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Chelsea Cook
Newport News, Virginia

August 27, 2009

Dear President Obama:

I am a senior attending the Denbigh High School Aviation Academy in Newport News, Virginia. Two days before the launch of the 2009 Louis Braille Bicentennial Silver Dollar into space, the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia held its monthly board meeting. When I walked into the room, our state president recognized me and jokingly asked if I would be going with the coins. I told him that I wished I could.

I am Braille literate, and I have been since I was four. I realize now that I was one of the lucky students who learned Braille at an early age. Many I talk to now do not know Braille. This is a problem because Braille equals literacy for the blind. It has made all my dreams and goals seem that much closer, and it is an integral part of my life. I want to be an astronaut, and my blindness will not stop me from achieving this goal. Physics is my favorite subject in school, and when I memorize the equations and formulas used, I read them first and retain them in my mind in their original Braille code. It continues to baffle me how blind people can grow up and graduate from high school without the vital tool of literacy. When I cannot access my electronic Braille books due to technology glitches, I feel as though a part of me is missing--that a void has opened and needs to be filled. Audio just does not measure up.

For me Braille is not only essential in higher science and math courses, the code is also critical in my writing and civic endeavors. I compose poetry and science fiction novels for the pure pleasure of seeing my words on paper (Braille, of course) and for having something important to say. When I switch to a talking computer, the ease of writing is gone; Braille is what I've grown up with, and the electronic voice interferes with the process of getting my thoughts down into memory. It shatters the fragile correspondence between writer and future reader. Even now I am writing to you in electronic Braille.

I grew up reading. Once I started, I could not be stopped. My passion for literature would not have developed had I not learned the code. I have always read several steps above grade level, and I believe my success in the academic world is due to the fact that I learned Braille early. My classmates often ask me how I take notes so quickly. I respond by telling them about Braille's many contractions, and I say that my notes are already abbreviated.

Within the National Federation of the Blind I hold several positions at the national level. I am second vice president of the Writers Division, something I could not have attained without my love of writing. I also hold the office of secretary for the Science and Engineering Division, and this position would not be possible for me at all without a firm grasp of Braille. I could not imagine doing it any other way.

Most students today do not have the luxury I did of learning Braille while they are young. I am shocked to hear some people talking of not teaching the Nemeth (math) code. I am also startled by other blind youths' stories of how they hate reading because they cannot do it. That reasoning should be eradicated. I do not remember the number of famous scientists and authors who got their journey's start from simply picking up a book. Isaac Newton was one of them; so was I with my love for astronomy. As I was listening to the shuttle launch of the Louis Braille coins, I smiled at all the familiar radio calls as everything was reported to be nominal. When they made it into orbit, I thought I was there with them, circling the globe at 17,500 miles per hour, looking around at the stars and the small blue planet we call home, realizing my dream. Braille makes it possible. The symbolism of knowledge gained by blind people and by astronomers studying the depths of the universe with the Hubble Space Telescope was not lost on me; it was amplified. Those coins being launched were my two worlds coming together, and they were just waiting for me to join them.

We must continue teaching Braille. Those six dots unlock doors. Those six dots help solve the mysteries of the universe. Those six dots give freedom. I do not want to be the last blind child dreaming in America because I have the gift of literacy. Braille makes dreams reality. Braille gives us words; words give us knowledge; knowledge gives us power.

Thank you for listening.

Chelsea Cook