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Jim Shaffer
Pflugerville, Texas

August 18, 2009

Dear President Obama:

I recently attended a reunion at the Iowa School for the Blind, former known as the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School. It was Saturday night, and we were going to have a sing along and jam session, and I was a prime participant. At the same time the superintendent took a group of students up to the attic of the main building, and they even got to go up into the bell tower. Since I had committed to the music, I skipped that tour. As it turned out, it was an opportunity I was glad to miss.

While waiting for the music to start, I struck up a conversation with my old second-grade teacher. She told me that she had changed me from a barely functional print user to a Braille user. She also mentioned that at that point I did about two years of work in one year. That was a good thing, since I had started attending the school in first grade after having gone to kindergarten in the public school in my home town. As a result of my late arrival, they put me in the special first class, which mostly consisted of low-performing and mentally handicapped students.

I used Braille all the way through school from the second grade on. In my junior year I switched back to the public school. I used readers for the print material, and I took Braille notes with the slate and stylus. I was elected to the National Honor Society that year. I then went on to college, where I double majored in mathematics and physics. Once again I used readers for the print material and took notes with the slate and stylus. I graduated magna cum laude in 1975.

I got a job working in data processing for the state of Iowa in Des Moines. My main focus was the online drivers license programs. I also developed a system for the prisoner employment program, which used prisoners to enter data that were then transferred to the state’s data processing complex in Des Moines.

I joined IBM in 1978 and worked as a software engineer for thirty years. For much of that time I worked with IBM’s AIX operating system on the serviceability tools. All that time I used Braille whenever I could, although, especially for the first part of my career, Braille equipment was in short supply. I did make considerable use of Braille printers. I retired from IBM in 2008.

So what does any of this have to do with that missed opportunity to take a tour of the old attic, and why am I not sorry? I am very grateful that I had the chance to thank my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Geiselhart, for switching me from print to Braille. I’ve seen many children with limited vision struggling to use print. You see, if you can use print, it is easier to believe you are not blind, even though you're struggling, and your studies are suffering as a result. I have observed that, at least at the Iowa school, most of the good students were Braille users. For the sake of the future of our low-vision students, I would like to see the stigma of Braille and blindness removed so that more children are taught Braille and have the opportunity for success that I have had, thanks to a good teacher’s ability to put my interests ahead of the stereotype of blindness.

Jim Shaffer