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August 15, 2009
Dear President Obama:
When I was a little girl, I was blind. No one said it, but it was so. Everyone around me was careful to let others know that I couldn’t see very well, but no one ever used the word blind.
When I began to attend school, I was fortunate to have caring teachers who went out of their way to help me actively participate in class. They didn’t leave me sitting on the sidelines. They included me before it was fashionable to do so. I enjoyed school for the most part, and I was a good student. My teachers were not trained to work with a blind child, but they did the best they could. Someone heard that large-print books were available, and school administrators made sure that I had those books each year. I am grateful for their efforts, but, because they had only heard about large-print books and never learned that Braille might be advantageous to me, I suffered shame and humiliation every time I was called on to read.
You see, in order to read, I wore very thick glasses, and I practically had to place my nose on even the large-print books in order to read them. I managed to read pretty well silently. Sure, I was slower than everyone else, but I was able to complete my reading assignments, and I comprehended what I read. I always felt out of place among my sighted peers, though, and I just knew that they were all watching me every time I lowered my head to read words that I understood well enough but couldn’t see clearly.
The most terrifying part of my school day came any time I was asked to read orally. Everyone had to do it, and, since my teachers didn’t excuse me from other activities, they asked that I participate in this aspect of school life as well. I would sit at my desk with my head on my book reading in a halting and nervous voice. Sometimes other students were supportive; sometimes they were cruel. Whatever their reaction, I was embarrassed.
I attended a rural school, and many elective classes were not available to us. That meant we all took a speech class before graduating from high school. I put it off as long as I could, but in my senior year I had to take the plunge. I learned to memorize short speeches, but, when I had to make a major presentation, I felt compelled to write my speech and try to read it. I didn’t trust that I could remember a lengthy monologue with just a few days to prepare. I stumbled through speeches that I had written myself. The two reasons for this were that I couldn’t read any print well, and trying to read my own handwriting was impossible. I know that we use computers to generate everything now, but, when I graduated in 1974, it was common for students to write most papers by hand.
I got past high school intact, and I have become reasonably successful. I now have adaptive technology that allows me to read more than I could in the past. I still struggle, however, if I am asked to make a presentation publicly because I just can’t get the letters large enough to read and face my audience eye-to-eye.
I watch my totally blind husband and friends who have had the benefit of Braille, and I feel a pang of jealousy. Good Braille readers can stand tall and make powerful speeches that they have mastered without being forced to remember every word. Braille readers are able to make notes that they can actually read later. That isn’t always true for the large numbers of partially sighted children who still grow up without the benefit of learning this most valuable skill.
I believe that blind people can participate on terms of equality with their sighted peers. I believe that it is respectable to be blind, and I believe that blind children should expect to receive a quality education that includes Braille. Literacy is essential to getting and maintaining quality employment. I want blind children to have the opportunity to achieve all that they are capable of achieving. I know that you want that too, and I hope that you will help us level the playing field for blind children by actively supporting initiatives intended to strengthen the quality of the Braille training they receive. This is critical to the future success of a generation of young people, and I hope you will join the blind of this nation in our effort to make Braille literacy a priority among parents and educators of blind children.
I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you about this important issue, and I hope that you will let me know if you have any questions.