Future Reflections         Special Issue: A Celebration of Braille

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The Other Side of History

by Fredric K. Schroeder

Fred SchroederEditor’s Note: On Tuesday, February 10, 2009, NFB First Vice President Fred Schroeder keynoted a Web conference at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., titled “Actuality of Braille in Different Socio-Economic Settings.” Ryan Strunk, who is assisting Fred in directing the NFB’s Braille Readers are Leaders campaign to raise the visibility of Braille and the recognition of its importance in this bicentennial of Louis Braille’s birth, played a significant role in preparing these remarks. Here they are:

Everyone has heard the saying that hindsight is 20/20. At some time in our lives we have all said that, if we had only known what would happen, we would have made a different decision or acted differently. Often, when we look back, it is with regret or longing. “If I had only known the train would be late, I would have slept in.” “If I had only known the market would be so unstable, I would have invested differently.” It is easy for us to say what we would have done when we stand on the other side of history, and it is easy to become mired in “should haves” and “might have beens.”

But we must also remember that from the other side of history we are given a unique opportunity to change the future. Yes, we may have lost something in the past and been affected by a consequence we did not foresee, but, with the experience and wisdom we gain from history, we can arm ourselves with the knowledge and foresight to forge a new path. Sometimes we forge this new path to make our own lives easier, but sometimes we do it because we want to change the future for others.

Louis Braille was born two hundred years ago in a small village in France. No one would have guessed that the son of a humble saddle maker would one day become a symbol of hope and independence for millions of blind people around the world and throughout history. After being blinded at a young age, Braille and his family knew that, in order for him to receive a quality education, he would have to travel to Paris and attend the school for the blind there. Braille and his family recognized the diminished expectations for blind people; they knew that without an education the best Braille could hope for was a life lived on the charity of others.

At school Braille experienced what passed for literacy among the blind: oversized books with raised letters that were not only cumbersome to read, but incredibly difficult to produce. He wanted something different--not just for himself, but for all the students at his school. So at a young age Braille created the code that would later become arguably the greatest invention for the blind throughout history. He could not have known then the incredible impact his work would have on future generations; in fact, his code was neither recognized nor celebrated until years after his death. But from the other side of history we understand the real value of his gift, and we offer him profound and abiding thanks for it.

Not until the 1930s did Braille gain acceptance in the United States. Blind children in those days were sent to special schools for the blind, and there they learned to read using Braille. Whether they were totally blind or had some residual vision did not matter. If a student was blind, he learned to read Braille. In those days everyone assumed that the blind could do no more than menial work, so, even as Braille was widely taught in schools for the blind, it was never taught with the expectation that it would empower us to seek meaningful employment. Even so, it was taught. And more than a generation of blind Americans were raised with the understanding that Braille was a viable means of reading and writing, not something to be ashamed of.

In 1940 a group of pioneering blind people formed the National Federation of the Blind, ushering in a new era of advocacy and empowerment. With our positive philosophy of blindness and our belief in our own abilities, we began to leave the sheltered workshops and armchairs; we set aside our begging bowls and low expectations in favor of meaningful employment and productive lives. We learned Braille in school, and we learned advocacy from one another. With these skills we began the task of proving to the rest of the world that blindness does not equal second-class status, that it is respectable to be blind, and that, given the right training and the right opportunity, the blind can compete on terms of equality with their sighted counterparts.

Our good fortune with Braille was not to last, however, for, even as the blind grew in status, our means of literacy was slowly being eroded. In the mid-1960s schools began to operate on the conviction that print was superior to Braille and that, if a student had some remaining vision, she should learn to read large print. Beginning in the 1970s, many blindness professionals, parents, and blind people themselves began to assume that the new technologies like books on tape and synthesized speech were sensible alternatives to Braille instruction.

