Future Reflections Winter 1996, Vol. 15 No. 1
By Barbara Pierce
Editor's note: Barbara Pierce is the President of the National Federation of the Blind of Ohio and Editor of the Braille Monitor magazine.
Can you remember the intoxication of learning to read? I can. When I began first grade, the Scott-Foresman primers about the adventures of Dick, Jane, and Sally were in use, and I still remember the picture of Dick standing on his shoulders in a pile of leaves, feet kicking in the air, while one of his sisters intoned the page's text, "Look at Dick! Funny, funny Dick!"
Had I but known it, those early weeks of first grade were the high point of my reading career. We gathered around the teacher in reading groups to sound out the words and falter our way through each page. I was good at it. I understood the principles of picking out the sound of each letter and shoving them together rapidly enough to guess at the meaning. The result was that I was in the first reading group.
My success didn't last long. By second semester each page bore many more lines of print, and my mother was forced to work with me at home after school or before bed to help me keep up. For I was what they called a low-vision child. I could see the print with only one eye, and I am certain that I was legally blind, though no one ever used that word in my hearing. Mother placed a little lamp close to the page so that I could see as well as possible, but the letters were still blurred, and I could never get the hang of reading an entire word at once.
By second grade I was in the second reading group, and by third grade I had slipped to the third group, despite the lamp now clipped to the side of my desk. I had to face the truth: I was dumb. I lay awake at night worrying about the increasing number of spelling workbook exercises left undone because my reading and writing were too slow to complete them in class. I still maintained an unbroken string of perfect spelling tests because my parents drilled me on the spelling lists every week. The tests were nothing, but the workbook! I fantasized about what it would be like to go to bed at night and not stare open-eyed into the black prospect of mortification when the truth about me and my incomplete work eventually came to my parents' notice.
It happened at the close of the third marking period, and it came, as such things do, like a bolt from the blue. I had actually brought home what I thought was a good report cardþall A's and B'sþexcept for art, penmanship, and gym, in which I always got C's. Everybody knew that I was terrible at those things because "Barbara's blind as a bat." But the dreaded unmasking of my shameful secret in the spelling workbook seemed to me to have remained hidden beneath an A for yet one more grading period. I handed my mother my report card and ran out to play. But when my brother and I were called in for dinner (Dad was out of town at the time), I knew that something was wrong; Mother had been crying, and she did not sit down to dinner with us. She said that she had a headache. It soon became apparent that I was the headache. My report card had betrayed me after all. In all that hard-to-read small print at the bottom the teacher had given me a U (unsatisfactory) in the puts-forth-best-effort category, where I was used to getting E's(Excellent) or at least S's (satisfactory).
Mother went to school the next day and learned the horrible truth about me. I was astonished to learn afterward that the relief of having my shameful secret out in the open actually reduced my burden. True, I had to make up all the work I had been avoiding because the reading had become too difficult. Play time was much reduced, and I had to learn all over again how to go to sleep without worrying, but things were never again as bad.
In the following years we tried magnifying glasses for my good right eye, and the summer after fourth grade I had to be tutored in an effort to learn to read with high magnification. In September of fifth grade my new teacher called on me to read a paragraph in the geography book during the class lesson. I read like a second grader, and I was mortified. The teacher never called on me again. By sixth grade I was hardly using the glasses at all. I was quick to learn as long as I didn't have to struggle to make sense of the print, and it was easier on everyone for the teacher to assign a rapid reader to work with me on in-class reading projects.
Finally, at the close of seventh grade, my parents faced the painful truth: if I were to have any hope of literacy, I would have to learn Braille. Print was no longer an option. I mastered the Braille code in a summer of weekly lessons taught by a woman who used Braille herself, though she admitted that she was not a good Braille reader. She assured me that her husband could read Braille rapidly, but I never heard him or anyone else use the code efficiently. People told me it was important to use my Braille and that practice would increase my speed. But by that point in my education I had already worked out alternative ways of getting my reading and writing done, and I was no longer eager to crawl down a page of text as we had done in early elementary school. I practiced writing Braille with my slate and stylus because I knew that in college I would need a good way of taking notes in lectures, but I never made time to learn to read Braille properly.
Now that I am a member of the National Federation of the Blind, I know hundreds of people who read Braille easily and well. Some of them could not see print when they were beginning school, so Braille was the only option for them. But many more could make out print when they were learning to read, even though as adults they cannot see it. They were lucky enough to be taught Braille along with print, and they simply and naturally learned to decide which method would be most useful for each reading task. As a result they now read Braille at several hundred words a minute.
I have never regretted learning to read print. Everyone should know the shapes of print letters, but I will always bitterly regret that I was not taught Braille as a small child. Today I am struggling to gain the speed and accuracy in reading Braille that I should have had by the time I was ten. I have now been working at it for six years, and my reading speed has tripled, but I must face the fact that I will probably never read as well as a bright ten-year-old. Setting aside the fact that the adult brain does not master new skills as rapidly as does a child's, I cannot bring myself to practice reading aloud to my long-suffering family. The time for taking advantage of such an opportunity is childhood, and I cannot inflict my stumbling reading on my husband.
If my mother could speak to you who are facing the dilemma of whether or not to demand that your children learn Braille, she would urge you to decide in favor of Braille. No matter how clearly a youngster can see print at the moment, if the vision is fragile or problematic in any way, Braille will often become invaluable in the future, even if print too continues to be useful. I urge you to keep your child's options open and your expectations high. All young things need space to stretch and grow within their God-given abilities. Please insist that your child be given a chance.