Braille Monitor August/September 2008
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by Fredric K. Schroeder
From the Editor: On July 4, 2008, Dr. Fred Schroeder, National Federation of the Blind first vice president and former commissioner of the U.S. Rehabilitation Services Administration, delivered the following address at the NFB national convention:
I recently learned that a friend of mine, Reggie Howard, had passed away. Reggie grew up in Alabama during the time when many southern states maintained separate schools for the blind, a white school and a black school. I remember Reggie’s telling me that blind students at the black school were always excited to hear that the white school would be getting new Braille books because that meant that the black school would also be getting new Braille books, the old books from the white school passed on to the black school for the blind. When the white school got new desks, the black school got new desks, the old ones from the white school.
Segregation was wrong. It harmed children, but how much and in what ways? It is true that it was a few years later that blind students at the black school learned that Constantinople is now Istanbul. And it is true that the books were a little worn, the desks a little the worse for wear. But they had books. They had desks. They had a school and teachers who cared and did their best. And, yes, they did learn. They learned math and English. They learned science and social studies, and they learned something else--they learned that society believed them to be inferior, inferior because of their race and inferior because of blindness. They were harmed by a substandard education. They were harmed by poor facilities. But most of all they were harmed by prejudice--prejudice rooted in low expectations. But society was wrong. Reggie was not inferior, not inferior because of race and not inferior because of blindness. And neither was any of the other students at the Alabama School for Negro Deaf and Blind.
Today most blind children, black and white, are educated in ordinary public school classrooms. But, as with the desegregation of public schools, including schools for the blind, physical desegregation does not in and of itself confer equality. Blind children, black and white, continue to be society's forgotten, some educated in schools for the blind and some in local public schools, but still forgotten, regarded as children with no future, no promise, no meaning--for the most part desegregated, but not yet integrated.
It is assumed that sighted children will learn to read and write, yet today only 10 percent of blind children learn to read and write Braille. It is assumed that sighted children will have books and libraries and other resources to support their learning; but today blind children continue to wait for Braille books, only a handful have ever seen a Braille library, and basic tools like Braille notetakers are rarely available; and when they are, often it is only after an intense struggle with school officials. It is assumed that sighted children will graduate from high school, and we count it a crisis in American education when the dropout rate reaches double digits. But where is the public outcry about the dropout rate among the blind? Today only 45 percent--fewer than half--of all blind children will earn a high school diploma. We will not stand by and allow this to continue.
In 2009 the United States Mint will issue a coin commemorating the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Louis Braille. It will be the first U.S. coin to include tactilely readable Braille. How did this happen? How did the Congress of the United States learn about the crisis in Braille literacy among blind Americans? It was because of the National Federation of the Blind. We brought the problem to the attention of the Congress. We made the Congress aware that blind children and adults have the ability to live normal, productive lives and that the major barrier to full participation, true integration, is not blindness itself but public attitudes, public misconceptions about blindness, low expectations for blind people rooted in myth and tradition. It was the National Federation of the Blind that said to the Congress that the isolation--the social and economic segregation--of blind people must end, that blind people deserve the chance to learn and work and live as others, and, to do so, they must have the opportunity to become literate.
The NFB commemorative Braille coin will attract public attention and raise awareness about the importance of Braille in the lives of blind people--and it will do more. The Congress has directed that $10 be added to the cost of each coin sold with the hope of generating $4 million, to be matched with donated funds, potentially making $8 million available to the National Federation of the Blind to support programs increasing Braille literacy among blind children and adults. Entrusting the nation's Braille literacy initiative to the National Federation of the Blind, demonstrates that the Congress recognizes that the Federation has been and continues to be the leader in promoting equal opportunities for blind people throughout the nation. What will we do to insure that blind children and adults, including seniors, will have the opportunity to learn to read and write Braille?
Last Wednesday Dr. Maurer announced the launch of the Braille Readers Are Leaders campaign and the Braille.org Website. Our goal is to double the number of blind people who know how to read and write Braille by the time of the Federation's diamond anniversary in 2015. This is an ambitious goal but an achievable one. To ensure success, a number of things must be done.
We must find blind people and help them learn to believe in themselves, believe that, given training and opportunity, they can live full and productive lives; and that means we must bring them into the National Federation of the Blind. It means we must help society learn to think differently about Braille and, by extension, think differently about blindness and blind people. It means we must help parents recognize the importance of Braille in their children's lives. It means we must convince teachers of blind children that Braille is the cornerstone of literacy and therefore the cornerstone of opportunity. And it means we must make sure that the resources are available so that blind children have access to competent instruction in Braille reading and writing. And these are not just words, empty promises. We will work to enact legislation in all fifty states requiring teachers of blind children to obtain and maintain the National Certification in Literary Braille.
These are the goals of the Braille Readers Are Leaders campaign--promoting Braille and increasing access to Braille for blind children and adults--but at its heart the Braille Readers Are Leaders campaign is an expression of the National Federation of the Blind--our philosophy, our commitment to achieving full participation of blind people in society, our belief that good enough is not good enough, that desegregation is not the same as integration, that progress is no substitute for equality, and our unshakable belief that, no matter society's low expectations, Reggie was not inferior, not inferior because of race and not inferior because of blindness.
The NFB Braille coin is a testament to the determination of blind people to break free from society's low expectations and to live normal, active, productive lives. What will we do to increase Braille literacy? What will we do to transform our goals into reality? The possibilities are as limitless as our imagination, as vast as our collective will and determination, and as far-reaching as the National Federation of the Blind itself, our fifty-two affiliates, our seven hundred local chapters, our fifty thousand members.
The Braille Readers Are Leaders campaign will be a collection of programs and activities, and more: it is the National Federation of the Blind in action. It is the natural extension of our sixty-eight-year effort to forge new opportunities for the blind, to move ever closer to true equality. No matter society's low expectations, Reggie was not inferior, not inferior because of race and not inferior because of blindness, and neither was any of the other students at the Alabama School for Negro Deaf and Blind. No matter how limited their opportunities, opportunities constricted by low expectations, they were not inferior, nor is any other blind person, black or white. Reggie was not inferior, nor am I, nor are you, nor is any other blind person. This is the Braille Readers Are Leaders campaign. This is the National Federation of the Blind.