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July 18, 2009
Dear President Obama:
One of Johann Sebastian Bach's great harpsichord pieces is playing in the background as I take a break from writing a book on evolution. In my pleasant home office I am surrounded by books, and next to me is a cabinet filled with fossil shells I have collected over the years, each sample carefully labeled. I consult my books and specimens frequently as I write papers and books. And there are vastly more specimens and books in my spacious office at the University of California, Davis, where I am a distinguished professor of geology. One long wall contains part of my enormous library, the product of forty years of constant reading of the scientific and scholarly literature. My research collection of fossil and modern-day shells contains tens of thousands of labels, which help me decipher the evolution and ecology of shell-bearing animals and their enemies. All this accumulated treasure trove reflects an active life as a scholar and teacher. It has allowed me to publish five books, almost two hundred scientific papers, and an assortment of other writings on subjects ranging from the shapes of crab claws and vine leaves to the mathematics of shell growth, the evolution of plant-eating animals, the causes of mass extinction, and parallels between evolution and economics. And I am still going strong, writing, reading, teaching, and conducting original scientific research all over the world.
But none of this would have been possible without Braille. Everything I have and do is in Braille. I have at my fingertips a library of tens of thousands of publications; and all the labels in my collections are in Braille. I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to teachers in the Netherlands (my birthplace) and the United States for instructing me in Braille early and well, and to my parents, who from the very beginning of my blindness at age three understood that Braille was the only means by which their blind son could be educated. For my sighted peers such a tribute to print and to literacy would be considered superfluous and laughable; but for the blind, even in the twenty-first century, a plea for literacy and for the use of the one medium that makes it possible still appears to be necessary.
As one of the National Federation of the Blind's Braille ambassadors, I can only say that Braille is the single most important invention ever to have aroused the blind out of a state of pity and dependence to a rightful, productive place in society. How else could I have kept notes on a research ship after a day's field work on a reef in eastern Indonesia? How else could I record measurements on leaf shape in a rain forest in Panama, or document material collected in a mosquito-infested mangrove swamp in Madagascar? How else could I mine obscure papers for information about the timing of the great extinction that brought an end to the dinosaurs, or about the oldest member of a lineage of fossil snails I was working on?
How else would I know where specimens in my own collection came from or when I collected them? How else could I write and revise my own papers and books or keep track of other authors' manuscripts as they made their way through peer review in the scientific journals I edited?
Braille is an enabler, an essential ingredient of life for a blind person who wishes--and is expected--to engage in the world. On the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of its inventor, Louis Braille, we celebrate not only the man, but especially what he has made possible. Braille is the DNA of the blind, the code that gives our lives meaning.