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July 17, 2009
Dear President Obama:
My experience with Braille is about two separate lifetimes. At four years of age I lost the sight in my left eye due to a freak accident and lost most of my sight in the right eye due to an infection. I was OK in kindergarten, but when I went to first grade, the nuns kicked me out. I couldn't see the blackboard.
So my mother and doctor put me in the Chicago Public Schools Braille class. I learned Braille. I learned how to write Braille, and I could read Braille with my fingers and eyes. Since I could see a bit and my classmates were all blind, I was given extra jobs to do, including getting silverware and such at lunch. I was pretty happy there. But my mother didn't like the fact that I walked around using my hands, even though I could see. She started a crusade to get me out of the Braille class and into the Sight Saving class, which was for high partials. I believe I was legally blind, but my mother persuaded the doctor to diagnose me with 25/175 vision, which extricated me from the Braille class.
I actually continued with Braille for another year. My mother wanted me to play the piano, and she found a teacher who used Braille music. But that didn't last long because it was faster for me to read the Braille with my eyes instead of feeling it. In the Sight Saving class I learned how to write, print, and type. For the next eleven years I used print, and I completely forgot my Braille training. Even though I was legally blind, I could read anything if I held it close enough to my face. Therefore I could read my texts and type my papers with my large print typewriter. We had the same teacher for homeroom and study hall. She would read to me if necessary, and she would print out tests for me since I had trouble reading handwriting.
In my senior year of high school I got hit in the right eye with a basketball and displaced the lens. This made it much harder to read, and I had to resort to a magnifier. When I went to college, I was on my own. After two years the doctors decided to remove the displaced lens, and I saw better than I had since I was four years old. I functioned well for the next twenty-five years. I graduated from college, earned my teaching certificate, and later earned my master's degree in physics from DePaul University. I taught math and science for thirty-nine years. I married and had three children.
But in 1985 I started to lose my sight again. I couldn't read without a magnifier, and I quickly became legally blind again. For about six years I hid this fact from my employer and colleagues. In 1991 I went to Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Clinic in Baltimore to get another diagnosis. Now I had macular degeneration. My doctor sent me to its low-vision clinic, where the social worker asked me if I wanted to continue teaching. She encouraged me to seek out the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), which I did. The blind educators division of the NFB gave me courage as well as assistance. For the next nine years I taught as a blind teacher. I used a cane and CCTV in my classroom. I also started to relearn Braille. I had not gotten very far and knew only the basics. So fifty years later I was back where I had started.
I often think that I would have done better in school, especially in college, if I could have read Braille. I retired in 1999. My eyesight has continued to worsen, and I am a slave to this computer. I don't really know why my mother was against my staying in the Braille school system. I suspect she wanted me to appear normal. I regret my lack of Braille skills, and I often feel frustrated. I envy people who read Braille fluently.
My life has been productive. I know I was a good teacher, husband, and parent. I still work many volunteer jobs for church, the NFB, and my condo. I have been vice president for the Illinois affiliate and the Chicago chapter of the NFB. I have been the senior warden at my church several times, and I now act as my condo's treasurer. But I often consider how much different my life might have been if I had mastered Braille earlier.