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Unveiling Let Freedom Ring:
Braille Letters to President Barack Obama

by Daniel B. Frye

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and NFB President Marc Maurer shake hands at the beginning of the book presentation ceremony.The following report of the presentation of the original version of this volume appeared in the March 2010 issue of the Braille Monitor.

On Monday, February 1, 2010, leaders of the National Federation of the Blind highlighted the American crisis in Braille literacy by presenting a book, Let Freedom Ring: Braille Letters to President Barack Obama, to United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. This volume, consisting of one hundred first-person accounts of experiences with and without the benefit of Braille, vividly demonstrates the important role that Braille plays in promoting personal and professional opportunities and conveys the consequences of not being Braille literate. In late August 2009 people were invited to submit letters addressed to President Obama about their experiences with and perceptions of Braille. One hundred of the most compelling letters were selected, edited, and included in this volume of anecdotes and narratives. Publication of this book was one of the projects inspired by our year-long celebration of the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Louis Braille, the inventor of the tactile code. The online version of Let Freedom Ring is now available to read at <http://www.nfb.org/images/nfb/Publications/books/books1/ltobama/LetterstoObamatc.htm>.

At the table, pictured left to right are Lynnae Ruttledge, commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration; Kareem Dale, special assistant to the president for disability policy; Dr. Alexa Posny, assistant secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services; Arne Duncan, U.S. secretary of education; President Maurer, standing and reading from a Braille document; Mrs. Patricia Maurer, NFB first lady; Chris Danielsen, NFB director of Public Relations; and Kevan Worley, president of the National Association of Blind Merchants.NFB President Marc Maurer, First Vice President Fredric Schroeder, and twenty-three other Federation leaders participated in or observed the thirty-minute ceremony. Kareem Dale, special assistant to the president for disability policy, Alexa Posny, assistant secretary of education for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, Lynnae Ruttledge, commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration, and other senior staff were present for this occasion.

President Maurer began by saying that the NFB believes that literacy is a civil right and by pointing out the strong correlation between reading Braille and employment. He briefly reviewed the social and educational challenges that have led to a decline in Braille literacy among blind people throughout America and discussed the NFB's ambitious Braille Readers are Leaders (BRL) campaign, supported by the revenue raised from the sale of the 2009 Louis Braille Bicentennial Silver Dollar. In concluding his remarks, President Maurer presented Secretary Duncan with one of these commemorative silver dollars.

Dr. Denise Colton, a mother of two blind children, delivers remarks while seated at the U.S. secretary of education's conference table.Following his remarks, President Maurer introduced Chelsea Cook, an accomplished high school student from Virginia, to read her letter, which appears in the book. As is made clear in her letter, Braille has been integral to Chelsea's academic success and responsible for her belief that a career in science is possible.

In contrast to Chelsea's story of hope and optimism because of the role of Braille in her life, Dr. Denise Colton, a parent of two blind daughters, spoke about the challenge of acquiring adequate instruction in Braille for her children. Representing the voices of many parents of blind children across America, she recited a brief sampling of the common frustrations that blind students often experience. According to Dr. Colton, some of these barriers include a lack of certified Braille instructors, difficulty in scheduling daily teaching, resistance to providing Braille instruction based on marginal levels of academic success with large print or other teaching media, and delays in providing Braille textbooks. In closing Dr. Colton asked Secretary Duncan to work with the National Federation of the Blind to guarantee that Braille textbooks reach blind students on time.

Marché Daughtry, a seventh-grade student, reads from a historical text about the American Revolution.Marché Daughtry, a blind elementary school student from Virginia, then charmed the gathering with an animated reading of an excerpt from My Brother Sam Is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier, an age-appropriate piece of historical fiction about the American Revolution. Marché's self-confidence and pride in being able to read Braille with such facility was apparent, and she, like Chelsea, represents the promise of the next generation, assuming that access to Braille for reading and writing becomes a national priority.

NFB First Vice President Fredric Schroeder formally presented our book to Secretary Duncan at the program's end, and he asked him to give a copy of it to President Obama. He urged Secretary Duncan to join with the NFB to reach our goal of doubling the number of children in the country who can read Braille by 2015. Dr. Schroeder said, "Literacy is the foundation for opportunity. If we work together, we can change this statistic."

President Maurer made our meeting goals clear. He said that the blind of the nation want literacy and access to information. Pointing out the dual problems of declining Braille literacy rates and frequent inaccessibility of digital products--like books for students on Amazon's Kindle DX--he asked Secretary Duncan to promulgate an explicit policy that says literacy for the blind is important, requiring that access to Braille and digital information be the norm. Secretary Duncan and his staff favorably responded to our petitions. The prospect for high-level administration support for our literacy and information campaign goals is as bright today as it has ever been.