We’ve got the Coolest Braille Instructor – And You Can Learn Braille from Her at Any Age

The following is one in a series of LightHouse staff profiles –Ed.

Divina Fontanilla Carlson and her guide dog, Syracuse
LightHouse Braille Instructor Divina Fontanilla Carlson never backs down from a challenge; whether overcoming personal obstacles or doggedly helping her students defy their own perceptions of their limitations. Every time she works with a new braille student she demonstrates her zeal for success. She told us, “some of my students have tried learning braille before and have given up but I don’t let them do that. I am persistent. When they work with me they are eventually able to read braille fluently. Some of them have read more braille books than me and I read a lot.”

Divina grew up in the Philippines with nine brothers and sisters. Six out of the ten children, including Divina, have low vision. Despite the lack of accommodation in the Philippines, she earned her Associates of Arts degree. After this Divina and her family moved to the Bay Area where they thrived in the more blind-friendly environment here in the states.

After moving here, Divina worked with San Francisco Vocational Services for job placement training and at the same time worked as a part time stock clerk. In order to get more job experience, she volunteered as a receptionist at a local blindness center. In 1993, she was hired as receptionist and program assistant at the Rose Resnick Center for the Blind. That year the Rose Resnick Center merged with LightHouse for the Blind and after the merger, Divina’s job description expanded to include processing LightHouse store mail orders,   coordinating low vision clinic appointments and streamlining our taxi voucher program.

LightHouse Rehabilitation Director Kathy Abrahamson recognized in Divina a compelling desire to help the blind gain the specific skills they need to thrive, so Kathy asked Divina to become a braille instructor, a job she still loves doing ten years later. As she continued to shine at the LightHouse, she decided to step up her game by getting her Bachelor’s degree in Sociology at San Francisco State University.

One of the ideas Divina works hard to counter is the idea that braille is obsolete. She says, “Most people think braille is unnecessary, what with the availability of technology and audio sources of literature and information. But reading braille is still a critically important skill for blind people to have to be independent and live rich lives.” As examples she notes that braille labels relay more information than simple bump-dots; reading a book in braille rather than listening to it with earphones is freeing in loud environments such as on a BART train and reviewing brailled notes during a meeting is easier and more graceful than listening to them through an earpiece.

In addition to being an inspiring braille instructor, Divina continues to support the Changing Vision Changing Life training class as a technology trainer specializing in keyboarding, adaptive software and iPhone lessons. Furthermore, she is fluent in Tagalog and works closely with our clients and students who have English as a second language, teaching them basic technology like Dolphin’s “Guide” software and introductory braille. Divina also works part time as a braillist at the Library for the Blind in the San Francisco Main Library.

When Divina isn’t teaching braille or working at the library, she loves to dine out, exploring cuisines from around the world, as well as cooking healthy foods in inventive ways. Balancing her love of food, she is also an avid outdoors woman. Early on, working with the LightHouse encouraged her to explore all sorts of activities she never thought she could enjoy because of her blindness. She river rafts, canoes, rides horseback, climbs and camps. She particularly loves tandem mountain biking. When she’s not rocketing over boulders and clambering over redwood roots, she’s relaxing and listening to talking books. She also loves traveling, particularly to places that are tropical, like Hawaii and Mexico.

Last year LightHouse Social Worker Jeff Carlson and Divina tied the knot and the two live in the culturally diverse Western Edition district of San Francisco. Divina loves the Bay Area, saying “the countless opportunities in our area are rich and should not be missed by anyone. There is no excuse. Go out and live your life!” If you are blind or low vision and would like to find out how you can learn braille with Divina, contact her at DFontanilla@lighthouse-sf.org or 415-694-7367.