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August 28, 2009
Dear President Obama:
Reading and writing have always felt magical to me. Even the nickname my brother still uses for me comes from what I called the pen my dad carried in his pocket, with which I was fascinated. Since my parents were partners in the newspaper in Weeping Water, Nebraska, where I grew up, the sounds, smells, and type used in hot metal printing were part of my everyday life. As a child born blind, the one thing I could not figure out was how various people could pick up a book or newspaper and say exactly the same words--even if the second person to say them hadn’t heard the first one. And I was intrigued when people wrote things down because the page did not reveal anything to me.
Then my blind sister, a year older than I, started school at the school for the blind in Nebraska City, and I spent a lonely school year wondering what it would be like when I got there. Although one initial result was that I traded loneliness for homesickness, one lifelong payoff was that I received the gift of reading and writing Braille. Since I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, the population at the school was larger than usual, due to some specific causes of blindness during that time. Although the cause of our blindness is still unknown, the fact that we grew up then allowed us the benefit of having both friends and competitors who were blind. We were expected to learn Braille and to use it proficiently.
Braille has been a key ingredient in my education. I graduated with distinction from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Throughout my career Braille has been invaluable. I have directed an orientation center for the blind, have taught Braille and the use of adaptive equipment for the blind, and have transcribed materials using both Braille and audio texts. My first husband died when our children were five and seven, so I did much of my parenting as a single mother. My knowledge of Braille allowed me to meet these responsibilities. I have been active in my church, book groups, AmeriCorps, and the National Federation of the Blind. I like to read, do word puzzles, create art, grow plants, and write, among other things. As you might imagine, Braille was critical for all of these personal and recreational commitments.
I feel fortunate that I grew up in a family where literacy was expected, at a time when Braille was the understood road to literacy for the blind, and at a place where its instruction was competently provided. My mother read aloud to my sister and me before we learned to read ourselves and afterward, especially when we couldn’t get specific books in Braille. Both of our parents read unavailable college texts to us.
One of the ironies of our technological age is that, although Braille is much easier to print and more portable (what used to take up many large volumes can now be carried around in small machines with refreshable Braille displays), most blind children are not being taught how to read and write it. While it is possible to get audio books and to use computers with speech output, listening to something doesn’t put the spelled, punctuated, formatted text in front of the hearer. It also can rob a person of the most magical part of reading and writing—interpretation.
When I read something in Braille, I create the voices, the cadence, and the mood, and I can experience the swift, silent, unencumbered thought that is faster than spoken language that happens inside a reading brain. If what I’m reading is technical, Braille allows me to explore its nuances. If it’s light reading, I can skim and take what I want. Fortunately for my fellow students and me, we were doing all of this before we heard the dismal reports mostly spread by those who, whatever they might claim, had neither the interests of the blind at heart nor an understanding of Braille.
When I write, I do my best to give my reader clues through punctuation and style about how I want them to feel and think about what I’m offering, and sometimes even what I hope they’ll do once they’ve read it. Again, without Braille this would not be possible.
Mr. President, I hope that you will see this letter as a call to action. The 90 percent illiteracy rate among blind children, the 70 percent unemployment rate among working-age blind adults, and the inability of many blind seniors to live independently are indefensible. Please do whatever is in your power to do to help us reverse the literacy crisis that currently exists for blind Americans. I am heartbroken that blind people of all ages, who should be competing on terms of equality with their sighted peers, are not doing so because Braille, the essential tool for their literacy, is being denied them at a time when it is more available than it was when I was young.
We, in the National Federation of the Blind, are doing what we can through the sale of the Louis Braille Bicentennial Silver Dollar and other initiatives to change what it means to be blind in positive ways, including seeing to it that blind people learn Braille. But we need your help. You can count on us to do our part. Will you do yours?