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August 28, 2009
Dear President Obama:
A five-year-old girl sat cross-legged on a rug with twenty other five year olds. They were all filled with excitement, for it was their first day of school. There was no difference between this little girl and all the other children--she had all the same dreams, hopes, wants, and needs.
Her teacher sat on a chair in the middle of the circle the children had formed and welcomed them all to their first day of school ever. She said, "We will play a game now so that we can learn each other's names. When I say your name, I will spin this doll's plate, and you will stand up and stop the plate if it is your name." The little girl became frightened because it was clear to her as the teacher spun the plate that she couldn't see it. She was legally blind--she had enough vision that people thought she could see, but so little vision that she really couldn't. With a sinking in her stomach, she quickly realized that if the plate stopped spinning before she could get to it, there would be no sound to guide her. In her heart she knew no one would ever learn her name, and there would be no hope of making a friend.
Second grade came, and with it new rules. The girl had learned to read if the letters were large enough and if she pressed the book to her nose. The new teacher said, "I will write your spelling words on the chalkboard, and you will copy them to your paper." She told the children this work must be finished before recess. Recess came and went, and the girl sat at her desk trying to hold back tears. She could not see the board from her seat, let alone the words printed there. She did not understand why she could not see the words like all the other children, and she felt sad because she thought she must be doing something wrong.
When this little girl began school, teachers believed that, if a child had some useable vision, he or she was better off using it and "be able to read print" than to be one of the unfortunates who "had to read Braille." Her classes were called sight saving, though they never saved anyone's sight. The teachers taught her to pretend that she could see, for to see was good--seeing was what made her like others.
At the age of nine this little girl was sent to a special school for blind children. Here she learned she was not alone in her lack of vision. Her world improved, but not enough, for teachers still believed, even at the school for the blind, that the use of vision, no matter how poor, was superior to using techniques for the blind.
The little girl wanted to learn how to read Braille like the children who could not see at all. She saw how fast they could read and that they could sit up straight with nothing touching their faces. They did not get crimps in their necks whenever they handled a book, and it did not hurt their eyes to read for more than a few minutes at a time. She also noticed that, when the Braille readers had to talk in front of the class, they could look straight ahead and be clearly heard, unlike the people with some vision, who held their materials so close to their faces that their voices were muffled and the audience could not see their smile when they were saying something funny or their sadness when they were talking about something serious or tragic.
College finally came, and she was excited. She still had dreams--she wanted to be a teacher. But the girl, not so little now, had to quit college and let her dreams go. She had not learned the needed skills of blindness. She had no way to take notes. The work was too hard to keep up with--too much reading, too much information on the board, too many assignments to write in print large enough for her to see and transcribe into a typewritten document for her professors. She had been praised for trying to be a sighted person, but the praise was now replaced by expectations she had never been trained to meet.
The girl is a woman now with children of her own. She encourages them to discover the world through words on a paper and longs for the same opportunity. She tells them that, if they learn to read well, the world will be full of opportunities for them. As poor as her vision was while growing up, it is worse now--all but gone! The only fingers she can count are her own and then only if they are almost touching her face. She sometimes weeps because, although she tells her children about the power of the written word, at fifty-four she is functionally illiterate. A phone number, if not remembered, means calling someone whose number she does remember and asking them to look it up for her. Not content with things as they are, she is working hard to learn Braille through a rehab teacher, but something that would have come easily to a child of five is now a struggle and an embarrassment to her. With persistence she can once again learn to write and read her own grocery lists, phone numbers, and important dates, but never will she read fast enough to entertain her grandchildren with the adventures of The Boxcar Children or a pig named Wilbur in Charlotte's Web.
Through the work of the National Federation of the Blind, an organization filled with blind people young and old working hard to help all children fulfill their dreams, maybe others will not have to write about the little girl who is now the grandmother who can't read to the little ones she adores. If we sell enough coins, the money raised will be spent on teaching all blind children to read, whether they have a little vision or no vision at all. Can you imagine that in 2009 children who are blind are still not being taught to read and write, and the arguments and excuses are still the same. Now they throw in technology as an excuse--closed circuit televisions that can enlarge letters to twenty times their original size--but people do not learn to read fast when a letter has to be so big that you can't focus on a word, a line, or a sentence. What future is there, whether a person is sighted or blind, if she or he can't read? Please help us have a chance at living the American dream, not only for us, but for all of the citizens we can help as we take our place in the world of the literate. Please keep the little girl, now a woman, from having to tell her story, my story, in the third person because it is just too embarrassing to say repeatedly, “I cannot read and write as others do every day of their lives.”
I wish you the best in all of the work you are trying to do to make a better America.