LEARNING TO READ

by Patricia Maurer

Patricia Maurer, the wife of the President of the National Federation of the Blind, didn't learn to read until she was well along in school. Her blindness wasn't the problem. It was simply that nobody had offered her the opportunity and the stimulation to learn Braille. Today she has a college degree, is a certified teacher, and is the mother of two active sighted children—a boy named David and a girl named Dianna. Here, as she tells it, is the story of how she learned to read.

I was standing in the check out line at the grocery store with a friend. She was reading from the front covers of the magazines displayed on the rack. She read quickly and fluently. She was reading aloud because she knew I was interested in the information on the cover if only in passing.

As she read to me, I thought of the millions of things that are out there to read and how people often take reading for granted. At this stage in my life, I suppose I do myself, but I doubt I will ever do so in the way that others may do. I have been blind all of my life. As a child I had some residual vision. I grew up in a small town in Iowa, where my family had very little contact with any programs serving the blind, and certainly no direct contact with blind people—not, at least, when I was a child.

Although I had very little sight, my parents decided to send me to the public school in our community. In kindergarten I noticed that the other children did not have to get so close to their work. They did not have to bend way over to see the paper on their desks. When I cut things out of paper I very often could not see the line which was there for me to follow. I think I knew then that school work was different for me from what it was for my classmates.

As I progressed through that small town public school, my teachers, my friends, and my parents read the material aloud to me. I would tell them the answers to the questions on the tests and they would write them down for me. If I wrote the answers myself, very often neither the teacher nor I could read what I had written.

As the material to be read grew in volume, I was spending more and more time in the evenings reading with my parents. There were hours and hours of homework. Many blind people will find this story familiar.

When we would take trips to the library, I would check out a few books and bring them home. I would sit by a strong light or use a lighted magnifier to try to make out the words on the page. I finished very few library books that way.

When I was in the sixth grade my family learned about the library for the blind in Iowa. We contacted it and I began receiving books on long playing records. For the first time in my life I could read books whenever I wanted to do so. It was wonderful then, and it still is.

I still had the problem of getting my school work done. Someone had to be there to read for me and to write down answers to questions. There was a teacher who decided that it would be advantageous for me to learn to touch type. This was a great help.

Now I could write things down for others to read, but I still could not read them myself. Looking back, I think math was the most difficult thing for me to do. I would be given the problem and I would try to figure it out in my head. I would try to recite the steps for solving the problem, and the person with me would write them down. I still could not read and write for myself. By this time I was in high school.

One evening on the television I heard a public service announcement regarding services for blind people. My father and I spoke to Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, and he told us that I should learn to read and write Braille. He gave me a Braille textbook to take home. It contained the alphabet.

I was to enroll in the training program in two weeks for my first lesson. I met my Braille teacher. Oh, I was thrilled. I took that book home and learned the alphabet. When I went for my first lesson I knew it all. At the end of that summer I could read and write Braille. For the first time in my life I could read and write.

I went on to college and got a teaching degree. I used a combination of methods for getting the work done in the classroom. I used Braille. I used books on record and on cassette tape. I used a person to read materials and I often Brailled portions of textbooks. I worked hard. I discovered how much easier it could be with a variety of options—lots easier when I could read and write for myself.

Yes, I got my degree. It was a degree in teaching elementary school. My first job was teaching remedial reading to third and fourth graders. The children could see. They needed help learning to read.

As I sat in that classroom working with those children, I thought about what a joy it is to be able to read. I hope that I was able to pass on to those children a little of that joy. It is a joy which is with me now and I know that will stay with me for the rest of my life.