by Brook Sexton
From the Editor: As most people who care about Braille already know, January 4, 2009, is the two-hundredth anniversary of Louis Braille’s birth. Not only will the U.S. Mint be releasing a commemorative silver dollar to mark this event, but the Braille Monitor will be addressing the value of Braille and the seriousness of the Braille literacy crisis in articles throughout the year.
Brook Sexton is an orientation and mobility instructor at Ho`opono Services for the Blind in Honolulu, Hawaii. Throughout her tenure there she has seen students enter the program who were not taught Braille when they were in school. In addition, her personal experience bears witness to the Braille literacy crisis that now exists for the blind of this nation.
For those who do not work in rehabilitation or do not have experience with the injustice Ms. Sexton describes in the following excerpt of testimony she offered in Hawaii, the Braille illiteracy rate among the blind can seem a far-off thing, but for thousands of blind people in America the problem she describes has been told and retold far too often. This is what she says:
Reading and writing are tools of communication. During the Dark Ages only members of the aristocracy were allowed to learn to read and write, but as the Renaissance began and reading and writing were recognized as tools of communication, these skills became essential to communicate and to attain goals and dreams. It was not until the mid-1800s that an efficient system of reading and writing was developed for the blind. This system has opened a whole range of opportunities for blind Americans as for blind people around the world who are lucky enough to learn it.
As a child I was privileged to learn Braille and encouraged to use it as a tool to succeed in school and life. On the other hand, my younger brother (who is also blind) was denied this opportunity because he had just enough vision to get by reading print. While I love to read, he does not. While school was relatively simple for me, my brother struggled to complete assignments. He did not know how to write because he could never grasp the structure—paragraphs, headings, spelling--of what he was trying to read, yet he wanted to succeed. While I did not take longer than my sisters to complete my homework, my brother spent hours doing the same assignments. It would have been so simple to teach that young boy to read as a child, but he had to learn Braille as an adult to obtain his goals. As a result he has taken longer to reach his goals than I. All children should have the opportunity to learn to read, and Braille has been shown to be an equivalent means of reading and writing for the blind.
As a result of my early exposure to Braille, I have been successful. I competed with my peers in spelling bees, reading contests, writing contests, and all sorts of other opportunities available to young children. I was able to apply to and matriculate in a competitive university and obtain a bachelor’s degree. Braille was essential in this process because I needed to take notes, give presentations, write papers, and stay organized. After finishing my degree, I found a job and used Braille to compete and give back to the community. Not a day of my life since I learned to read and write has passed that I have not found Braille useful, even essential. I completed a master’s degree and did not require more time than my fully sighted counterparts. I would not be where I am today without literacy.
Too many blind children are more like my brother than me. They struggle through school trying to read print, and as a result they don’t like to read. They have not discovered that reading can be simple and enjoyable. My greatest dream in life would be to know that every blind child who enters our schools will be afforded the same opportunities I had and will be offered a level playing field on which to compete with their peers. My brother tells me with tears in his eyes that he wishes with all of his heart that he could have learned to read Braille as a child. While I can’t imagine his frustration, I know it is real, and I know it did not have to be that way. He had the same teachers who challenged me and the same ability to learn.
Louis Braille developed his tactile system so that the blind could read. His invention and his belief in the blind have stood as a cornerstone for our independence for nearly two centuries. Yet now more than ever we need Braille in our classrooms and in our communities. All blind children must be taught to read Braille at the same time their sighted classmates are learning to read print, and they must receive their textbooks and schoolwork in Braille as well. Sighted students receive their educational materials in print as a matter of course. If students who cannot use print efficiently are to have the chance to succeed in school and take their rightful places as contributing members of the community, they must be taught Braille early by teachers who believe in it, and they must have timely access to books and worksheets in accurate Braille.