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August 1, 2009
Dear President Obama:
“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
It’s been nearly half a century since I first read the opening paragraph of Louisa Mae Alcott’s Little Women, but the March family parlor, with its worn rug, broken-down sofa, and loving family has been part of my soul’s architecture ever since.
The entire city of Toledo had only one copy of the six-volume Braille book; I had to stand in line to get my hands on it. Someone else had volume 2 when I finished volume 1, so I grabbed volume 3 and read the book out of order. I didn’t mind. Braille books for leisure reading were such a rare treat that I read anything I could get my hands on, including the World Book Encyclopedia and several volumes of the dictionary. But it was the fiction that enthralled me. Under my hands the words on the pages came to life, and I was transported to times and places our family station wagon could never take me. I skipped through Alpine meadows with Heidi and blasted off with Space Cat when he visited Venus.
I loved recorded books too, but they did not allow me to participate in the author’s creation of the stories in the way that Braille did. When I read Braille, the characters spoke in the tone and with the accents I gave them. I also learned how words were spelled and sentences constructed.
Nobody told me Braille was slow and difficult to learn. When I started school at age six, all I knew was that I wanted to be like my older brothers. I wanted the miracle of learning from the words others had written. I wanted to share in adventure and humor. I wanted to revel in the beauty of written language. I wanted access to the realm of thought, and Braille was my key to the kingdom of ideas.
It never occurred to me that those who used their eyes and those who used their fingers should experience different reading ability. By the time I learned that Braille readers were expected to achieve speeds of only ninety words a minute, I was reading 222. I wanted to read quickly because there was so much to learn, so much I wanted to know.
My only problem was that there simply wasn’t enough Braille. Books had to be copied by hand by individual transcribers using the Braille version of a manual typewriter. There were a few Braille presses for making multiple copies of books, but the plates used in the pressing process had to be handmade. These labor-intensive production methods meant that, if I was very lucky, I might be able to get my hands on a book two years after my sighted friends had the print version.
Braille was also very expensive. That Braille copy of Little Women cost $22 at a time when a print paperback could be had for fifty cents. No wonder I squealed with delight on my eleventh Christmas when I ripped open a package to find two Braille volumes. For the first time in my life I owned a book! It was called Lumberjack by Steven Meader. It told the story of a teenage boy whose first job was helping a timber company log his grandfather’s wood lot. A mystery and some skullduggery were involved, though I’ve long since forgotten the details. It wasn’t exactly the sort of thing I would have chosen, but it was mine; at least for two weeks it was. A civic group had purchased the book to donate to the minuscule library in the resource classroom for blind children. They wanted it to be a gift to a blind child who would pass it along to the library after finishing the story. I was the lucky child who proudly carried it to school after Christmas vacation.
It wasn’t until high school that I discovered that the Talking Book library also had a Braille collection. A good thing too, because the library became my only source for Braille books. I’d chosen to leave the public school system for a Catholic high school; as a result I had no Braille textbooks. My algebra text cost as much as a year’s tuition, far more than my family could afford. An anonymous donor came up with the funds, but, when the book arrived, we discovered it was an old edition and of no use in my class. I did first year algebra and geometry successfully without a textbook. Afraid that I would be unable to master advanced algebra and trigonometry without Braille texts, I took only the minimum math requirement. As a result I was streamed into remedial mathematics in college and wasted the better part of a year catching up.
Although finding Braille books to read and study was a challenge, writing Braille was not. In the first grade I learned to use the Perkins Brailler, the Braille equivalent of a manual typewriter. I also mastered the slate and stylus, the Braille equivalent of a pencil. I used the Brailler for transcribing long documents; in the seventh grade I copied the entire U. S. Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, in order to study it for an exam.
The slate and stylus served me well for most projects. I used my slate to take notes in college. To this day, though I own a Braille PDA computer, I wouldn’t dream of leaving home without a slate and stylus in my purse.
Braille remains one of the mainstays of my life, though the ways I use it have changed. As the mother of four, I’ve done a lot of reading to my children. Some of the classic children’s books that I’ve read to them weren’t available in Braille when I was young, so my children and I have explored them together. Thanks to computer technology, which has simplified production, I was able to buy the final book in the Harry Potter series on the day the print book was released. I downloaded the files onto my Braille Lite computer. Our family spent a glorious day and a half reading together.
Because of downloadable computerized Braille, I can now own a library of cookbooks. My wooden bookshelf could hold only five or six embossed Braille recipe books at a time. In digital form I can acquire a virtually unlimited number.
I don’t have a lot of time to sit quietly with a good book these days, but that doesn’t mean Braille use is dormant in my life. I keep financial information, phone numbers, appointment reminders, and hordes of miscellaneous notes to myself. I place Braille labels on important print documents, food packages, and the controls on my washing machine. My life would be chaos without Braille.
How ironic that, just when Braille has become more available than ever before, we are facing a crisis in Braille literacy. I hear the statistics, but I don’t think of percentages and totals. I think of children who will never grumble about no presents at Christmas in Jo March’s voice or skim through a cookbook looking for that perfect dessert. I worry about future adults who won’t be able to read their bank balances independently. Their futures, the quality of their lives, depend on this country’s commitment to ensuring them the possibility of achieving the sense of wonder that comes from independently reading a great book.
Mary Ellen Gabias