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Ronza Othman
Baltimore, Maryland

August 26, 2009

Dear President Obama:

I did not become functionally literate until I was an adult. Now, however, I am a government official in your administration ensuring that individuals’ civil rights and civil liberties are protected by Homeland Security programs and initiatives. But, as I floundered my way through college, I never imagined I would ever be able to serve my country in such a way. I was afraid to aim high. You see, I had a secret; I was functionally illiterate.

I was born to first-generation immigrants who had no idea how to navigate the educational and healthcare systems for a disabled child. When the doctors told them that I had some usable vision, my parents clung to the hope that I could function in the sighted world by blending in. Unfortunately for me my early childhood and elementary school teachers believed that it would be more important for me to use the limited and unreliable vision I did have rather than learn alternative techniques.

So the marathon of ever-increasing large print began. I remember reading "See Frog jump" by pressing my face to the page and squinting at each letter. As time went on, I continued reading in this way through high school. But the eye fatigue and headaches increased in intensity as the reading increased in volume.

When I was a senior in high school, I thought I had found an excellent solution to my inability to keep up with the reading. I discovered that I could borrow audio books from the local library for much of my literature assignments. I was assigned a book report on a classic in my British literature class and borrowed Pride and Prejudice on tape. I fell in love with literature then because for the first time I could escape into the plot rather than count down the pages that remained letter by letter. I was so excited on book report day to be able to convey the aspects of such a rich story when in the past I’d tried to give general explanations. But I was ashamed to admit that I could not read the physical print of the book, so I did not tell my teacher I had used the audio book. Each student was expected to print the name of the book, its author, and a family tree of the major characters on the blackboard. I did so, misspelling “Austen” as “Austin,” Prejudice” as “predjudise,” and Bennett” as “Bennet.” My teacher asked me right then and there whether I had actually read the book and failed me on the assignment because she believed I hadn’t.

I went back to shoving my face as close as possible to the page. I became renowned for ink stains on my nose and not getting to sleep until well after 2:00 a.m. in order to keep up with the reading. I managed to graduate from high school, but I still could not really read.

In college I began using audio books once more, though I always followed along with the print book. This, of course, saved me no time whatsoever. I invented excuses to avoid going to a doctor’s office on my own if I had to fill out forms. I refused to go to the grocery store on my own because I couldn’t read prices. I pretended to take notes in classes knowing full well I wouldn’t be able to read my own handwriting.

I obtained a job as a switchboard operator during my sophomore year. The problem, of course, was that I could not read the phone extensions of staff and faculty. I bribed my friends to visit me at work so that I could get them to read extensions I hadn’t memorized, telling them it would take longer if I searched out the number. In reality I could not read the names and extensions at all. I was fully dependent on others and incapable of finding something as simple as a phone number.

When I was a junior, I met another blind student at the university who introduced me to screen-reading software. This made it easier for me to function and complete assignments, but I couldn’t exactly haul a thirty-pound computer with me everywhere I went. And I was still dependent on something other than myself to read. I was still illiterate.

In my last year of college I decided that I couldn’t hide my secret forever. I began searching for others in similar situations to mine and found the National Federation of the Blind. I was granted a scholarship by the National Federation of the Blind of Illinois which allowed me to attend a convention with over one hundred other blind people. There I met lawyers, teachers, parents, students, children, and adults, all of whom were literate. I quickly learned that they were literate because they had been taught Braille. They used it to make shopping lists, read consent forms, read literary classics, and do homework assignments. They read quickly, and they read well. And I wanted the freedom that Braille offered them.

I learned Braille in my twenties and as a law student rather than as a kindergartner. But, though I experienced the magic of literacy two decades later than my peers, the discovery was no less potent. Braille opened the door to many more opportunities for me. I soon became one of the only students in my class to keep up with the reading rather than the only one who could not. I gained confidence as a public speaker because I could read my notes. I continued working as a switchboard operator, but I had my Braille directory and needed no one but myself to find extensions. I spelled names I read correctly. For the first time in my life I was literate.

I ultimately completed law school, moved across the country on my own, and obtained a prestigious government job. None of this would have been possible had I not learned to read Braille. Had I remained illiterate, I would have lacked the confidence and skills to attempt such lofty goals. Now I have confidence in myself and a career I love, and I am not afraid someone will discover my secret.What once was the source of such anxiety is now my favorite hobby--reading.

Ronza Othman