By the middle of the 1980s the literacy rate among blind children had decreased to approximately 10 percent. In the space of a few decades we went from a generation in which almost all children were taught Braille from an early age to a generation that was raised to believe that Braille was slow, difficult, outdated, and--worst of all--inferior. It was viewed--as it had been during the life of Louis Braille--as something that would drive a wedge between the blind and the sighted. It was viewed this way even as the literacy rate fell and the number of blind students graduating from school decreased. People who became blind later in life were falsely taught that Braille could not be learned after childhood, and blind seniors, instead of being taught that Braille could be used to manage medications and help them maintain their own independence, were sent to nursing homes and care facilities.

Led by the National Federation of the Blind, since the 1980s informed people have undertaken a number of initiatives to combat the decline in Braille literacy. These have included raising public awareness about the benefits of Braille and seeking to adopt state laws that strengthened access to Braille instruction and instructional materials for blind children. While significant progress was made in the 1990s in changing public policies related to Braille and raising awareness of the importance of Braille to the blind, the literacy statistics for the blind still show that far too few blind people have access to quality Braille instruction despite the fact that recent research demonstrates a significant relationship between knowledge of Braille and employment. That is, better than 80 percent of employed blind people use Braille in their daily lives. Contrast this statistic with the fact that only 30 percent of blind people of working age are employed.

We now understand the link between literacy and employment, between the ability to read and write and a quality education. We know that Braille, independence, confidence, success, and literacy are all tied together. It is now our responsibility as blind people to ensure that we put this knowledge to more aggressive use. We must not stand on the other side of history someday and wonder what we might have done differently. Rather we must continue in our efforts, and we must make certain that history does not repeat itself.

In 2006 the members of the National Federation of the Blind successfully urged the U.S. Congress to pass legislation authorizing the minting of a commemorative coin to honor the two hundredth anniversary of Louis Braille’s birth. The Louis Braille Bicentennial Commemorative Coin, which will be released on March 26 of this year, will mark a significant step toward insuring that literacy for the blind is once again a priority in America.

To coincide with the unveiling of the prototype of the Louis Braille coin in July of 2008, the National Federation of the Blind began its Braille Readers are Leaders initiative. This initiative is the most significant investment in literacy for blind people ever--raising eight million dollars for Braille literacy programs into the future--and an innovative network of programs that dramatically enhance opportunities and education for the blind. With this initiative we proclaim to people everywhere that the blind are not content with illiteracy; we want to read, we want to learn, and we want to work--and we are willing to support these desires with concrete action.

By 2015 we will double the number of blind children who read Braille. To help them to learn to read, we will pass legislation which requires that all teachers certified to teach blind children have to obtain and maintain the National Certification in Literary Braille. We will develop programs and strategies to make Braille more accessible to the blind, and we will teach the public that Braille is not to be dismissed but embraced as the only viable means of literacy for blind people.

As we work with the public to build support for these programs, we will also dedicate significant resources to enhance our knowledge of Braille. We will help improve Braille-related programs by filling gaps in the Braille knowledge base, designing studies to evaluate the effectiveness of currently available Braille curricula and pedagogical strategies for blind people of all ages, and disseminating accurate information about Braille-related research. We know that the people best suited to design programs for the blind are blind people themselves, and we are willing and eager to take up the challenge.

Finally, the National Federation of the Blind will establish a technology development team made up of strategic university, industry, and other partners to generate new Braille-related technologies and bring them to market at an affordable price. We understand that in the twenty-first century literacy requires integration of and accessibility to technologies that facilitate reading, writing, and access to information. We want to be at the forefront of this development, and we want to insure that the technology is designed in such a way as to make Braille accessible to as many blind people as possible.

Much work remains, but we are confident of our success. We are not simply a few individuals with dreams, but thousands of blind people united in our dedication to the cause of literacy for all. Alongside us are our friends and allies among the sighted public--steadfast individuals who believe--as do we--that the blind deserve first-class status.

The time for action is now. The opportunity for change is at hand. We stand together, united in our beliefs and determination, willing to shoulder the responsibility that our efforts demand. We will go forward with confidence and purpose, and when--generations from now--our descendants stand on the other side of history, they will stand in a world where Braille is accepted, where literacy is not a dream but a reality, and where the blind, equipped with this essential skill, will truly be independent.

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