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Serena Olsen
Lompoc, California

July 19, 2009

Dear President Obama:

At the risk of abusing the two most popular words of your campaign, I cannot stress enough how important the concepts of hope and change are to me as a blind person. Like the vast majority of blind people, I have some usable vision that I have come to view almost more as a curse than a blessing. When you are not totally blind, society tends to focus on maximizing your remaining vision and a belief that the skills of blindness (nonvisual or alternative techniques) are not necessary. Consequently, though my family and I referred to me as blind, it was much more a euphemism than a serious diagnosis. I was diagnosed as a teenager with Stargardt’s disease, a scarring of the macula that erodes central visual acuity. By high school I was sitting in the front row with glasses on, and I still couldn’t follow what was happening on the board at the front of the room. But I wasn’t totally blind, so I passed as sighted for many years, never receiving the specialized services in school that I should have, including Braille instruction. Though there are many important skills of blindness, I am writing to you today about the vital importance of Braille in the lives of blind people and the crisis in Braille literacy that we all face today.

I spent seven years at a community college--not just coming of age as a young adult--but coming to terms with my blindness, learning about services and resources for the blind only slowly and by chance. I remember taking the same math course at least three times until I passed it because I could not use the graphing calculator and did painstaking calculations slowly, inefficiently, and ineffectively. I was passing for sighted; no one thought of me as truly blind. I passed many years this way.

On countless occasions, as I lay on my bed, I wondered what my future truly held. Like many young adults I had great dreams and visions for myself, but I didn’t truly believe I had the ability to do anything but menial labor. This was partially true, since I was not equipped with the skills of blindness that would help me achieve commensurate with my sighted peers. I did eventually learn about DSP offices, the Department of Rehabilitation, and other useful resources that nudged me through my undergraduate and graduate programs, but these were all based on maximizing residual vision--not the more efficient nonvisual techniques I would eventually learn about. By graduate school I had chronic headaches from stressing my residual vision and constant muscle soreness in my neck and back from being hunched over everything I did. This does not even begin to speak to the indignity of always being stooped over and squinting at everything. Throughout all my years of higher education I was never able to keep up with the readings; I scraped by on paying close attention to lectures and other students' comments. I achieved despite a tremendous obstacle, but I was held back significantly by a thick glass ceiling. Imagine being president of the Harvard Law Review but not being able to read any print materials yourself. Imagine being able to walk into a library or bookstore but all the pages are blank. Remember the episode of the Twilight Zone in which a man wants nothing more in life than to read books? He survives a nuclear holocaust and is left alone with all the time and books in the world, only to break his glasses and face a future alone with the books that should give him so much joy. This was the frustration of much of my young adult life.

In 2004, the year I started graduate school, I discovered the National Federation of the Blind. In 2007 I was able to attend a truly effective, top-quality training center for the blind. Here I was taught how to read and write Braille. Mastery of this skill has proven liberating for me.

This year we honor Louis Braille through issuance of a commemorative silver dollar celebrating his two hundredth birthday. Braille can mean the difference between a lifetime of learned helplessness and dependence on federal and state programs or a life fully lived. Empowering our nation’s blind with the gift of Braille makes economic sense, too.

Along with the National Federation of the Blind, I am changing what it means to be blind. Braille is beautiful and is one of the most important tools in my toolbox.

Serena Olsen