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July 26, 2009
Dear President Obama:
I am an active fifty-six-year-old grandmother and small business owner in Maine. I was told at the age of twelve that I was legally blind, and I was assigned a counselor from the Division for the Blind. I was on the college track in junior high school, and I had lots of reading to do and notes to take. Even though I could read large print back then, my mother asked the counselor about Braille instruction for me, and we were told that I had too much vision for Braille. We were told that I should learn to use the vision I had. The fact is that I had too little sight for print.
I am writing in the hope of making a difference in the life of even one blind person. I am writing to save that person the time, agony, and headaches that I have endured while I've tried to rely on unreliable vision. I was given magnifiers, copies of large print math books, and poorly narrated recordings of the required works of Shakespeare. All of this was rarely on time. Using what sight I had caused me terrible eye strain, which didn't surprise anyone. The migraines got so bad that I regularly missed school.
Even so I was accepted to Colby College in Waterville, Maine, during my junior year of high school. Here it gets silly, but the impact on my life has been serious. Since my rehabilitation counselor told us that I couldn't handle the large university campuses in the Maine system and that I had to go to a school in Maine in order for vocational rehabilitation services to sponsor me, I chose to attend--and was accepted to--Colby College. As with many colleges, all freshmen had to have at least one roommate. Since I had to listen to all of my books on tape and work with readers, I found it difficult to function with roommates or work in the school's public library. The solution identified was the purchase of a second room for my seven inch reel-to-reel recordings and studying. And they say Braille is cumbersome. Because I was never taught Braille, and since I had to use what vision I possessed, the State of Maine ended up footing the bill for two rooms for me at Colby College.
I remained for only two years. I spent much of my time in the infirmary with migraines, and I found the work more difficult as my vision worsened. I couldn't review the writing of Yeats and Joyce, and I had no way to take notes and manipulate my own information. It would be good to note here that a completely blind student from Maine was also attending Colby at the same time. Hal was literate in Braille and graduated.
I married and tried school again, but I couldn't handle the strain, fatigue, and headaches. As a young mother my biggest fear was that our children wouldn't be readers, and I wondered how I was going to help them. About this time I met several accomplished Braille readers through the National Federation of the Blind. They were successful, personable, and literate. They read Braille so fluently that they could give speeches, take notes, and enjoy leisure reading through Braille books.
I am happy to say that our children are voracious readers, and I am finally motivated by more lost vision to teach myself Braille so that I can read with the smartest grandchildren ever. But I've had many false starts and have had to beg and borrow to try to get Braille instruction in Maine. I've had a lovely retired nun try to show me flash cards of Braille contractions written out in black marker. I have had people from the Maine Center for the Blind come to my house, but they read Braille by sight. In the long run they had little to offer me. Now I'm frantically trying to catch up with my latest vision loss. I am at least motivated; not everyone is willing to work this hard.
Some of us are pleading not to be functionally illiterate. Braille reading and writing is vital to a blind person's sense of self and success. Braille literacy may be a choice for some, but for me it has been a matter of civil rights denied.