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August 23, 2009
Dear President Obama:
Since we are celebrating the two hundredth birthday of Louis Braille, who founded the tactile code that the blind use to read, I wanted to write and share my thoughts with you about the significant contribution that Braille has made to my life. I was privileged to attend the Michigan School for the Blind while growing up in the 1940s and '50s. My parents learned about the school from our family doctor. When I was nearly five, I became a student. During this time Braille instruction was mandatory, especially for totally blind children. Some partially sighted students learned it too just in case they lost their vision.
My parents were quite pleased with my progress until one day when they received a phone call from school officials asking them to come to a conference. A teacher discovered that I was memorizing a story I was supposed to be reading. It turned out that my first-grade teacher, who was sighted, tried to teach me to read with one or two fingers. I might add here that this does not mean that sighted people can't teach Braille to the blind. This teacher just thought that she was doing the right thing. When school officials learned what had happened, I started training with another teacher who was blind, and this teacher taught me to read correctly.
My parents helped too. My father made wooden blocks and used thumb tacks to make the shapes of the letters. My mom went further. She arranged with a local librarian to borrow books from the National Library Service that were appropriate for my age. Because of this guidance I developed a love for reading good books and spent many happy hours reading during the summer. I read such authors as Louisa May Alcott, Pearl Buck, and Margaret Mitchell.
After leaving home, I went to Eastern Michigan University, where I earned a bachelor's degree in sociology. I took class notes in Braille. Later I moved to Virginia and worked as a medical transcriber for the state for twenty-five years. Because we typed discharge summaries, operative summaries, and doctor referral letters, we had to know the names of drugs and have access to the names and addresses of different doctors. I copied all this information in Braille so that I could do my job.
Although I am retired now, I still use Braille every day. I read and study both the New King James and the New International versions of the Bible in Braille. My husband and I have two talking Bibles, but they are no substitute for our Braille Bibles. I have sung in many church choirs and have copied the words to the songs in Braille.
I enjoy cooking and have many Braille recipes. I use Braille to label everything from music CDs to canned foods. I am sure you are aware that new appliances have touch pads. We recently bought a new microwave oven and a new stove with touch pads, and it was necessary to mark them in Braille. I also keep extensive files with names, addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses of family and friends. I know this information can be stored on a computer, but opening a drawer and getting out the appropriate card in Braille is much quicker and easier for me.
Braille also helps me vote. In Charlottesville, Virginia, I have access to accessible machines that make independent voting possible. These machines give audible directions, but the buttons are labeled in Braille.
I must tell you with great sadness that the school I attended in Michigan is closed. There, as in many other parts of the nation, blind children are now mainstreamed to public schools where they do not get the skills they desperately need. This is why my husband Henderson and I support the efforts of the National Federation of the Blind so that more visually impaired children and adults can get the training that will provide what they need to live rich and productive lives.
Gwen and Henderson Beavers