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August 27, 2009
Dear President Obama:
Growing up as what the educational system defined as partially sighted, I was subjected to a number of mixed messages about my blindness. Perhaps the most significant of those had to do with Braille versus print reading.
As a three year old I began learning Braille in a preschool program. By the time I reached kindergarten, however, I was also being taught print. This made sense to someone at the time. I had some usable vision, so what could it hurt to know both? Once first grade came around, the print began getting smaller. I tried a number of handheld magnifiers and other solutions to attempt to keep up with the demands of print reading. Finally I began using a video magnifier, a device with a monitor, camera, and an x-y table designed to magnify the print on the table and display it on the monitor. With this device I was able to read about three letters at a time.
My ability to read print and keep up with my classmates continued to decline as I progressed through elementary school. Simultaneously I was still slowly being taught Braille. I was not, however, reading Braille outside of my one-hour lessons. I was not completing any work in Braille. I was never told that with Braille I could keep up with the other students in my class. I was never told that, once I entered the real world, it wouldn't be practical for me to pull around a cart holding a full-sized video magnifier.
When I reached high school, I gradually realized that I would need a reading solution that did not require me to have my face pressed against a television screen. I slowly started to increase my use of Braille, but as a fifteen year old it was much more difficult for me to build my slow reading speed. When I left school, I was clocked with a reading speed of thirty-nine words per minute.
Knowing Braille allows me to reference information quickly during speeches and presentations. I can read, edit, and modify documents and computer code with a refreshable Braille display. Braile provides critical information that audio output alone does not provide. I can see structure, syntax, spelling, and punctuation. None of these things is available in an easy-to-use format through speech alone. However, my slow reading speed does not allow me to do these things as fast as my sighted peers.
Please support efforts to increase Braille literacy for all blind people. It is critical that blind people not be excluded by being left illiterate.