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August 22, 2009
Dear President Obama:
I would first like to thank you sincerely for the moving victory speech you delivered on election night. I remember your speech, not only because you so ably captured the mood of the country, but because of the eloquent and understated way that you included disabled people. As a blind person rarely do I hear people with disabilities included in the list of groups who have contributed to something bigger than ourselves. It meant a great deal to many of us that you spoke of the contributions of our group with such normalcy.
I would like to share with you a little about myself and the role that Braille has played in my life. I am diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, an eye disease that causes the gradual deterioration of the retinas. I have been slowly losing my sight since the age of three, and at the age of thirty-three I now see light out of only one eye.
One of the reasons your victory speech moved me so much is that it is rare that disability is portrayed as something that is normal and that can be successfully managed. I suppose this is the reason why those tools associated with disability are often thought to be things to be avoided. The sad irony of this is that often the stigma associated with disability results in the denial of the alternative tools and techniques that can enable disabled individuals to lead productive lives.
When I was growing up with limited vision, my parents were told by teachers and special education professionals that I should not learn or use Braille unless I absolutely needed to do so. Like blindness itself, Braille was presented as something that was shameful and that should only be used when all other options became useless. Consequently, I faced many struggles as a young student. I found reading print slow, embarrassing, and excruciatingly painful. I would spend many hours trying to complete homework at night because it took me so much longer than it did other students. When I couldn’t read print any longer, I was given an enlarging machine that had to be wheeled from classroom to classroom, forcing me to sit in isolation from other students. This was one of the most painful experiences of my life. All of this was to avoid using the reading method that would eventually transform my life.
When I was thirteen, I took part in a summer program for children at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. This is one of our country’s most impressive training centers for blind adults and children. While participating in this program, I was given the opportunity to learn Braille. My desperation to have a medium through which I could read led to many nights of studying with the lights out after everyone else had gone to sleep. I learned the entire Braille code in a month; it usually takes adults from three to six months to learn the entire code.
After a few heated discussions, the special education teachers agreed to let me try to use Braille in school. The experiment was a smashing success. My grades improved by leaps and bounds, and I discovered a love of reading and learning that would transform my life.
After earning a bachelor’s degree, serving as an AmericCorps VISTA volunteer, and working for a student loan company for several years, I decided to return to school to pursue my doctorate in sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. I am working on my dissertation on women in Texas politics, and I teach an undergraduate course in social problems.
As you are well aware, advances in technology have transformed classrooms across our country. I make use of technology as much as my peers. I use PowerPoint in the classroom, and my students send their papers to me through email. Yet, despite these technological advances, I credit Braille as one of my most important tools for independence. I have taken Braille notes in all of my graduate coursework, and I use a Braille questionnaire as I interview elected women leaders for my dissertation research. In order to keep myself organized and competent, I label students’ papers and tests with little Braille notes, and I label my file folders in Braille. I also keep my Braille-writing tools handy in order to take quick notes to myself when meeting with students. Perhaps even more important than these strategies, Braille is an essential tool that enables me to live independently. I label many household appliances in Braille so that I can use them competently, and I use Braille to label items as important as medication and cans of food, and as fun and interesting as CDs and DVDs.
I am sure that you have by now read the statistics on the correlation between Braille literacy and employment outcomes for the blind. I also hope that the stories you read in the pages of this book will put human faces to those statistics. I count myself among the most fortunate of blind Americans. Because of the foresight of the adults who provided the opportunity for me to learn Braille, I am now building a career out of my passion for reading, writing, and learning. I hope that you will join in our commitment to continue the fight to ensure that all blind children in this country can count themselves fortunate in having the opportunity to become literate, productive members of our communities.
Angela Howard Frederick