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John Smith
Hallsville, Missouri

July 22, 2009

Dear President Obama:

In 1972 the school known then as the Nebraska School for the Visually Handicapped celebrated its centennial. As a student there at the time, I remember a day the school commemorated this by operating as if we were back in 1872. I learned that day that anyone with a little vision like me would have been forced to learn Braille back in those early days, without the benefit of learning to read print. My partially sighted classmates and I moaned at the horror of that thought. However, I’ve had many opportunities since then to moan because of my lack of Braille skills.

Today I can say I’m blessed to be able to read both print and Braille, but both are slow and cumbersome for me, making reading and writing in either medium a dreaded chore. I do most of my reading with audio books and magazines, thanks to cassettes, various digital formats, and a screen reader called Window-Eyes on my computer. While I’m thankful for the ability to obtain information in several media, let me tell you a few of the problems I’ve faced by not having better Braille-reading and -writing skills.

Ten of my school years were spent at the Nebraska School for the Visually Handicapped. In first grade it was evident that reading even large print was difficult for me. It was decided I should learn Braille. Sometime later it was decided I shouldn’t learn Braille. I don’t fully know why. Perhaps I threw one too many temper tantrums as an impatient little boy. I can tell you I have a vivid memory of being about six or seven and throwing a temper tantrum at home because I couldn’t read the Print/Braille book I had brought home from the school’s library. I could read neither the print nor the Braille. I truly wanted to read that story about the Flintstones.

I struggled throughout school learning to read large print and regular print with reading glasses and a number of handheld magnifiers. Closed circuit TV reading machines were too expensive and cumbersome to be practical. (Personally, I still think that’s the case, though I have a CCTV that I use from time to time. Even with that reading print is a chore for me.) During my last couple of years at a public high school, I spent many nights hunched over thick books reading with a handheld magnifier. It’s necessary for me to see a chiropractor on occasion these days because my back and neck are somewhat hunched unnaturally and are a cause of headaches.

I didn’t truly learn to read Braille until I went through a rehabilitation program for the blind in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1978. In the years since, Braille has been somewhat useful for me, but I’ve never developed the speed and skill I would have if I had learned it during those early days in first grade.

When I was in college, I was allowed to tape record some of my classes in which it was too difficult for me to handwrite notes fast enough. (Incidentally, it was problematic to try reading my notes later.) I spent hours Brailling notes from those recorded lectures. When exam time came, it was impossible for me to read my Braille notes fast enough, so I listened to the class tapes again.

When I got my first job at a small town country music radio station in 1982, I Brailled out the ad copy for commercials I taped for playback later. However, once again my Braille-reading speed was slow, and it was necessary virtually to memorize those scripts and use the Braille as a prompter. Years later I learned I could have scripts read onto tape, or laboriously read them onto tape myself and play the tape back through an earphone at a higher speed, parroting what I heard into the microphone. Thus Brailling ad copy became unnecessary. How much better it would have been if I had been able to read Braille as fast as you or anyone else can read print.

I was fired from that first radio job because I could not read scripts live on the air and effectively operate a tape machine with Christmas programming. I had not learned the alternative technique of listening to a sped-up tape as described above. Fortunately for me, when Christmas was past, I was reinstated to part-time work at the radio station until I could find other work a few months later.

Not being able to read Braille or print efficiently has dogged me at work and at home in the years since. Yes, there are other ways to read, and technology has made wonderful advances, but it is costly, and the learning curve is often quite steep. I do indeed wish I were a more fluent Braille reader. There is no good reason I should not have learned both Braille and print as a boy. Children often learn more than one language. Why not more than one way of reading and writing?

These days I spend about an hour a day reading Braille books meant for teens and young adults, which I borrow from Wolfner Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, Jefferson City, Missouri, in the state where I now live. I read such books because they are fairly easy to read and give me incentive to maintain and build my Braille reading speed. What if I one day lose the vision I now have? Should that ever happen—and even if it doesn’t—I want Braille to be a useful communication tool for me. I firmly believe young blind and partially sighted children should have that opportunity and the associated advantages as well.

John Wesley Smith