Future Reflections Winter 1996, Vol. 15 No. 1
by Jana Schroeder
I was born with extremely limited vision to a family with no prior experience of blindness. It was the early 1960's, and we lived near Dayton, Ohio. Looking back, I recognize that I was lucky to have been born in that place and time and into a sensible, loving family. Without that fortunate combination of factors, my life might have been very different.
My family did a lot of reading aloud. From my earliest days I assumed that I would learn to read when I went to school, just as my sighted brothers had.
I began my education in a public school that included a resource room for blind students. These students were assigned to a regular classroom where we spent most of our time, but we went to the resource room for part of the day to learn the skills of blindness. I understand that Dayton was one of the first cities in Ohio with a public school program for blind children, beginning in the 1950's.
In the first grade, when reading lessons began in earnest, I was encouraged to read print. Various magnifiers were tried, but the only thing that worked for me was to put my nose against the paper and hope the print was big and dark enough. This worked fine with first grade primers. However, I quickly read all the big print picture books at the local library. My mom and I soon discovered that in second- and third-level books the print quickly diminished in size to the point where I could not distinguish the letters.
My mother believed, like most sighted people (at least those who are not blindness professionals), that blind people read Braille. So, sensibly, she insisted that I be taught Braille. Fortunately the resource room teachers agreed. I cannot be certain that it would be as easy if I were in school today. I believe that very few blind students in the Dayton area today are taught Braille.
I had heard my mom and other adults read quickly and fluently, and I assumed that I would read like that myself. I was never told that Braille was slower or harder than reading print. I simply accepted that I was learning to read with my fingers while my sighted classmates learned to read with their eyes.
One of the best things about the school I attended was that it had a Braille library. Never since then have I had access to a library where I could browse to my heart's content. I took home a different book almost every night. My favorites were biographies and the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. On the forty-five-minute drive to and from school I would often read aloud to Mom. She endured a lot of stumbling and mispronunciation with patience and good humor. From those earliest days I received a lot of praise from my parents, grandparents, and other people for my reading and writing ability. I knew that I read as well as or better than most of my classmates, and this knowledge helped lay a solid foundation of self-esteem that has served me well in the years since, when faced with new challenges.
In the fifth grade a significant challenge came along in the form of the slate and stylus. By this time I was attending school in my own district with an itinerant teacher who came to work with me a couple of times a week. She told me that I needed to learn to use the slate and stylus because I would soon be going to junior high and I couldn't lug a heavy, noisy Brailler with me from class to class.
I absolutely hated the slate. My e's and i's were inevitably transposed, and I invariably put the paper in crooked. I pretty much refused to practice, so my itinerant and classroom teachers got together and decided that I would be required to take spelling tests using the state and stylus. I always did well on my spelling tests, so I wasn't very happy with this new development. Gradually, however, I didn't have to reverse each letter consciously before writing it. My speed picked up, and my diagonal lines became horizontal. Since then I have written thousands of pages with the slate and stylus.
When I was in high school, closed circuit televisions began to become affordable and popular. It was very exciting to be able to read things that were only available in print, like the covers of my record albums. I spent one whole summer reading a 500-page novel that I could have read in about three days in Braille, because that was what all my friends were reading.
I knew, however, that the CCTV was no substitute for Braille. I'm almost glad that the CCTV was not available when I was in first grade because I don't know if Braille would then have been emphasized in my education. During my first two years in college my sight gradually decreased to the light perception I have today. Although I had to make some adjustments, already having well-developed Braille skills helped immensely.
In high school nearly all of my textbooks, including advanced math and French, were in Braille. In contrast, all of my college texts were on tape. By this time, though, I was familiar with spelling, punctuation, and the Braille literary and math codes. I took copious notes while listening to the texts and studied these at exam time rather than having to re-skim the entire book.
I have read that ninety-one percent of employed blind people know Braille. I am not at all surprised by this statistic. I am only surprised that so few educators and counselors of the blind seem to recognize the importance of Braille to employment. I cannot imagine being competitive without Braille.
Today I direct the Dayton criminal justice program of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization. My activities range from leading workshops and presentations in prison and the community to advocating for criminal justice reform. I use Braille every day to keep track of phone numbers, file away relevant statistics, make outlines for talks, draft articles, and much more.
Like most non-profits, we have a very small staff in our office. For the most part we do our own filing, typing, and minute-taking. My independence is greatly enhanced by the use of a scanner and other adaptive computer technology, but I don't think it would be possible for me to do my job at all without Braille. At meetings, workshops, and presentations I always have my slate and stylus ready. Although prison officials sometimes worry that my stylus could be turned into a weapon, I always have my Braille notes with me and have given several impromptu Braille lessons to interested prisoners.
Since those early days Braille has opened many doors for me. Reading is a source of great pleasure as well as information and education. Braille writing allows me not only to keep track of personal information but also to articulate and craft my thoughts into written communication that can be shared with others. I cannot imagine my life without Braille.
I am currently studying to become certified as a Braille transcriber and proofreader. I am deeply concerned by the lack of Braille skills among the blind today and the shortage of qualified Braille teachers, both for blind children and for people who become blind later in life. Perhaps someday I will have the opportunity to put my love of Braille to good use by teaching others to read it.