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August 21, 2009
Dear President Obama:
I have been blind since shortly after birth due to retinopathy of prematurity that resulted from too much oxygen in the incubator. This disease affected many children who were born in the 1950s.
I was fortunate because a teacher from the New Jersey Commission for the Blind came to my house and started teaching me Braille before I entered kindergarten. My parents fought for me to attend a local parochial school instead of a sight saving class for blind children or a residential school in Philadelphia. Most of my books were in Braille, and I was able to keep up with my classmates through grammar school and high school. I made the honor roll in elementary school, high school, and college. I used Braille to do math and to take notes in high school and college.
I received a bachelor's degree in social work from Eastern University and a master's degree from the College of New Jersey in counseling. After graduating from college, I obtained a job at a public welfare agency in New Jersey. When I first started working on the agency's assistance hotline, all of my data and referral information were in Braille. Although I received promotions and am working in a supervisory capacity, I use Braille to keep my information in order and to take notes on cases. My computer at work has a Braille display so that I can read the words and hear them with synthesized speech at the same time.
As much as technology has advanced, it doesn't teach people how to read, write, and spell correctly, which is necessary in daily life. I am married to a blind man, and many items in our household have Braille labels on them. Our children, who are sighted and in college, learned to appreciate us because we have been able to give them the same opportunities other children have. If it weren't for Braille, I wouldn't have been able to attain the education and employment I enjoy today. I sing in my church choir and write the words to the songs we sing in Braille by using a machine where I can feel the print letters on each page.
I joined the National Federation of the Blind nine years ago and started a chapter to help blind people in the Mercer County, New Jersey, area. Some disturbing facts have been brought to my attention since I joined the Federation. Only 10 percent of blind people know how to read Braille, and only forty-five percent of blind children graduate from high school. Seventy percent of blind people are either unemployed or underemployed. But, of those who are employed, 80 percent are Braille readers. Many agencies for the blind and school systems deliver the message that vision-impaired children do not need to learn Braille if they have some usable vision and that technology is available to help them. However, these agency people do not appreciate the struggles that vision-impaired students are forced to undergo in their daily school work.
I realize that right now everyone is struggling due to the downturn in our nation's economy and that you and your cabinet have certain priorities. But as a blind citizen I am hoping you will give some consideration to supporting Braille literacy, whether it be through money or your position of support. Your campaign philosophy is similar to the National Federation of the Blind's philosophy, which stresses that we must move forward. I hope you can help us in this effort. Your attention to this matter will be greatly appreciated.
Mary Jo Partyka