Future Reflections Winter 1996, Vol. 15 No. 1
Editor's Note: Marc Maurer is President of the National Federation of the Blind. He is a graduate of Notre Dame and the University of Indiana Law School and a member of the bar of several states and the United States Supreme Court. He is also the father of two young children. Braille is an important tool for him-in his career and in his home. Here is what he has to say about some of his early experiences with Braille:
The kindergarten in the public school that I attended when I was five left me with a feeling of alienation and frustration-though I didn't know the words to describe the problem. My teacher was a kind and gentle lady, who tried to help me, but I presented difficulties which she felt unable to solve. Many of the kindergarten activities were done visually. Learning colors, drawing, recognizing letters and numbers, naming the geometric shapes-all of these were presented visually. Some kindergarten tasks could be done quite effectively without sight-counting, reciting the alphabet, remembering your own address and telephone number, listing in order the days of the week or the months of the year. But in the drawing classes I was unable to "keep within the lines," and "keeping within the lines" was important.
I learned the shapes of the print capital letters from the building blocks we had, and I came to know the forms of numbers in the same way. By the time kindergarten had come to an end, I had learned to print my name, M-A-R-C, but I usually got it backwards-C-R-A-M. As I viewed it, the experiment with kindergarten was only marginally successful. Although it was never stated, the lesson of kindergarten was unmistakable-blind people are different from others; they require kindness; they can't do the ordinary things that other people do; they can't keep within the lines.
My parents decided that I would attend the school for the blind even though doing so meant that I would be away from home during most of the school year. Of course, I could return home for holidays and during some weekends, but the rest of the time I would live in a dormitory with my classmates at the school. At the age of six I left home. The school for the blind was over a hundred miles from our house. It was the beginning of a different kind of life.
Because I was at that time almost totally blind, I was expected to learn Braille. We started the learning process with flash cards. There was a straight line of Braille dots across the top of each card and a single word in the center. I still remember the first flash card I ever read; it contained the word "go."
Each of us was given our first reading book-the primer about Dick and Jane and Spot. It was the first Braille book I ever had in my hands. My book seemed to be about a foot square and about a half an inch thick. The teacher told us to open our books to page one. My desk was in the first row, about the sixth or seventh from the front. The first child in the row was asked to read page one. When there were mistakes, the teacher corrected them.
Then the second student was asked to read the same page. Again, when there were mistakes, the teacher corrected them. The lesson continued in the same manner. Each student in the first row was asked to read page one. By the time the teacher got to me, my job was clear, and my performance flawless. With my fingers on the page, I spoke the words of page one with never an error or hesitation. The teacher praised me highly and asked me to come to the front of the room. She produced a gold star from her desk drawer and pasted it to page one of my book. She told me to take my book home and show it to my mother. This is exactly what I did. On Friday night after the journey home I proudly produced my primer, opened it to page one, and recited the words which appeared on the page.
My mother is a properly suspicious woman. She had learned Braille in the years before I attended school because she thought it might be helpful to me. She asked me if she could borrow the book, and of course I gave it to her. Later during the weekend she brought me a page of Braille and asked me to read it. Without much concern I confessed that I could not. My mother told me that it was an exact copy of page one of my book. I had memorized the words, but I was not able to read them.
During the summer between my first and second grade years, my mother took matters in hand. She told me that I must learn to read, and she said that she would teach me. For an hour every morning I was going to study Braille. I complained. The other kids got to go outside to play, but I could not. Nobody else had summer school at home-only me. But none of my griping did any good. My mother had made up her mind; I was going to learn to read.
When I returned to the school for the blind for second grade, I discovered the library of Braille books-that collection of sweet-smelling Braille volumes almost a foot square and about two and a half inches thick. During the next four years I read every book that the librarian would let me have. I developed the habit of reading at night. Blindness has some advantages. I would slide the book under the bed sometime during the evening. Bedtime was 8:00. The house parent made his rounds between 8:30 and 8:45. I could hear his shoes coming down the hall and then receding in the distance. When the footsteps had faded, the book came out. No light is needed for Braille. Sometimes it was cold, but the Braille book would fit under the covers.
I tried the same system at home, and it worked most of the time. When I got caught, which happened occasionally, my mother spanked me. The punishments were fair, but the reading was worth it.
Although I complained bitterly about learning Braille, I am deeply grateful to my mother for insisting that I learn it. How fortunate I am that she understood the necessity for me to read. How fortunate I am that she was persistent and demanding. How fortunate I am that she had learned Braille herself and was able to teach me.
Today we in the National Federation of the Blind do much to help make Braille available to blind students and to encourage the teaching of Braille both to children and adults who are blind. But this is not how it has always been. There was a time when Braille was regarded as inferior, and all too often today it does not get the attention it deserves. Much of my work as a lawyer could not have been done without Braille. I now read to my children most evenings. They enjoy the stories, and I enjoy the reading as much as they do. How different my life would have been without the ability to read Braille. How different it can be for the children of this generation if we give them the chance to learn. The message should not be that blind people are different and unable to take part. Even though I might not be able to draw, my mother felt certain that I could keep within the lines. We in the National Federation of the Blind are doing what we can to make it come true.