On the 200th anniversary of Louis Braille’s birth Hazel Southam meets a Catholic mother whose life was transformed by the Braille system ‘My blindness didn’t come into the equation when I was thinking about getting married and having children,” says Angela Butlin.
She is one of the two million living with sight loss in Britain, but has never let this prevent her living a full life. And it certainly didn’t affect her decision to become a parent.
This year sees the bicentenary of the birth of Louis Braille, the man who invented the means by which blind people can read and write. As that was celebrated, with a service at St Martin’s-in-the-Fields this month, I wanted to know how Angela’s faith helped her to live with her deteriorating eyesight and how Braille transformed her life.
Angela wasn’t born blind. But she has a deteriorating eye condition known as Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis.
Aged five, she went to a mainstream school. By 12 she was in a school for blind children. Today, her vision is very limited.
“I can see that there’s a window and sunshine,” she says, sitting in her comfortable lounge in Market Harborough, Leicestershire, “but that’s it”.
“At 12, when I was sent to blind school I thought that it couldn’t get much worse than that,” she laughs. “But of course, it gets a lot worse. Then I was angry. I didn’t want to be blind. I wasn’t aware of the changes in my sight because they were so gradual.” In her 20s, when she and her husband Bob were considering starting a family, they went for genetic counselling to discuss the chances of Leber’s being passed on to their unborn children.
“I have always done what I wanted to do,” says Angela. “I’ve never let my blindness stop me, and I really wanted a family. We went for genetic counselling. They told us that there was a one-in-four chance of us having a blind child if Bob had the gene [for Leber’s]. And there was a one-in-300 chance of him having the gene.
“We had to take the risk. We knew that it was not the end of the world being blind. With me being a Catholic, I’m not going to say: ‘If God gives me a blind child, I don’t want it.’ I don’t believe in abortion.” The couple went on to have three children, all of whom have full sight. Sarah is now 26, Catherine is 22 and David is 20.
Angela was completely undaunted by the idea of becoming a mother. The fact that she couldn’t see her three children – or any problems they might encounter – held no fear for her.
What was it like becoming a mother and not being able to see? “It was absolutely fantastic,” she says: “I loved every aspect of it. I loved changing nappies. I loved the feeding, even though my first daughter, Sarah, didn’t take to it too well.” But she does acknowledge that there were problems. When Angela’s third child, David, was just 10 months old, she tripped at the top of the stairs and fell all the way down the stairs while holding him.
“I just missed my footing,” she recalls. “Perhaps I was just over-confident. I didn’t let go of him and David didn’t even murmur.” It is in such moments that Angela says she is particularly aware of her reliance on God. When simply walking around is a challenge, she has had to lean on God.
“My faith has really helped me,” she says. “If I didn’t have my faith I don’t think I would have had such a fulfilled life?
“God helps me every day. When I step outside that front door I feel that he is preparing my way. Not that I don’t have accidents,” she laughs, “but I do actually feel that I need God in my life.” Angela attends Mass at Our Lady of Victories church in Market Harborough. And she says, the congregation has been welcoming and “includes” her in the services.
“I have my own seat which I sit in every week. And I have my pile of Braille hymn books there – seven volumes of Hymns Old & New,” she says. “It’s essential that the church does this, includes me. It makes you able to participate in everything?
“There are churches that just do not make blind people welcome. What’s church about if it is not about including people?” Last Saturday hundreds of blind and partially sighted people gathered for the first ever all-Braille service. Held by the Torch Trust at St Martin-in-the-Fields church to commemorate the bicentenary of the birth of Louis Braille. “I think it’s a brilliant idea,” says Angela. “I hope it will make people think about Louis Braille and what he did for people like me.” Angela learned Braille at the age of 12 and says she cannot imagine life without it now. “Braille has made a lot of difference to my life. Just imagine not being able to read,” she says.
Angela reads everything from CD covers to her bank statements in Braille.
“My husband doesn’t like that because I say: ‘What’s that £300 cheque for?’” she jokes. “But I did all my exams in Braille. I got a job in a typing pool when I left school because I had Braille. Braille has opened up my life.” So as hundreds meet to celebrate the life and work of Louis Braille, Angela is hoping that churches across Britain “take notice” and learn what life is like for people like her.