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August 28, 2009
Dear President Obama:
Today I am compelled to write to you about a crisis in America that is underplayed and a tool for progress that is undervalued--Braille. I want to share with you my story because I think it is representative of both the crisis and the solution.
At age five I was diagnosed with a degenerative eye condition. I was close to legal blindness at that time, and it was clear that I had a good chance of losing significantly more vision. My parents had no experience with blindness, and no one told them what this new diagnosis might mean for my education. As a result they expected me to do (for the most part) everything that my sighted peers were doing, including reading print. My parents always taught me that I had to work hard, and, if I were to be successful, my own determination and commitment would matter. This story would most certainly have had a tragic ending but for these important expectations.
As I progressed through elementary school, two competing forces worked against me--the print in my school books got smaller and included more words, and my vision got progressively worse. In third grade I began using large print books, but by the end of fourth grade even those were hard to read. None of my teachers at that time told me how to deal with the increasing difficulties I had in reading. This may have been a result of the fact that I was getting by and thus did not require more attention, or maybe they truly did not know what to do next. Whatever the reason, in the summer before fifth grade, it became clear to me that I needed to do something. I had a monocular (typically used for seeing things at a distance), and I found that, if I put it on its setting for nearest viewing, with the correct lighting, I could position myself to read my large-print books. This strategy worked for a while, although I could still not read for any length of time.
This pattern went on year after year--think up some work-around to get by until it stopped working--and I needed a new one. I became good at memorizing to get through the test because that was often the best I could do. I was a craftsman with one tool. By the time I got to high school, I was using a hammer for everything, even if the task required a screwdriver or saw. All I knew, all I had been taught, all I believed was that vision was a requirement for success.
After high school I went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This was a dream come true--I never thought of myself as having the capacity to go to a Big Ten school with forty thousand others. But for the first two years of college I struggled to make it through. I gave up social time, involvement in clubs and service projects, and opportunities to work for extra spending money. All these things were forgone because I needed all the time I could get to struggle through trying to read and write using print.
In many ways I represented the lost opportunities of the Braille literacy crisis still holding down blind people across America today. A trusted teacher once said he could teach me Braille "if I wanted to learn it." Given no reason why I might need Braille and having internalized the idea that it is not respectable to be blind, I declined. Of course, if Braille were seen as a means to literacy, as important as reading and writing print, it would not be simply an option but a requirement.
I was fortunate because I came across blind people who were members of the National Federation of the Blind, people who mentored me and taught me the value of Braille through their example as much as through their encouragement. In fact, one of those folks gave his time to teach me Braille, and hundreds of others encouraged me as I built up my reading speed. I first learned Braille over the summer, and the July 4th holiday now rings sweeter with a new freedom and independence. Now, a dozen years later, it is hard to account for all the opportunities I have had that are a direct result of my ability to read and write Braille. I would like to share just two ways that my life is different because of Braille, in the hope that you will understand better why it is critical that we organize America to tackle the Braille literacy crisis.
First, my ability to read and write Braille has allowed me to increase my service to others. Before I learned Braille, I had to spend all of my free time struggling through the things in front of me. I did not have the flexibility to participate widely in the community, and in fact I didn't even view myself as a first-class citizen. Because of the empowerment Braille has provided, I have dedicated my life to service. Whether it is participating in a local telethon, presenting to service organizations, or engaging in discussions about ways to improve our community, my use of Braille enhances all that I do. It also allows me to participate more effectively. Literacy empowers us to act, to lead, to have a higher level of engagement with the world, and this is true for literacy in both print and Braille.
A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to serve as the master of ceremonies for the closing of the National Federation of the Blind Youth Slam--a leadership academy in science, technology, engineering, and math. Nearly two hundred blind high school students, seventy-five blind mentors, and dozens of others held a rally at the Lincoln Memorial and marched to the Capitol Visitors Center for the ceremony in the Congressional Auditorium. I had the honor of introducing Congressman Stenny Hoyer for some remarks. Congressman Hoyer pointed out that I introduced him with my remarks in Braille, that he was giving his remarks from printed notes, and that these two methods are equally respectable forms of literacy. Congressman Hoyer demonstrated why he is effective in the service of his constituents, and he caused me to reflect on how much more effective I am in service to others because I have the power of literacy, knowledge, and service that Braille has empowered in me.
Second, on a more personal level, my wife Melissa and I are both blind. We have a three-year-old boy named Austin (he happens not to be blind). My wife learned Braille at a young age and reads to our son all the time. I can not imagine what life would be like if I too was unable to sit with him and share in that bonding experience. As the words pass under my fingers and I whisper them to him in those final moments before sleep, I sometimes think about those missed opportunities that hundreds of other blind fathers are letting pass by because they have not been empowered by Braille. I recently read to a class of young blind children who were gathered together in an NFB program designed to teach them Braille over the summer--for the most part these children were not getting Braille in school. I read them the book Oh the Places You'll Go. They will go places we have not yet imagined. They will be able to grab many more of those opportunities. They will contribute more to our communities because we have endeavored to tackle the Braille literacy crisis in America.
In the love and devotion to my family or in the service of others, Braille has been a critical factor in my full ownership of the American dream. Mr. President, among the hundreds of extremely important priorities your administration has to address, I urge you to find room for the Braille literacy crisis. The opportunities are too great and the costs of failing to act can not be counted. I stand prepared to serve America in tackling this crisis. I am currently working with my friends to build new grassroots efforts to reverse the trends and innovate the solutions. We will keep marching forward. I hope that soon we will be able to add your administration, including the United States Department of Education, to the procession. For me America's Independence Day also marks the time when I was empowered with the freedom of literacy. I am optimistic that the day will come that every blind American will celebrate July 4th with the understanding that in 2009 America mobilized to give all blind people that same freedom and independence.
I appreciate your taking the time to consider my reflections and call to action. May God bless you and your family in your service to our country.
Mark A. Riccobono