What would happen if a group of people were asked to write about their experience with literacy? Only that segment of the group possessing the commodity could do it of course. What conclusions could be drawn about better ways to provide the group with this vital skill? What truths might be revealed about the education being provided to that group? How would the leaders of our nation with the power to make change respond?
This collection of letters to President Barack Obama regarding Braille answers some questions and raises many others. For the blind—those whose vision is too poor to read and write print effectively—Braille is literacy. The Braille code (first invented by the young blind Frenchman Louis Braille) provides the blind with the same facility that print provides the sighted. Braille allows blind people to access knowledge and contribute productively to society. Hope, opportunity, and excellence are themes throughout these letters from Braille readers, Braille teachers, and their friends and families.
However, the letters in this collection also tell a story of struggle, denial, and lost opportunity. Today in the United States only 10 percent of blind children are using Braille. At this moment newly blind individuals are being told that Braille is too slow and is outdated. Tomorrow we will have to face their stories of low expectations, heartache, and lost opportunities--that is, unless America joins with the National Federation of the Blind—the oldest and largest national organization of the blind—to reverse the crisis in Braille literacy.
Many elements of my own story are similar to letters you will find in this volume, but mine is one of hope and opportunity because of my mother. My mother had learned Braille in the years before I attended school because she thought it might be helpful to me. During the first grade it became clear to her that I was outsmarting my teachers—pretending to read the Braille in my primer after hearing it read out loud by other students.
During the summer between my first- and second-grade years my mother took matters in hand. She told me that I must learn to read, and she said that she would teach me. For an hour every morning I was required to study Braille. I complained. The other kids got to go outside to play, but I could not. Nobody else had summer school at home—only me. But none of my griping did any good. My mother had made up her mind; I was going to learn to read. When I returned to the school for the blind for my second-grade year, I discovered the library of Braille books—that collection of sweet-smelling Braille volumes almost a foot square and about two-and-a-half-inches thick. During the next four years I read every book the librarian would let me have. I have been using Braille to explore the world ever since.
Although I complained bitterly about learning Braille, I am most grateful to my mother for insisting that I learn it. How fortunate I am that she understood the necessity for me to read. How fortunate I am that she was persistent and demanding. How fortunate I am that she had learned Braille herself and was able to teach me.
The letters in this volume demonstrate the importance of Braille across the lifespan. They also reveal the opportunities that are being lost with every passing day that we do not do more to raise public understanding about Braille and broaden its teaching to blind children and adults. Today we in the National Federation of the Blind are leading a campaign to increase Braille literacy in America. The NFB Braille Readers Are Leaders Literacy Campaign will establish programs to double the number of school-age children reading Braille by 2015; it will raise standards for teachers of Braille and help better prepare those teachers to teach the code; it will make Braille resources more available through online sharing of materials, enhanced production methods, and improved distribution; and it will improve the understanding of Braille across America.
These one hundred letters cry out for action from leaders of our nation at all levels. We hope that publishing these letters will help elevate the Braille literacy crisis to become one of the most urgent educational challenges facing our nation. For the blind literacy is a key factor in our ability to contribute fully to the economic and social fabric of our communities. Now is the time for Americans to recognize the need for Braille literacy so that the blind may be empowered. Whether you are president, governor, business leader, or factory worker, these letters are written by your neighbors, and they call you to join in making Braille literacy a reality for those whose story is not yet written.
Mr. President, I present to you one hundred letters, each representative of the stories of tens of thousands of others across America. I hope that these letters will deepen your understanding of the importance and the urgency of Braille literacy. I invite you to join with us in endorsing the charge to improve Braille literacy and to empower blind Americans so that they can fully pursue their hopes and dreams alongside their sighted colleagues. This is our hope and our commitment; we look forward to having you join us in this effort to provide blind Americans with the opportunity to succeed or fail based on their own skills and abilities. Being stifled by the lack of an appropriate education is unacceptable in America. With literacy we who are blind can share the opportunities characteristic of our great nation, and we will also help to build it.
Marc Maurer, President
National Federation of the Blind
September 8, 2009