Jewelry that tells a story through Braille

Gale Shaffer uses her Brailler or "Braille typewriter" to bring the power of Braille from paper to silver. Ashley Miller/Daily

STRASBURG – To many, it may simply look like a textural necklace flecked with tiny silver dots, but to Gale Shaffer, 60, of Woodstock, it tells a unique story.

“Individuals, especially children who are blind are interested in being able to communicate in their own language,” Shaffer said. “And my jewelry allows them to do just that.”

Shaffer, formally a special education teacher in Shenandoah County Public Schools, now teaches Braille to  visually impaired students in Loudoun County Public Schools.

“After a fellow colleague quit mid-year here in Shenandoah County, I was approached because they knew I had expressed an interest in hearing-impaired students and thought maybe I would consider visual impairment instead.”

It was a return to school but Shaffer jumped at the chance. She said she’s so glad she did.

Braille necklaces are among the most popular items Shaffer makes. Ashley Miller/Daily

“I got my vision impairment certificate when I was 60-years-old,” she said. “But it’s such a fit for me. I never felt like my job totally fit before. And this one, for some reason is such a fit.”

Braille is now her favorite thing to teach. Based on a logical system of raised dots, Braille enables children who are unable to see to become literate and also helps adults who lose the ability to see to continue reading books, newspapers or magazines.

To individuals who are blind, each dot represents a letter or in some cases a word, Shaffer explained. The Braille alphabet is based on a cell that is composed of six or eight dots, arranged in two columns of three or four dots each. Each letter or symbol is formed by using one or more of the dots that are contained in the cell.

“Braille almost disappeared when technology introduced applications into the market,” she said. “People who are blind can still hear. So, sadly the language almost died out.”

Shaffer is referring to the introduction of audible applications. There is some debate as to whether Braille will be replaced by technology such as screen or print reading devices, which convert text into spoken words.

But Shaffer said it’s making a comeback because the immediacy of Braille is still very important.

“I’m interested more so in Braille etiquette or blind empathy,” she said. “If you put yourself in the place of a child who is blind than you’ll realize that it’s far more hands on. Teachers need to put themselves in the child’s shoes and understand that they can’t see. Some of them have a never seen. When you use words like “put your paper over here’ or when they’re teaching a math equation and say ‘move this guy here and divide and that equals this’ they don’t realize that 9 times out of 10 the student doesn’t understand because they can’t see.”

That’s where Shaffer steps in.

“When I go into a classroom with a visually impaired student, I sit with them and guide them through their classwork and assignments,” she said. “I’ve noticed that the other children in the room notice what we’re doing and become interested. They typically end up asking me to write their names or different words so they too can understand how Braille works.”

Immersed in Braille, Shaffer said she was inspired by her students to start a unique project.

Last Christmas, Shaffer gave to each of her own students a silver necklace that had their names stamped in Braille.

“I wanted to do something that was completely unique and different,” she said. “I had no idea that it would become more than it is.”

Over a short period of time word spread throughout the town of Woodstock, and Shaffer said her Facebook account became inundated with requests from locals wanting to express themselves through her Braille jewelry.

“I’ve had requests for names, words and symbols,” she said. “Even a few of my fellow vision teachers wear jewelry I’ve made.”

Shaffer started with necklaces but has recently expanded to include earrings, bracelets and hair clips in her collections. New ideas are always arising.

“Inventing the design is the best part of the process,” she said. “But the execution can be hard because I make mistakes and have to re-make them.” With practice Shaffer said she is able to complete a special request within an hour or so.

Each piece consists of raised Braille letters that spell out an inspiring word or name.

Despite her community rise to fame, Shaffer said she wants to keep her jewelry line low-key for now but added that when she retires she may elevate it to more than it is now.

“Everyday I see something and I think to myself ‘wouldn’t that be neat on a tag,” she said.

Shaffer said while she enjoys making jewelry she really just wants to emphasize the importance of Braille in her community.

“Braille is used every day as a form of communication for people who are visually impaired or blind. Braille gives them a chance at equality,” she said. “Everyone deserves a chance to experience the world around them, even if they can’t visually see it.”