From the Editor: Following its February release, we occasionally plan to print selected passages from Let Freedom Ring: Braille Letters to President Barack Obama, our volume of one hundred first-person accounts about the importance of Braille. Many of these narratives present compelling accounts of how the code, or its absence, has influenced the lives of blind people. These narratives should be helpful in local Braille advocacy initiatives; will be effective educational pieces for the general public on the value of literacy for blind people; and will introduce a series of interesting people, often accomplished blind role models.
This month we spotlight four contributions. Rosy Carranza is currently a doctoral student in education at the University of Maryland and a member of the staff in the NFB's Department of Affiliate Action. Mary Ellen Gabias, a longtime Federationist and mother of four, now lives in Canada with her professor husband and promotes the work and message of the NFB through the efforts of the Canadian Federation of the Blind. Mary Ellen has been a frequent contributor to the pages of the Braille Monitor. April Lynn Enderton, president of the NFB's Des Moines Chapter, works for the American Red Cross. Finally, Dr. Geerat Vermeij is a professor of geology at the University of California, Davis. Professor Vermeij serves as one of the NFB Braille ambassadors in our Braille Readers are Leaders (BRL) campaign. They share their impressions and personal experiences of Braille in the following four letters. Here they are:
August 29, 2009
Dear President Obama:
I grew up as the only blind person in a large Mexican family in central California. My parents migrated to the United States in the early 1970s in pursuit of the American dream. Upon their arrival they obtained employment working in the hot fields of the San Joaquin Valley picking grapes and other fruits. Earning less than $2 an hour, they worked tirelessly to give me the opportunities they had lacked in their own lives.
Aside from coping with the demands of being in a new country, my parents also struggled to find solutions to my failing vision. Possessing less than a sixth grade education and not knowing how to speak English left my parents feeling inadequate and intimidated; consequently, they entrusted my ophthalmologists and my special educators to make decisions that would help me thrive.
I navigated through the educational system led by the conventional approaches used to educate blind students at the time. Since I had some residual vision, I was not taught Braille. Instead I was armed with thick glasses, powerful magnifiers, and heavy large-print books. Even with the help of these things, I still had trouble seeing, and eventually my love for reading dwindled. With the loss of my literacy skills came many other losses--the loss of my self-confidence, the loss of my academic progress, and the loss of my dreams for the future. Yet most painful was the awareness that all of the sacrifices that my parents had made would be in vain; without being able to read, I would end up with the same limited opportunities that they had experienced in their own lives.
I graduated from high school unable to see well enough to read my own diploma. Depressed and uncertain of the future, I signed up to attend a boot camp for the blind. This program transformed my outlook on blindness and taught me Braille and other critical blindness skills—skills that I should have learned much sooner. Instead my school years were defined by the sleepless nights I spent crying about my vision loss, by the embarrassing moments I spent feeling inadequate because I could not read aloud when the teacher called on me, and by the looming feeling that I would always be a tremendous burden to my family and society.
Just as my parents had faced their fears to make a better future for themselves and for me, I too feel the same responsibility to change the future for blind children. It has been twelve years since I graduated from high school, and blind students today are still taught using the same failed approaches that were used to educate me. Through my work with the National Federation of the Blind I have met countless blind children, and I have witnessed their immeasurable potential fall through the cracks of the educational system and society. These students are smart, motivated, and ready to serve their communities; however, they are not being taught the literacy skills they need to contribute fully to the world. Essentially blind students are not emerging from school as products of their own abilities; instead, they are emerging as examples of the deficiencies in the systems that educate them.
President Obama, we need your help in creating a new educational avenue for blind students. We need a system that does not prepare blind students for a life of inequality. Instead we need a system that can help propel these students into first-class roles of productivity. In looking at my life and at the lives of my immigrant parents, I can see the amazing opportunities that our country has to offer. I sincerely hope that we can work to make sure that blind children have an opportunity to live the American dream.
Mary Ellen Gabias
Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada
August 1, 2009
Dear President Obama:
“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
It’s been nearly half a century since I first read the opening paragraph of Louisa Mae Alcott’s Little Women, but the March family parlor, with its worn rug, broken-down sofa, and loving family has been part of my soul’s architecture ever since.
The entire city of Toledo had only one copy of the six-volume Braille book; I had to stand in line to get my hands on it. Someone else had volume 2 when I finished volume 1, so I grabbed volume 3 and read the book out of order. I didn’t mind. Braille books for leisure reading were such a rare treat that I read anything I could get my hands on, including the World Book Encyclopedia and several volumes of the dictionary. But it was the fiction that enthralled me. Under my hands the words on the pages came to life, and I was transported to times and places our family station wagon could never take me. I skipped through Alpine meadows with Heidi and blasted off with Space Cat when he visited Venus.
