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August 21, 2009
Dear President Obama:
My name is Maria Morais, and I am a blind mother who would like to tell you about my struggles to gain the ability to read to my children. I admire and respect your commitment to your own daughters, and I know how much you promote parental involvement as a core value which we must nurture in our society. Therefore I ask you to think about your own situation and think about how you yourself would parent without the ability to read and write.
My family immigrated to this country when I was three years old. My mother had two years of formal education, and my father one year. My parents were clearly not educated people, but they worked hard and wanted better opportunities for their five daughters. When I was four years old, my parents noticed that I could not see certain details very well. It took over five years, but I was finally diagnosed with a progressive degenerative condition. Although I received special education services from fifth grade on, I was never instructed in the use of Braille.
Now, although I had mandated meetings to discuss my education needs for eight years, the subject of Braille was never explored because I had some residual sight. The professionals understood my eye condition even better then my parents, who at that time spoke little English. These professionals knew that it was inevitable that I would become totally blind within a matter of years, but they did not ensure that I was given the literacy tools to function later.
My parents were not in a position to advocate for me. The truth is that they did not know the questions to ask, and they had no experience to draw upon in knowing what was possible for a blind person. They were just happy that there were professionals who had all the answers, or so they thought. The result of this shameful situation was that at the time of my graduation from high school I was functionally illiterate. While I could string words together correctly to make a sentence, I could not see well enough either to read or to write. I struggled through an undergraduate degree, and then I was able to say that I was an educated illiterate person. Then I met someone who told me that I should start functioning like a blind person since I was one, and she helped me get the training that gave me hope for the future.
I enrolled in the Louisiana Center for the Blind, this country’s finest rehabilitation facility for blind adults, and I learned Braille. In less than six months I had gained sufficient skills to read faster than I had ever been able to read in my entire life. When I graduated from this remarkable program, I earned a master's degree to work with blind children so that what had happened to me would not be perpetuated in another generation.
Today I am happily married and fortunate enough to stay home with my daughters, Victoria and Samantha. I am totally blind, and my girls are both fully sighted. Even before our girls were born, we read to them nightly. I was able to teach my girls their alphabet, numbers, and colors with books that had both Braille and print. Reading continues to be an important part of our family life, and it is only with the use of Braille that I can fully participate in this aspect of my children’s lives. My girls do not care whether I can see or not; they just want to be sure that I have written down the details for the next birthday party, have their favorite cereal on the grocery list, and will curl up with them to read their favorite book.
In my opinion literacy is the greatest gift that we can bestow on our children. It should not be denied or be an afterthought for those who may be blind. Instead Braille should be thought of as a comparable system to print. Even today only fewer than 10 percent of blind children receive instruction in the use of Braille. How can this generation of blind children grow up to meet their potential without literacy skills? President Obama, please do what you can to be sure that blind children gain literacy skills as a matter of course and not chance.