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John Halverson
Arlington, Virginia

August 27, 2009

Dear President Obama:

Two critical indicators of success are literacy and a knowledge of mathematics. Of course, this is a generalization, but on average people who are literate and have a knowledge of mathematics are much more successful as compared to those who do not possess these skills. I am a blind person, and by most measures I am successful--with a family, a place in the community, and an accomplished career in the federal sector. I attribute much of my success to literacy and ability in mathematics. The key to both is my knowledge of Braille.

When I started school, I was legally blind and relied on large print and magnification to read. In first and second grade reading was painfully slow, and my grades were average. Near the end of second grade I suffered detached retinas, and after an operation--followed by three weeks in the hospital with my head totally immobilized--I returned home totally blind.

I immediately began to learn Braille, and I entered my neighborhood school in the autumn. My grades improved significantly because I could read Braille, concentrating on content, not on identifying individual letters and piecing them together to form words and meaning. Braille under my fingers taught me grammar, punctuation, and spelling. When I completed high school, I used Braille for notes when speaking in public and for keeping lists of names, addresses, and phone numbers. Without Braille, in the time before personal computers, other methods for a blind person to take notes or record phone numbers were difficult and cumbersome.

In university I used Braille for class notes and solving calculus, statistics, and econometrics problems. Without Braille I do not know how I would have been able to learn complex math. In graduate school I taught using Braille lecture notes, and I used Braille to pass the course work toward a PhD in economics. I took an advanced electrical engineering differential equations course, and I recall the way I used Braille to solve equations that often required seven or more pages in order to develop a solution. I drafted my dissertation using Braille and typed the final product from the Braille.

Although I have not used my knowledge of math to a great extent in my career, learning Braille and applying it to math made it possible for me to obtain a PhD, teach at the college level, and enter government service at a reasonably advanced level. When I look back at my life, I believe that losing my residual vision at an early age was not a tragedy. Instead I believe it represented a turning point. Without any sight I was taught Braille, allowing me to develop literary and mathematical skills that contributed to my quality of life.

John Halverson