by Daniel B. Frye
On Monday, February 1, 2010, leaders of the National Federation of the Blind highlighted the American crisis in Braille literacy by presenting a book, Let Freedom Ring: Braille Letters to President Barack Obama, to United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. This volume, consisting of one hundred first-person accounts of experiences with and without the benefit of Braille, vividly demonstrates the important role that Braille plays in promoting personal and professional opportunities and conveys the consequences of not being Braille literate. In late August 2009 people were invited to submit letters addressed to President Obama about their experiences with and perceptions of Braille. One hundred of the most compelling letters were selected, edited, and included in this volume of anecdotes and narratives. Publication of this book was one of the projects inspired by our year-long celebration of the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Louis Braille, the inventor of the tactile code. The online version of Let Freedom Ring is now available to read at <http://www.nfb.org/images/nfb/Publications/books/ltobama/LetterstoObamatc.htm>.
NFB President Marc Maurer, First Vice President Fredric Schroeder, and twenty-three other Federation leaders participated in or observed the thirty-minute ceremony. Kareem Dale, special assistant to the president for disability policy, Alexa Posny, assistant secretary of education for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, Lynnae Ruttledge, commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration, and other senior staff were present for this occasion.
President Maurer began by saying that the NFB believes that literacy is a civil right and pointing out the strong correlation between reading Braille and employment. He briefly reviewed the social and educational challenges that have led to a decline in Braille literacy among blind people throughout America and discussed the NFB's ambitious Braille Readers are Leaders (BRL) campaign, supported by the revenue raised from the sale of the 2009 Louis Braille Bicentennial Silver Dollar. In concluding his remarks, President Maurer presented Secretary Duncan with one of these commemorative silver dollars.
Following his remarks, President Maurer introduced Chelsea Cook, an accomplished high school student from Virginia, to read her letter, which appears in the book. As is made clear in her letter, Braille has been integral to Chelsea's academic success and responsible for her belief that a career in science is possible. Here is the text of her letter:
Newport News, Virginia
August 27, 2009
Dear President Obama:
I am a senior attending the Denbigh High School Aviation Academy in Newport News, Virginia. Two days before the launch of the 2009 Louis Braille Bicentennial Silver Dollar into space, the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia held its monthly board meeting. When I walked into the room, our state president recognized me and jokingly asked if I would be going with the coins. I told him that I wished I could.
I am Braille literate, and I have been since I was four. I realize now that I was one of the lucky students who learned Braille at an early age. Many I talk to now do not know Braille. This is a problem because Braille equals literacy for the blind. It has made all my dreams and goals seem that much closer, and it is an integral part of my life. I want to be an astronaut, and my blindness will not stop me from achieving this goal. Physics is my favorite subject in school, and, when I memorize the equations and formulas used, I read them first and retain them in my mind in their original Braille code. It continues to baffle me how blind people can grow up and graduate high school without the vital tool of literacy. When I cannot access my electronic Braille books due to technology glitches, I feel as though a part of me is missing--that a void has opened and needs to be filled. Audio just does not measure up.
For me Braille is not only essential in higher science and math courses; the code is also critical in my writing and civic endeavors. I compose poetry and science fiction novels for the pure pleasure of seeing my words on paper (Braille, of course) and for having something important to say. When I switch to a talking computer, the ease of writing is gone; Braille is what I've grown up with, and the electronic voice interferes with the process of getting my thoughts down into memory. It shatters the fragile correspondence between writer and future reader. Even now I am writing to you in electronic Braille.
I grew up reading. Once I started, I could not be stopped. My passion for literature would not have developed had I not learned the code. I have always read several steps above grade level, and I believe my success in the academic world is due to the fact that I learned Braille early. My classmates often ask me how I take notes so quickly. I respond by telling them about Braille's many contractions, and I say that my notes are already abbreviated.
Within the National Federation of the Blind I hold several positions at the national level. I am second vice president of the Writers Division, something I could not have attained without my love of writing. I also hold the office of secretary for the Science and Engineering Division, and this position would not be possible for me at all without a firm grasp of Braille. I could not imagine doing it any other way.
Most students today do not have the luxury I did of learning Braille while they are young. I am shocked to hear some people talking of not teaching the Nemeth (math) code. I am also startled by other blind youths' stories of how they hate reading because they cannot do it. That reasoning should be eradicated. I do not remember the number of famous scientists and authors who got their journey's start from simply picking up a book. Isaac Newton was one of them; so was I, with my love for astronomy. As I was listening to the shuttle launch of the Louis Braille coins, I smiled at all the familiar radio calls as everything was reported to be nominal. When they made it into orbit, I thought I was there with them, circling the globe at 17,500 miles per hour, looking around at the stars and the small blue planet we call home, realizing my dream. Braille makes it possible. The symbolism of knowledge gained by blind people and by astronomers studying the depths of the universe with the Hubble Space Telescope was not lost on me; it was amplified. Those coins’ being launched were my two worlds coming together, and they were just waiting for me to join them.
We must keep teaching Braille. Those six dots unlock doors. Those six dots help solve the mysteries of the universe. Those six dots give freedom. I do not want to be the last blind child dreaming in America because I have the gift of literacy. Braille makes dreams reality. Braille gives us words; words give us knowledge; knowledge gives us power.
Thank you for listening.
In contrast to Chelsea's story of hope and optimism because of the role of Braille in her life, Dr. Denise Colton, a parent of two blind daughters, spoke about the challenge of acquiring adequate instruction in Braille for her children. Representing the voices of many parents of blind children across America, she recited a brief sampling of the common frustrations that blind students often experience. According to Dr. Colton, some of these barriers include a lack of certified Braille instructors, difficulty in scheduling daily teaching, resistance to providing Braille instruction based on marginal levels of academic success with large print or other teaching media, and delays in providing Braille textbooks. In closing Dr. Colton asked Secretary Duncan to work with the National Federation of the Blind to guarantee that Braille textbooks reach blind students on time.
Marché Daughtry, a blind elementary school student from Virginia, then charmed the gathering with an animated reading of an excerpt from My Brother Sam Is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier, an age-appropriate piece of historical fiction about the American Revolution. Marché's self-confidence and pride in being able to read Braille with such facility was apparent, and she, like Chelsea, represents the promise of the next generation, assuming that access to Braille for reading and writing becomes a national priority.
NFB First Vice President Fredric Schroeder formally presented our book to Secretary Duncan at the program's end, and he asked him to give a copy of it to President Obama. He urged Secretary Duncan to join with the NFB to reach our goal of doubling the number of children in the country who can read Braille by 2015. Dr. Schroeder said, "Literacy is the foundation for opportunity. If we work together, we can change this statistic."President Maurer made our meeting goals clear. He said that the blind of the nation want literacy and access to information. Pointing out the dual problems of declining Braille literacy rates and frequent inaccessibility of digital products--like books for students on Amazon's Kindle DX--he asked Secretary Duncan to promulgate an explicit policy that says literacy for the blind is important, requiring that access to Braille and digital information be the norm. Secretary Duncan and his staff favorably responded to our petitions. The prospect for high-level administration support for our literacy and information campaign goals is as bright today as it has ever been.