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Sean Whalen
Arlington, Virginia

August 27, 2009

Dear President Obama:

I am writing to convey to you a story, one which I hope will serve to elucidate what can only be termed a crisis in the education of blind children here in the United States. The crisis to which I refer is embodied in the fact that the vast majority of blind or vision-impaired students graduate from high school functionally illiterate. I myself was, unfortunately, one of these students. With great pains, and at a cost of considerable time and effort, I have learned to read Braille as an adult. Even given the relatively low reading speed one can achieve when learning to read as an adult, knowing how to read Braille and being truly literate have changed my life and opened doors to me which I would otherwise have found very much closed. I hope my story will illustrate both the tragedy of children’s not being taught to read Braille and the concrete benefits Braille literacy yields in the life of a blind individual.

I was born with a rare eye condition called Leber’s congenital amaurosis. Since my birth I have been nearly totally blind. When I started school, I was given an assessment to determine which methods of instruction would be most effective in my education. It was decided that, because the very little vision I possessed allowed me to make out high-contrast shapes and figures under particular lighting conditions, I should be taught to read print. I remember in first grade hunching over a desk, trying to read large-print children’s books with a bright lamp and magnification device. I recall, throughout my grade school years, being followed from class to class with a closed circuit television that could display the enormously magnified contents of my books and worksheets.

Fact is, none of this worked. I would take over twenty minutes to read a page of text, so I had an aide who sat behind me and read everything to me. At night my mother (a single parent) would come home from work, feed us dinner, put my brother and sister to bed, and stay up for hours reading to me and filling out my homework assignments--the very same mother who fought with my school over whether or not I should be taught Braille. She, of course, knew that I should and that the way I was getting through school could certainly never be replicated at a university, let alone in an employment situation.

Things became somewhat less difficult during my high school years. I was introduced to software that allowed me to do virtually all my reading using speech output from a computer. It also allowed me for the first time to do my own writing. While this certainly aided me in graduating from high school and earning a bachelor’s degree, it was no solution to the underlying problem. I still could not read. In college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison I turned in papers of supposed high academic quality with the most egregious spelling and punctuation errors simply because I had never seen or, using Braille, felt how to write words correctly. Though I was intelligent, had a reasonable vocabulary, and was a relatively strong writer, I was still illiterate. Embarrassing errors in papers were not, however, the only negative consequence of my inability to read Braille. For subjects like calculus, physics, and symbolic logic, I was completely dependent on a hired reader to help me get through assignments and study for exams. Had I known Braille, which has its own variations to accommodate such subjects, I could have taken full control of when and how much I was going to study, and my performance would not have suffered as it did.

Two years ago, at the age of twenty-four, I took nine months out of my life to attend the Louisiana Center for the Blind, a training center where the particular skills of blindness, including Braille, are taught. I devoted myself to learning to read, spending eight hours many days with my hands in books. Upon completion of the program, I was able to read at ninety-five words per minute. This pales in comparison to the speeds that can be achieved by those who learn Braille as children. I have several friends who can read at rates of over three hundred words per minute, comparable to speeds of print readers.

While I can only imagine how useful Braille would be to me had I been given the opportunity to achieve such a high level of proficiency, it has still opened multiple doors for me. Had I not known Braille, I would not have been able to get a job campaigning for you and Senator Warner with the Virginia Young Democrats in Vienna, Virginia. I used a refreshable Braille display to read phone lists to do volunteer recruitment and get-out-the-vote calling. Had I never learned Braille, I would have had great difficulty performing my duties as a Congressional intern in the office of Congressman Ron Kind. On my first day I Brailled out staff names, phone extensions, and issue areas, among other things, to refer to in the course of my work. Braille has allowed me to use outlines when speaking publicly, whereas previously memorizing was my only option. I know that Braille will continue to serve me well as I return to law school and pursue a career in my chosen field. Literacy--Braille literacy for the blind--is a key that opens many doors in education and in life.

This returns me to my original point. Far too many blind children are robbed of a fair chance in life because they are not taught to read due to either a lack of qualified and dedicated teachers or the insidious fallacy that the visual way of doing things is superior and should be favored at any cost. Many are not as lucky as I. Many never receive an adequate education because they are left behind from the very beginning. One of the most stirring things I ever heard you say, when speaking of children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds who do not receive decent public education, was that they are not “those kids”; they are our kids too. Blind kids are our kids too. We deserve a fair shot in life. We deserve literacy. Morality demands it, and a true commitment to equality of opportunity requires it. All children who cannot read regular sized print at a normal rate must be taught to read Braille. In this great nation anything less is unconscionable. Thank you for taking the time to read my letter. I hope my anecdote has shed some light on the absolutely critical nature of Braille literacy for the blind.

Sean Whalen