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Megan Bening
Arlington, Minnesota

August 28, 2009

Dear President Obama:

My name is Megan Bening. I am a fifteen-year-old high school student at Sibley East School in Gaylord, Minnesota. My favorite things to do in the whole world are to work with computers and to read. I almost never watch TV. Instead I am almost always either reading or playing an audio book in the background. I cannot picture my life without books in it. And, if I hadn't learned Braille, I would not be able to read like other people.

I was three years old when I first began learning Braille. While other children were playing with blocks at playtime, I was taken out to practice Braille. I can still remember sitting at a small table with my Braille teacher, going over my letters. She used to make it fun for me by playing Braille Who Wants to Be a Millionaire with me.

As other children in my class learned how to read, so did I. While they learned to read by looking at picture books, the ingenious teachers adapted my books for me so that each object was something I could feel. They used buttons, pennies, sticks of gum, or zippers glued to the pages of my books. Because of this, I learned to associate each object in my adapted books with the corresponding word in Braille, much as a sighted child would do with pictures. As I learned, I began to absorb concepts faster--like a sponge.

The more I learned in Braille, the more I began to appreciate the knowledge that I was being given. I began to realize that, if I let it, Braille could be a doorway into other worlds. Through my fingertips I can learn so much. Although my eyes don't work, I discovered that because of Braille I really don't need them to do so. Braille shows me kings and queens in their fancy castles, the ocean, and sunsets, just to name a few images. Because of Braille, I am allowed a peek into the visual world through authors' eyes in the pages of their books. Although I am blind, I feel almost as though I can see as I run my fingers along the pages of my books, anxiously awaiting the next adventure to come my way.

Along with my deep love of reading, I discovered an immense love of writing. I love nothing better than to curl up with my BrailleNote, a computer-like device with a Braille keyboard and Braille on the bottom instead of a screen, opening the door from my head to my fingers. I relish the sensation of feeling through my fingertips as my ideas take shape in neat, articulate words and phrases. I enjoy the deep sense of satisfaction that comes from sharing my ideas with others through Braille. I love the feeling of finishing an essay for AP English, knowing that through my skill in writing and my ability to proofread my ideas in Braille, I will once again receive an A on my paper. As I do these things, I realize that I couldn't do them if kind teachers hadn't given me one of the greatest gifts: an education in reading and writing in Braille.

Because of my proficiency in Braille, I was invited to compete in a national competition called the Braille Challenge, the only academic competition solely for blind people. It consists of two rounds. The preliminary round is taken at one's own school or with other blind people in the same state. The first round consists of four different tests: reading comprehension, proofreading, deciphering charts and graphs, and Braille speed and accuracy. The tests are sent to Los Angeles, California, where they are graded.

The top twelve finishers in each of the five age groups are then invited to Los Angeles, where they take the second round of tests. These tests are on the same subjects, but they are a little harder. Each test takes fifty minutes to complete instead of the twenty-five in the preliminary round, and students do not always finish every test. After the testing, proctors grade the tests. When they are finished, an awards ceremony is held at which the top three finishers in each age group are recognized. Each contestant to place in the top three of one of the five age groups is awarded a savings bond worth varying amounts of money. The first-place winner is also presented with a personal note-taking device called a PacMate.

I have taken the Braille Challenge test for seven years now. I have qualified for the national competition six out of those seven years. While at nationals I have received different scores. Some years I did not place, but in two memorable years I earned third and second place consecutively.

On June 20, 2009, as I finished my secondary round of tests, I was hopeful. I remember being confident in my test scores and vaguely hoping that I might end up in the top third of my age group. But as I heard the top three contestants in each age group announced, I had no idea that I would be among them. When I heard that I had received first place, tears of happiness ran down my cheeks as I went to accept my award. Finally all of the years and years of practice to become proficient in Braille had paid off. I had finally achieved one of my dreams, all because of the magical six dots that are the code of the blind.

I was one of the lucky ones. I was blessed with competent teachers who knew that I needed to learn Braille as soon as possible. I was capably taught Braille by kind and encouraging people. Because of their steadfast encouragement and confidence in me, I have become the person I am today. But what would have happened to me if things had turned out differently? If I hadn't been taught Braille, would I be the confident person that I am today, comfortable with my place in the world?

Other children deserve this same opportunity to grow into the best people they can be. Just because some children have more passable vision than others shouldn't restrict them to having to toil day after day to try and read the print alphabet, just so people can tell themselves that these children are being raised as normally as possible. Children with passable vision often have to hold books close to their faces simply to see the letters on the pages. It often takes a partially sighted child twice as long to decipher letters in print. Thank you.

Megan Bening