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August 1, 2009
Dear President Obama:
Though I have always been legally blind, I started my education in my local elementary school in the early 1950s. My parents could not conceive of my attending a school for the blind on the other side of Pittsburgh because, after all, I could decode the text of my first-grade primer. For both better and worse that decision has shaped my life. Learning to cope with bullying from other students because I could not see taught me to manage people and to persevere. Learning to compete with everyone else despite vision loss is important for all blind children to do.
But, on the other hand, I was not taught Braille. With every passing elementary school year I concluded that I was getting dumber because I was less able to read shrinking text at speed and more fatigued trying to make sense of long paragraphs. By fifth grade I could not reliably read print, even with my magnification lens. By sixth grade my classmates were rewarded for speedily finishing their assignments by being assigned to read aloud to me.
During the summer after seventh grade I was given twelve weeks of Braille instruction. I learned the code, but no one impressed upon me the importance of practicing Braille. Two years later the school district went to, I am sure, staggering expense to have my physics textbook Brailled, including putting the formulae in the Nemeth Braille code. But I did not know the Nemeth code for science and mathematics, and I found the text of the book less than riveting when read at less than ten words a minute.
In fact, I did not use Braille seriously until I enrolled at Oberlin College. There I used the slate and stylus to write class notes, but I had to return to my room to record those notes on tape before I forgot what they meant. I could not have graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Oberlin without Braille, but it was certainly not a tool I found efficient or comfortable.
Only in recent years have I realized that Braille can be read at hundreds of words a minute. At my age I will never read at that speed, but I am determined that students today will not be prevented by ignorance from learning the code as early as possible. Today they can learn, as I did not, that it is possible for people to read accurately and rapidly. If I had known what was possible, I believe that I would have worked to polish my Braille-reading skills. It would have made a great deal of difference in my life. I cannot read scripture or prayers in my church without practicing beforehand. I cannot read the text of a speech or legislative testimony without much study and anxiety. No competent adult should have to cope with such inadequacies.
Please help us protect today’s blind children from the literacy frustrations that have plagued my life.
Very truly yours,