I loved recorded books too, but they did not allow me to participate in the author’s creation of the stories in the way that Braille did. When I read Braille, the characters spoke in the tone and with the accents I gave them. I also learned how words were spelled and sentences constructed.
Nobody told me Braille was slow and difficult to learn. When I started school at age six, all I knew was that I wanted to be like my older brothers. I wanted the miracle of learning from the words others had written. I wanted to share in adventure and humor. I wanted to revel in the beauty of written language. I wanted access to the realm of thought, and Braille was my key to the kingdom of ideas.
It never occurred to me that those who used their eyes and those who used their fingers should experience different reading ability. By the time I learned that Braille readers were expected to achieve speeds of only ninety words a minute, I was reading 222. I wanted to read quickly because there was so much to learn, so much I wanted to know.
My only problem was that there simply wasn’t enough Braille. Books had to be copied by hand by individual transcribers using the Braille version of a manual typewriter. There were a few Braille presses for making multiple copies of books, but the plates used in the pressing process had to be handmade. These labor-intensive production methods meant that, if I was very lucky, I might be able to get my hands on a book two years after my sighted friends had the print version.
Braille was also very expensive. That Braille copy of Little Women cost $22 at a time when a print paperback could be had for fifty cents. No wonder I squealed with delight on my eleventh Christmas when I ripped open a package to find two Braille volumes. For the first time in my life I owned a book! It was called Lumberjack by Steven Meader. It told the story of a teenage boy whose first job was helping a timber company log his grandfather’s wood lot. A mystery and some skullduggery were involved, though I’ve long since forgotten the details. It wasn’t exactly the sort of thing I would have chosen, but it was mine; at least for two weeks it was. A civic group had purchased the book to donate to the minuscule library in the resource classroom for blind children. They wanted it to be a gift to a blind child who would pass it along to the library after finishing the story. I was the lucky child who proudly carried it to school after Christmas vacation.
It wasn’t until high school that I discovered that the Talking Book library also had a Braille collection. A good thing too, because the library became my only source for Braille books. I’d chosen to leave the public school system for a Catholic high school; as a result I had no Braille textbooks. My algebra text cost as much as a year’s tuition, far more than my family could afford. An anonymous donor came up with the funds, but, when the book arrived, we discovered it was an old edition and of no use in my class. I did first year algebra and geometry successfully without a textbook. Afraid that I would be unable to master advanced algebra and trigonometry without Braille texts, I took only the minimum math requirement. As a result I was streamed into remedial mathematics in college and wasted the better part of a year catching up.
Although finding Braille books to read and study was a challenge, writing Braille was not. In the first grade I learned to use the Perkins Brailler, the Braille equivalent of a manual typewriter. I also mastered the slate and stylus, the Braille equivalent of a pencil. I used the Brailler for transcribing long documents; in the seventh grade I copied the entire U. S. Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, in order to study it for an exam.
The slate and stylus served me well for most projects. I used my slate to take notes in college. To this day, though I own a Braille PDA computer, I wouldn’t dream of leaving home without a slate and stylus in my purse.
Braille remains one of the mainstays of my life, though the ways I use it have changed. As the mother of four, I’ve done a lot of reading to my children. Some of the classic children’s books that I’ve read to them weren’t available in Braille when I was young, so my children and I have explored them together. Thanks to computer technology, which has simplified production, I was able to buy the final book in the Harry Potter series on the day the print book was released. I downloaded the files onto my Braille Lite computer. Our family spent a glorious day and a half reading together.
Because of downloadable computerized Braille, I can now own a library of cookbooks. My wooden bookshelf could hold only five or six embossed Braille recipe books at a time. In digital form I can acquire a virtually unlimited number.
I don’t have a lot of time to sit quietly with a good book these days, but that doesn’t mean Braille use is dormant in my life. I keep financial information, phone numbers, appointment reminders, and hordes of miscellaneous notes to myself. I place Braille labels on important print documents, food packages, and the controls on my washing machine. My life would be chaos without Braille.
How ironic that, just when Braille has become more available than ever before, we are facing a crisis in Braille literacy. I hear the statistics, but I don’t think of percentages and totals. I think of children who will never grumble about no presents at Christmas in Jo March’s voice or skim through a cookbook looking for that perfect dessert. I worry about future adults who won’t be able to read their bank balances independently. Their futures, the quality of their lives, depend on this country’s commitment to ensuring them the possibility of achieving the sense of wonder that comes from independently reading a great book.
Mary Ellen Gabias
April Lynn Enderton
Des Moines, Iowa
August 1, 2009
Dear President Obama:
I invite you to read over my shoulder.
Dear Grandma Beulah,
When you drive down our road for the first time, you'll want to have your windows open so that you can savor the sounds and smells of the farm. You'll hear loose gravel pinging against your tires, while inhaling the aromas of freshly mowed hay, clover, wildflowers, and damp earth--all intermingled with the sharp, unmistakable odor of cow manure.
