Hazel Southam - Journalist

Born Blind

A punishment from God. That’s how Francine Bramley’s mother saw her. And for the first 12 years of her life she lived that punishment every day, tied to a wooden chair or kept in bed. Francine had no friends, never played outside and certainly didn’t attend school.

She was born to a Catholic mother and a Protestant father in the French town of Mont-de-Marsan. Her twin sister could see, but Francine was born blind.

Her mother took her to Lourdes to be healed when she was just two months old. Nothing happened. But tragically, just weeks afterwards Francine’s father died.

‘My mother got it into her head that I was a punishment for having married a Protestant,’ she says. ‘She just rejected me after that. There was no welfare then, so it was easy to keep a blind person at home. And that’s what she did.

‘She would lock me in the house and go shopping. She would leave at 8.30am and come back at 5.30pm when my brother and sisters came back from school.

‘I was strapped in a chair and couldn’t get out.’
Francine wasn’t even taught to walk. Immobile, by the age of 12 she weighed 18 stone.

This year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Louis Braille – the man who invented the system through which blind people can read and write. As celebrations of his bicentenary happen around the country it seems remarkable that a blind person could be treated so badly so recently.

But on 21 March Francine will be joining hundreds of other blind Christians in the first ever all-Braille church service. Held by the Torch Trust at London’s St Martin-in-the-Fields church, it’s to commemorate the life of Louis Braille. ‘It will be great,’ says Francine. ‘We can literally all sing from the same hymn sheet.’

Everything from the invitations to the Bible readings will be in Braille and guide dogs will be made very welcome. For Francine, who attends St Joseph’s CofE church in Wolverhampton, this will be a break from the norm, as joining in worship is hard without a Braille hymn book.

Twice married, a mother of two and now a grandmother with a successful career in child protection behind her, Francine has much to celebrate.

She’s conscious that Louis Braille’s invention has made life easier for her. ‘Life would have been very different without Braille,’ she says. ‘There are so many ways to use it from labelling medicines, to telling the difference between a box of caustic soda and coffee whitener. It’s frightening to think what would happen if those two got mixed up.’

Francine’s life changed at the age of 12 almost by chance. A school inspector heard her twin sister talking about ‘the fat, blind girl’ at home. He persuaded Francine’s mother that she should receive an education. So, Francine first joined the local primary school mixed in with a class of six-year-olds.

Here, she learned to read with letters specially made for her from blocks of wood, and to write using plasticine.

Her development was remarkable. Just three years later Francine passed the 11+ and was selected for a special school for blind children 300-miles away in Toulouse.

‘I came top in the whole of France,’ she recalls, ‘writing with a pen on a bit of creased paper. It hit the headlines. The school inspector said, “You’ve made it!” But it was sad because my mother never rejoiced in it.’

Although delighted to be away from home, Francine found the school ‘institutional’ and quickly started classes at the neighbouring secondary school instead.

She made friends, but still, aged 15 could not walk unaided. ‘The person who taught me Braille invited me for tea,’ she says. ‘Afterwards she said, “You are walking back on your own”.

‘I said I couldn’t do it on my own. But she said, “It’s now or never.” I sat on the doorstep and cried. I got up because she was right – tomorrow would always be the same. So I walked quite gingerly with my hands out in front of me until I got back to the school.

‘The joy I felt having done that was incredible.

‘After that I went on in leaps and bounds. Three weeks later I joined a running club!’

Following an operation in her twenties, Francine could see colours and shapes. ‘I went mad on colour,’ she laughs. ‘I realised that my mother had dressed me all in black because she was afraid that men would abuse me and so she wanted to make me unattractive.

‘Actually, I’ve got a really good eye for colour,’ she laughs. ‘I even advise my friends on what colours to wear. Me? I love blue.’

As she celebrates the bicentenary of Louis Braille, Francine is conscious that there is still a long way to go in integrating blind people into society and into churches. ‘We call ourselves inclusive as a church,’ she says, ‘but we’re not really. It’s easy for blind people to be left out.’

Having spent her early years being left out, Francine is determined that this won’t be her fate in the future. Now she just needs the Church to include her.

Originally published in Torch Trust


About Hazel

Hazel Southam is an award-winning journalist who reports on religious affairs, international development and the environment. She has covered four G8 Summits.

She wrote for The Sunday and Daily Telegraph for 10 years. Her work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, The Independent on Sunday, The Daily Mail and The Evening Standard.

Reporting assignments have taken her to places including Bosnia, Zimbabwe, Mongolia, Albania, Nagorno-Karabakh, Senegal and the Arctic Circle.

In the UK, she has also delivered media training to the MOD and leading businesses.

Contact Hazel