell represents a letter, numeral or punctuation mark and there are 64 possible combinations in total.

“It is a high performance of rigour and precision to capture the whole universe in 64 combinations. It is like a game of chess - a chess board also uses 64 squares. And this is the only sport that people with eyesight deficiencies can play with unimpaired people, without any restrictions of adaptation. 64 is a magic number for us”, Dima explains.

Prior to Braille, there was a writing system called “nocturnal writing” invented by Charles Barbier, a captain in Napoleon’s army. It was based on patterns of eight dots and used to transmit messages that could not be deciphered by the enemy. But the system was complicated, because the letters could not be felt with one single touch. Later, blind and partially sighted people tried to read and write by scratching the shape of the letters, but this was not very effective either. 

“Only Braille managed to show the world to us,” says Dima.

Mihai Dima, editor-in-chief of Our Letter

Why new technologies cannot fully replace Braille

My attention is caught by Dima’s computer screen. “Put these headphones on,” he says. I hear a robot voice reading the text on the screen with a strange Italian accent. It is speaking very fast and I can hardly keep up. “This software is called JAWS, Job Access With Speech, and it allows visually impaired people to read information that does not involve graphics,” Dima says. “It was invented 20 years ago and it is like Braille for modern times. It allows us to read Word documents, internet pages, and even to read and send emails. When this software came out, people started switching to it and Braille fell into decline. JAWS made the access to information become quicker.”

Braille, comparatively, involves higher production costs, because it requires special machines and special paper. So what is it still useful for?

“Braille is like an intimate interface between you and the text,” Dima explains. You cannot listen to poetry read by a robot.  Even if it is done by a professional reader, it will be influenced by the reader’s own grid, his own personal understanding of the text,” says Dima, who holds a bachelor degree in literature. “Braille will last because it can give you something that no software can replace – the intimacy with the text. Unfortunately, young people are not using Braille so much anymore, perhaps because books in Braille are more expensive or because not all books are available in Braille.”

The high costs of publishing in Braille is a reason for traditional media not to address the visually impaired as a target group. And in fact they are not such a huge audience, according to Dima. “In Romania, there are 120,000 persons with eyesight deficiencies. Out of this group, only 40,000 are officially blind, and 60 percent of these are elderly people who are not so interested in news.”

An alternative possibility for newspapers to reach this public would be to offer audio versions of their articles. Dima thinks that audio articles could be interesting for elderly people, too, or for people with reading difficulties and even for busy businessmen. “The French travel magazine, GEO, has a Braille version,” adds Dima.

The Association for the Visually Impaired in Romania offers an audio publication, Impact , that includes articles selected from the traditional media. The texts are read by actors or volunteers.

Will modern technologies replace Braille one day?

Since 1968, Our Letter has a quarterly edition in common Latin script that includes articles from the Braille edition.

In spite of the new possibilities offered by modern technologies, Dima considers that the Braille edition of Our Letter should “never” disappear. “It should be published as a symbol, as an emblematic magazine,” he says.

Tiberiu Cimpoeru works as an editor for the traditional print edition of Our Letter. One of his articles, a touching portrait of a blind psalm reader, received a national award for expressive writing – Superscrieri. “When I write, I emphasise on the description of textures, smells. At least, this is what I try to do. I don’t know if I always succeed. Shapes, textures, smells, sounds, the atmosphere - I concentrate on all the other senses, besides vision. People with a visual disability are not a particular group; they are a representative group who can only have access to non-visual activities.”

Former Braille printing machines

Cimpoeru guides me through the recently refurbished building where the printing house is located. The printing process is done by sophisticated computers. The old machines which involved more manual work have all been replaced.

In the printing house I meet the first readers of Our Letter. Two visually impaired proofreaders are checking if the text is printed correctly. For the time being, the rest of the readers are only names on envelopes. Our Letter is distributed exclusively by postal service. There are approximately 350 subscribers for the Braille edition, compared over 1000 before 1989. About 500 people read the version in common script and 100 listen to Impact, the audio publication.

Although publishing in Braille is expensive, subscription prices are affordable because Our Letter is financed by public funds. A yearly subscription costs 30 lei, or about 8 euros.

Nowadays the printing process is computerised

Biased media coverage

There is something that upsets Dima in the media and that he wants to tell me before I take my leave: “The traditional press is interested in people with eyesight deficiencies only when there is a scandal and often presents them as objects of curiosity. Journalists rarely maintain a constructive objectivity and the tone of their articles is either sensationalistic, or pitiful. If I organise a press conference about a talking clock, journalists will come. If I speak about our members going on a hunger strike, our colleagues from the newspapers will come, too. But if I want to speak about our projects, nobody is interested. We are in the era of the false story that dissimulates the truly valid information.”

As I leave the editorial office of Our Letter, I start wondering about all the stories compressed in the small dots on the white sheets of paper. Stories that I cannot decode, but that reveal a whole world to their readers.

Photographs by Tiberiu Cimpoeru

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Lorelei Mihală has eleven years of experience as a journalist. For the last six years she has been covering and investigating social themes such as corruption, poverty, discrimination, anomalies in the health and education sectors. She now works for the programme Eyes Wide Open (Cu ochii’n patru) on TVR 1, the main channel of Romania's public broadcaster Romanian National Television. She holds a master degree in Audio-Visual Programmes from the National University of Drama and Film Bucharest and a master degree in Communication and Public Relations from the National School of Political and Administrative Studies in Bucharest (SNSPA).

Tags: association for the visually impaired, blind, braille, expressive writing, eyesight deficiency, jaws, job access with speech, magazine, our letter, reporting, romania, visually impaired,

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