After all these years I am still composing letters to Grandma in my mind as I once did in Braille. It's a lifelong habit, I guess. Whenever something exciting would happen, I'd grab my Braillewriter and share my news with Grandma. Nowadays the phantom letters help me feel close to her, even though she's been gone for almost eight years.
Our story began back in the late 1950s, shortly after my birth, when the doctors told my mother and grandmother that I was blind. Although I had enough vision to read large print, I always understood that I would use Braille. I'm not sure what made Grandma decide to learn Braille. I always just took for granted that she did. At any rate, she was undaunted by claims that Braille was too complicated to master.
In those days Braille instruction wasn't offered until first grade. The night before my first day of first grade, I was so excited about learning Braille that I had trouble falling asleep. The first day of school our teacher asked for a show of hands for those who would be reading print and for those who would be learning Braille. My hand shot up for Braille.
I learned the Braille alphabet ahead of my classmates. My teacher gave me a little desk in the back of the room where I could write while she worked with the other students. Since I didn't know many words, I entertained myself by writing Braille numbers into the hundreds. Meanwhile, back home Grandma was learning Braille too. She bought a Perkins Braillewriter, slate and stylus, Braille paper, and books on Braille instruction.
Around that time I started receiving Braille books in the mail from our state library for the blind. One of my first reading ventures was The Little House by Virginia Burton. When Grandma asked what the book was about, I told her I couldn't read it because it was too hard for me. Grandma transcribed the book into print. For years the tale of the little house that moved from the country to the city was one of Grandma's and my favorite bedtime stories.
Grandma and I started exchanging Braille letters when I was in second grade. The first letters arrived at the school for the blind on heavy manila paper folded in fourths to fit into letter-size envelopes. With much of the Braille mashed in the creases, these early letters were difficult for small fingers to decipher. In her letters Grandma wrote about the weather, her garden, and Foxy, her fox terrier. These letters contained two or three pocket-size print storybooks for a teacher or a housemother to read to me.
By the time I reached third grade, the pocket books were replaced by poems. Grandma enjoyed poetry and frequently copied some of her favorites in Braille to share with me. Many of the poems dealt with nature: plants, animals, and the changing seasons. These poems inspired me to try my hand at writing poetry. Years later I won first place in a couple of poetry competitions.
In the late 1960s Revenue Foregone became law, allowing us to mail Braille materials free of charge. The law required that we leave the envelope unsealed and write "free matter for the blind" where the postage stamp would go. Gradually we moved away from standard envelopes to cardboard tubes. These letters posed a whole new set of reading frustrations. Out of the tube the pages would roll back up during reading. Eventually we discovered that the best way to send Braille letters was to fold the pages in half and print the mailing information on the back of the last page. With a few strips of scotch tape, these letters were good to go.
In the beginning Grandma's Braille skills far surpassed mine. She had been reading and writing for decades; now she merely needed to transfer her literacy to Braille. On the other hand I was just learning the nuances of language. But with continued exposure to Braille in and out of school, I quickly took the lead. Before long Grandma looked to me instead of the experts for answers to her Braille questions. Since I wouldn't have wanted to plead ignorance, it was crucial that I be knowledgeable about Braille.
Because her fingers lacked sensitivity, Grandma read Braille with her eyes. Many times I caught her reading over my shoulder. This was especially disconcerting when I was writing to a friend or writing in my journal. "What are you doing?" I would say with annoyance, as I covered the Braille with my hand.
"I'm just practicing my Braille," Grandma would calmly reply.
In sixth grade I started losing the precious little sight I had left. While some things such as travel and picking out my own clothes required a major adjustment, my reading and writing did not. Thanks to my early Braille training, my school work moved forward without a hitch.
Grandma's letters followed me into adulthood as I moved away from home. Often Grandma transcribed my letters into print so Grandpa could read them too. Grandma took literary license to tailor my letters to suit Grandpa. Once, when I had written that some friends and I went back to my apartment for drinks, Grandma wrote that some friends and I went back to my apartment for dessert.
When I announced to Grandma in a letter that I would be getting married, she wrote to say that she was "saddened" to hear of my plans. Angrily I wrote back accusing her of not using the proper Braille contractions in the word "saddened" and suggested that maybe she should focus more on her Braille and less on my business. She wrote back to say that I was probably right. Although she didn't use the proper Braille contraction for the word "right," I let that one slide.
Over the years Grandma seized many opportunities to use her Braille. If I wanted a recipe, Grandma would whip out a Braille copy and put it in the mail. For my children's birthdays she would copy their birthday cards in Braille so that I could read them. She also copied articles for me from the Reader's Digest and Prevention, two of her favorite magazines. Once I told Grandma that a friend and I had had a letter-writing contest to see who could write the longest letter. Grandma thought that sounded like great fun and challenged me to a letter-writing contest. This will be a breeze, I thought, recalling Grandma's two- and three-page letters. I'll beat her hands down. Imagine my surprise when a book-sized letter arrived in the mail for me.
