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July 22, 2009
Dear President Obama:
I was three years old when my great-grandfather taught me to read. He was a steelworker who was self-educated. In his nineties he had the time to spend with a lively and curious great-grandchild. He took me for walks, enjoying teaching me the names of wildflowers and to use big words to amaze my young mother. His gnarled old finger would move along a line of print in one of my children’s books or in his huge old family Bible. I would read the words out loud or spell them if I didn’t recognize them. When I didn't recognize them, he would say them for me. By the age of six I had lost this loving man, and print had become too blurred for me to see it clearly. The world around me was a darker and smaller place.
Although she had never finished high school, my mother taught all of her five children to love reading. In fact, if she seemed inattentive at the table, we could be sure that she was lost in the print on the back of the cereal box or the label of the catsup bottle. I became totally blind shortly after my eighth birthday.
It was then that Braille came into my life. Books once more became open doors to the world. My fingers could do my walking through time, space, and anywhere else the human mind could travel. I never felt alone when other children played games that my blindness kept me from participating in if I had a book to read. Friends and wonderful adventures were there for me between the pages of a Braille book. I didn’t even miss the colorful illustrations because the lines of Braille permitted me to imagine the characters and scenes as I wished. I could familiarize myself with objects I would never be able to explore with my own curious little hands. I could meet people and go places I would never know personally. I taught sighted friends Braille so that we could pass notes that the teachers couldn’t decipher, even if they intercepted them. Best of all, unlike my sighted siblings, I could read in bed under the covers after the lights were out.
Braille has allowed me to learn foreign languages and mathematics. Braille has even allowed me to enjoy leisure activities such as macramé, computers, and knitting. These things would have been much harder to access if I had been limited to using audio books. It is difficult to locate specific information on a long tape. Being a Braille user has made me capable of greater independence. I can keep notes, mark clothing, and label canned goods and spices. I can locate places such as restrooms and use elevators independently when Braille signage is available. When my own children were small, I shared my love of books with them, using print-Braille combination books we could read together.
As they grew older, I read some of my childhood favorites to them while they dressed for school and ate breakfast. Since I was a working mother, this reading time was special, replacing the bedtime reading my schedule did not permit. Braille notes helped me through high school. I was the first member of my large family to attain a college education. Although my textbooks and lectures were recorded, I made voluminous Braille notes for studying.
As a Peace Corps volunteer, I used Braille in my efforts to improve the lives of Western Samoan children. I used blocks of wood drilled with six holes in which we placed wooden dowels to form Braille letters. Later the class moved on to forming words and sentences with rounded nail heads placed in rows of smaller holes. Eventually we did acquire Braille paper and Braillewriters. I was able to train transcribers and to develop a Braille code for the Samoan language. Before I left Western Samoa, work transcribing the Samoan Bible had begun and the first blind child to be mainstreamed was attending high school.
Because I can read Braille, I am not a functional illiterate without access to the written word. Braille books and magazines have filled many of my otherwise empty hours sitting in waiting rooms or riding on buses, trains, and planes. A slate and stylus (no batteries required) has permitted me to write down appointments, shopping lists, phone numbers, and addresses. When technology has failed, old Braille files and notes have saved the day. Braille maps and diagrams have helped me grasp concepts that I would have had trouble learning if limited to aurel descriptions. Braille notations on important printed papers has made it possible to locate them in files. Braille games such as scrabble, cards, and monopoly have permitted me to participate in family fun. Making Braille dots with French knots on hair bands and other small accessories helped me to dress attractively, enabling me to coordinate colors. I could teach my sighted daughters their colors, too, by commenting on them as I matched their clothing that was also marked with Braille. Exchanging Braille letters with friends granted me a privacy in correspondence I could not have had otherwise.
Since early childhood I have loved putting my thoughts down on paper. Even with the advent of talking computers, I still find Brailling my ideas a first step toward creating a story or article. Although I often listen to a novel on audio tape while performing routine tasks, I turn to Braille for relaxed pleasure reading. When I wish to master a new skill such as using an unfamiliar computer program, I understand and learn more quickly if Braille documentation is available. When I became owner of a pizza franchise, I kept inventory and order lists in Braille.
My husband claims that I inherited my mother’s failing and would read catsup labels too if they were Brailled. It is almost impossible to count the ways in which Braille has influenced my life, enhancing my daily existence. Independence, leisure activities, educational assistance, and competency as a businesswoman and mother, are only the obvious areas where Braille has improved the quality of my life. All this richness was mine because of six dots arranged two wide and three high. The little girl who first experienced it at her great-grandfather’s knee regained the miracle of the written word through the efforts of Louis Braille. She will never be able to express her thanks fully or imagine what her life would have been like without Braille.