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August 26, 2009
Dear President Obama:
I am writing to you today to ask that, in celebration of Louis Braille’s two-hundredth birthday, you help the blind of the United States of America to become productive, integrated, and literate members of society. We want all Americans to be able to participate in our society and to enjoy the freedoms that come with being citizens of our great country. However, I believe we are overlooking a key aspect of education that helps to make all this possible. Only 10 percent of blind children are taught to read Braille, a number that is staggering and one that would never be tolerated should that be the case in a larger cross-section of society. I ask that you please bring this appalling statistic to the forefront of our educational system so we can equip our young blind people with the gift of literacy and thus the ability to enjoy all the possibilities and liberties we have access to here in the United States.
Unfortunately, I write this letter, not as a member of the lucky 10 percent, but as one of the vast majority of blind people who were never taught Braille at a young age. Thus I am functionally illiterate. As a young blind person with some vision, I was taught to read print even though I had to make the print obscenely large. It was thought the sighted means of reading must be superior to Braille, which is generally and incorrectly thought to be slow and inferior. As a result my education suffered greatly. I hated to read because it was slow and cumbersome. Yes, reading print was believed to be more mainstream, but no thought was given to what would be more efficient for me in the long run.
Looking back, I think one of the defining moments of my life was when I understood that I really did suffer from illiteracy when I was taking my ACT test. I was taking the biggest test of my life up to that point, and I was relegated to guessing. As I came to the reading comprehension section and I was faced with the page-long passages and a series of questions, I did not even try. I knew I could not get one of the three or four stories read and subsequent set of questions answered in the allotted time limit, so I guessed. I read the questions and randomly picked an answer with no real idea what I was doing. I had to guess my way through an entire section of this test that is supposed to determine the quality college I could attend. This test did not truly show my level of comprehension and intelligence, but I could do nothing about it. I was powerless because I was not taught to read by means that would make me successful; I was taught to read by a means that would supposedly not make me look different.
At the age of twenty-two, I was finally able to attend the Louisiana Center for the Blind, where I was taught to read Braille. I will never be as fast at reading and writing as I would have been had I learned Braille when my peers were first learning print. However, the ability to read Braille has unlocked a whole new world for me. Now that I can read Braille, I am able to take notes in meetings and read them back later instead of squinting at a page of smeared ink and trying to decipher what I have written. I am able to give speeches and read note cards instead of having to memorize my speech or stooping over to read notes written in giant black marker. Braille has made me more efficient, more productive, and more integrated in our society.
Braille is actually more widely available today than ever before. Not only do our blind children have access to traditional embossed Braille books, but thanks to refreshable Braille displays and Braille notetakers, they can have access to Braille on the go, get their textbooks in Braille, and write their homework assignments using Braille. There is no substitute for actively reading. Listening to computer-generated speech or audio books does not teach a student about sentence structure, punctuation, or spelling--all skills that one needs to get a quality education and to become successfully employed.
I and all other blind people who use Braille every day, whether at work, school, or for personal use, know what a valuable and irreplaceable tool it is. Please help us to bring this fact to light. We need the government’s help in assuring that blind people are given an equal and quality education, one that includes literacy. Blind people should not have to guess their way through school because they cannot read; just imagine how many intelligent and innovative minds this country has lost because those individuals were not taught to read while in school. We have a literacy crisis in this country, and sadly it goes unnoticed. Thank you for taking the time to read my story, and I hope it helped to shed a little light on what students who are not taught to read Braille experience. I hope the future sees an increased number of blind students being taught Braille by competent teachers, and as a result I hope to see a decrease in the putrid 70 percent unemployment rate among blind people. Literacy is the key to unlocking the potential in thousands of young people, and Braille is the way to get there.