Every time Grandma and I got together, our conversation invariably turned to Braille. Grandma asked me to create Braille worksheets to test her knowledge. "You really stumped me with that last worksheet you sent," she would say, laughing.
Grandma was outraged when I told her that blind children born in the 1970s and beyond weren't automatically taught Braille the way we had been. She strongly disagreed with the contention that Braille was obsolete and that cassette tapes and later screen-readers were an adequate replacement. Like me, she believed that Braille is literacy for blind people and that literacy is the key to success for blind and sighted alike.
In her late 80s Grandma reluctantly set her Perkins Brailler aside when her arthritis made writing Braille too painful. Grandma's Braillewriter, along with a catalog of my life (all the letters I had ever written to her), fell into my hands in 2001 upon her death. I cherished her Braillewriter for all the wonderful memories it evoked, but I didn't think I'd ever use it. Enter Alyssa Joy.
Born in 2002, our youngest child, Alyssa Joy, never knew Grandma. But early on she expressed a strong love for books. I borrowed books from our state library for the blind and bought books from Seedlings Braille Books for Children, but that wasn't enough. She would see a book in the store and demand that I take it home and read it to her. So I unearthed Grandma's Braillewriter and started Brailling Alyssa Joy's books. If I can Braille books to read to Alyssa Joy, the thought occurred to me, I can also Braille books for other children. In 2006 I started Brailling children's books to donate to the Braille Book Flea Market at the annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind. I call my project BRL, the contraction for the word “Braille” and an acronym for Beulah Reimer Legacy, named for my grandmother, the wise and insightful woman who empowered me to become proficient in Braille. BRL's mission is to put Braille at the fingertips of as many eager readers as possible.
Alyssa Joy is seven years old now, and, although she is sighted, like Grandma she is learning Braille. What would Grandma think? I sometimes wonder. Hmmmm. Perhaps I'll write and ask her.
April Lynn Enderton
July 18, 2009
Dear President Obama:
One of Johann Sebastian Bach's great harpsichord pieces is playing in the background as I take a break from writing a book on evolution. In my pleasant home office I am surrounded by books, and next to me is a cabinet filled with fossil shells I have collected over the years, each sample carefully labeled. I consult my books and specimens frequently as I write papers and books. And there are vastly more specimens and books in my spacious office at the University of California, Davis, where I am a distinguished professor of geology. One long wall contains part of my enormous library, the product of forty years of constant reading of the scientific and scholarly literature. My research collection of fossil and modern-day shells contains tens of thousands of labels, which help me decipher the evolution and ecology of shell-bearing animals and their enemies. All this accumulated treasure trove reflects an active life as a scholar and teacher. It has allowed me to publish five books, almost two hundred scientific papers, and an assortment of other writings on subjects ranging from the shapes of crab claws and vine leaves to the mathematics of shell growth, the evolution of plant-eating animals, the causes of mass extinction, and parallels between evolution and economics. And I am still going strong, writing, reading, teaching, and conducting original scientific research all over the world.
But none of this would have been possible without Braille. Everything I have and do is in Braille. I have at my fingertips a library of tens of thousands of publications; and all the labels in my collections are in Braille. I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to teachers in the Netherlands (my birthplace) and the United States for instructing me in Braille early and well, and to my parents, who from the very beginning of my blindness at age three understood that Braille was the only means by which their blind son could be educated. For my sighted peers such a tribute to print and to literacy would be considered superfluous and laughable; but for the blind, even in the twenty-first century, a plea for literacy and for the use of the one medium that makes it possible still appears to be necessary.
As one of the National Federation of the Blind's Braille ambassadors, I can only say that Braille is the single most important invention ever to have aroused the blind out of a state of pity and dependence to a rightful, productive place in society. How else could I have kept notes on a research ship after a day's field work on a reef in eastern Indonesia? How else could I record measurements on leaf shape in a rain forest in Panama, or document material collected in a mosquito-infested mangrove swamp in Madagascar? How else could I mine obscure papers for information about the timing of the great extinction that brought an end to the dinosaurs, or about the oldest member of a lineage of fossil snails I was working on?
How else would I know where specimens in my own collection came from or when I collected them? How else could I write and revise my own papers and books or keep track of other authors' manuscripts as they made their way through peer review in the scientific journals I edited?
Braille is an enabler, an essential ingredient of life for a blind person who wishes--and is expected--to engage in the world. On the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of its inventor, Louis Braille, we celebrate not only the man, but especially what he has made possible. Braille is the DNA of the blind, the code that gives our lives meaning.