Future Reflections Winter/Spring 1997, Vol. 16 No. 1


The Littlest Lobbyist

by Judy Jobes

[PICTURE] Laura Wolk with Pennsylvania Governor, Tom Ridge (right) and father Mike Wolk.

Reprinted from the January, 1996, Braille Monitor, the monthly magazine of the National Federation of the Blind.

From Barbara Pierce, the Braille Monitor Editor: One way and another Federationists spend a good bit of time working to educate elected officials about the actual problems facing blind citizens and the legislative and regulatory responses that would truly solve them. We avoid the word "lobbying" to describe this activity because we are citizens speaking about the issues that affect our own lives and because we have no funds at our disposal to use in persuading officials to vote our way as do the representatives of big labor and big business. So it was with some disquiet that I first read the title of the following story.

In point of fact, the members of the National Federation of the Blind of Pennsylvania who went to speak with Governor Ridge about the importance of enacting Braille literacy legislation were not advocating a measure that would assist them. Some members of the group were already good Braille readers; some had been denied Braille as children and as a result would never become rapid Braille readers or benefit from improved Braille instruction in the schools; but they all knew something that the Governor did not: blind children must be taught Braille early by teachers who know the code well and believe in its effectiveness if they are to have a chance to become competent, literate adults. The group of Federationists had also brought their secret weapon--Laura Wolk.

I toyed with the idea of changing the title of Judy Jobes's story of the group's meeting with the Governor, but somehow "The Eight-Year-Old Educator" did not achieve the ring of Judy's title. So meet the littlest lobbyist from Allentown, Pennsylvania, and her Federation friends:

The heavy wooden doors opened, and the Governor's secretary ushered us into his office. The Governor received us warmly. Governor Ridge had served as my Congressman and had worked with us on many issues. I introduced him to my colleagues in turn, leaving eight-year-old Laura until last. Governor Ridge directed us to a table at the far end of the room. He told Laura he had been waiting to meet her and asked her to sit next to him at the head of the table.

I made my presentation. Only 9 percent of blind children are taught to read Braille today, and the illiteracy rate among all blind children is 40 percent. To date twenty-seven states have enacted Braille bills, a figure which illustrates the need to legislate a solution rather than to evoke ineffective regulations and standards.

Then it was Laura's turn. On cue she read the letter she had written to the Governor. Her small fingers easily and quickly identified the Braille dot formations, enabling her to read proficiently beyond her years. Her letter read like this:

"My name is Laura Wolk. I am eight years old and going into the third grade. I have been reading Braille since I was three years old. My teacher's name is Mrs. Betz.

Last spring I made my First Communion. I Brailled Scripture and read it from the altar.

The most difficult thing about Braille is getting enough books. I quickly read a book and have to wait a very long time to get another one. I need more books."

The Governor watched Laura intently. He was in awe as Laura read. He came to understand firsthand the value of Braille. Laura concluded her letter by saying: "Governor, my wish is that all children who do not see well could learn to read like me."

We continued with our presentations. The Governor leaned over and said something to Laura. She whispered, "Yes." Excusing himself from us for a moment, the Governor walked to his desk. He opened a drawer, took something from it, returned to the table, and asked if anyone would like to join him and Laura in sharing some jelly beans. We all smiled, and the bag went around the table as each of us helped ourselves to a few jelly beans.

The meeting proceeded as Ted Young, President of the National Federation of the Blind of Pennsylvania, and the Governor continued to discuss issues relevant to blind Pennsylvanians. As the meeting concluded, the Governor again engaged Laura in conversation, asking her about piano lessons and proclaiming that he might just take in one of her recitals.

The Governor concluded our meeting by explaining to Laura that a lobbyist is someone who comes to see people like him, who are elected, and discuss issues which are important to them. He said that he had never had a lobbyist come to see him who had been as young or as effective. We posed for pictures, and our meeting ended.

Regrouping in the hall, we shared our impressions of the Governor's reactions to our issues. Laura opened her small hand, proudly displaying two, by now rather sticky, jelly beans and announced that she was keeping those jelly beans; after all the Governor had given them to her. Accepting gifts from public officials is not usually the way things are done in lobbying circles. For the sake of Pennsylvania's blind students, however, let's hope it was effective.

Note: Among the group that visited the Governor was Laura's father, Michael Wolk. Mike is the president of the NFB of Pennsylvania's Parents of Blind Children organization. Mike is one of the many parent leaders around the country who, like Julie Hunter (see lead article), have chosen to tap into the power of the NFB.