(back) (contents) (next)
August 27, 2009
Dear President Obama:
The ability to read provides a person with indisputable freedom. When we are refused the opportunity to learn to read, we are imprisoned in our own small lives, but with the written word we can live in a hundred places, a thousand times, or learn of a million new ideas. I am successful because I am able to read. I am able to read reliably because of Braille.
I grew up legally blind but with the ability to read print. I have always been an avid reader. I read novels and textbooks with nearly equal abandon. As a child my teachers and parents believed that I had enough vision to read print. For a while they were right. I read print slowly but fairly comfortably until the summer between my sophomore and junior years in high school. That summer I attended a program to give blind students the opportunity to hold jobs and live in the city. I learned about using a cane, and I met some amazing blind role models. They showed me that blindness could be just another characteristic. They used canes; they cooked and cleaned; they supervised a bunch of rowdy teens; and they read Braille. They used Braille to keep records and to take notes, for pleasure and for work. They used Braille in all the ways I used print, but they were faster and more confident in their skills. They didn’t have to worry about whether the lighting was right or if the letters were big or dark enough or on a light enough page. They didn’t bury their noses in the books they read; they sat straight and proud. I didn’t really think about the Braille then, though. I had my friends, my summer, and my job before me. I had romances, music, and homework to worry about. They read and were successful; I read and was successful. It didn’t matter how we did it--we simply did.
Everything changed one night near the end of the summer. I had picked up my Bible and settled in to read one evening before bed, and I couldn’t make out the words on the page at all. My eyes shook far too much; they wouldn’t focus, and trying to force them made me feel sick. That night and for the next few months I felt the earth-shattering loss of being able to read.
I had taken reading and writing for granted, and they were gone in a single night. I could no longer just pick up a novel. I was dependent on others to read to me in order to finish my homework. I felt as if a part of me were missing. I had worked my entire high school career to be valedictorian of my class, but I thought that goal was now out of my reach. I panicked when my teachers gave a reading assignment of one hundred pages over a weekend because I had no idea how I would finish it. These were dark days for me, but I knew that I had too much to do to be slowed down by a problem like this.
I believed that I could learn Braille, even then, and this gave me hope. I believed with the optimism of youth that I would read as well as my mentors from the summer could. I was hurting, but I believed that I could overcome the setbacks and that all would be right with the world. I was both right and wrong. I did learn Braille. I knew how liberating it could be. I was able to fight and get others to fight for me. I was taught to read again, but it has never been the same. I don’t read as quickly as I did before. I often have to re-read pages to understand what I once would have seen as simple concepts, and I occasionally miss out on the deeper meaning behind the text, but I can and do read again. I am able to meet my responsibilities and curl up with a book and my cat on a rainy evening. But sadly I will never have the confidence my mentors have. I may never have the speed and comprehension that I once had.
Why am I admitting that I am slower and less confident with Braille in a pro-Braille letter? Why would I tell you that I still feel that I lost something when I lost the ability to read print reliably? Why do I still make use of print whenever I can, clinging to it despite pain and exhaustion? I do this because I want you to see through my story that, although print was always an option for me, it wasn’t the right option. There are likely hundreds of children like me, who can read print, but no one can know how long they will be able to do so. Many blind children who can still read print find it slow and painful. One day they may not be able to use it at all. Why should we sentence them to a lesser existence, even during the time before they can learn Braille? Why should we gamble with their futures when we can offer them the insurance of always knowing that, no matter what happens, they have the opportunity to be successful? They can visit new worlds and learn new things; they can always read.
I beg that we give them the opportunity to learn Braille while they are young, while it is easy for them to learn. I want to see more students who can read Braille easily and confidently like my mentors do. If they can read print too, all the better, but this way they can be assured that they will always be able to read and do it well. They will be able to know, unlike me and many others, that they need not fear an unexpected assignment or struggle to read The Cat in the Hat as a senior in high school. They need never worry over reading in public because they are slow or drop a class because the material is too complex to be understood on tape. With our support and proper Braille instruction at an early age, these students can always read, which means they can truly be free.