Future Reflections Summer 2012
by Jesse Hartle
From the Editor: The National Federation of the Blind has made a deep commitment to promote Braille literacy, and it wages the campaign on many fronts. In this article, Jesse Hartle presents his own story and describes an exciting new development, the “Dear Colleague” letter on Braille signed by twenty-six U.S. senators. Originally from Louisiana, Jesse Hartle works as a government programs specialist with the NFB’s national office in Baltimore, Maryland.
I am typical of the majority of blind students in the United States. According to statistics, 90 percent of the blind students in this country are not taught to read and write Braille. This staggeringly low literacy rate among blind students exists despite current federal law, which requires Braille to be the primary reading medium for blind students. I was educated as a blind student in the public schools, and later, as a professional, I played a role in correcting the literacy crisis for blind students through my work in legislative affairs for the National Federation of the Blind.
In most cases, when a totally blind child enters public school, we can safely assume that he or she will receive instruction in Braille as his or her primary reading medium. However, for students who have some vision, as I did, the experts have a different plan. When I was two years old I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of retinitis pigmentosa, an eye disease that causes vision to deteriorate with age. My parents did not know much about the alternative techniques of blindness. They did what most parents do--they listened to the so-called experts. The experts told my parents that they would show me Braille, but said I did not need it for my education. They explained that the best way for me to succeed in school would be through the use of large print books. Eventually, when the large print no longer worked for me, I began to use a closed circuit TV (CCTV) in order to complete my assignments. At my best as a fifth grader, I read twelve words a minute. The experts viewed this as an acceptable performance. They said they were sparing me from the "stigmas" that I would have to suffer if I learned Braille.
I don't know what stigmas I would have endured as a Braille user, but I know about the stigmas I lived with as a student who could not read. I lacked self-confidence because I could not participate fully in class--for example, I was never asked to read aloud. I had to memorize notes because I could not easily refer to the notes I wrote in bold, black ink. Worst of all, I learned in those early years of instruction that blind kids could not be expected to do the same things that sighted students do. I believed that I would always be less capable than my sighted peers. Looking back, I find it interesting that the "experts" on blindness seemed to be the people who had the hardest time using the word blind or teaching blindness skills.
My elementary-school teachers believed in the "sight is might" model for success. Luckily, others stepped into my life and helped me chart a better path. When I entered middle school I had a new teacher. He told me that I would have to learn all the skills of blindness in order to succeed. First among these skills was the use of Braille. My teacher believed in blind people, and he encouraged his students to get involved in school activities. Every year he took a group of his students to the seminar sponsored by the Louisiana Association of Blind Students.
There is a reason my new teacher's philosophy about blindness was so different from anything I had encountered before. Don Banning was a member of the National Federation of the Blind.
Shortly after I met Mr. Banning, I was introduced to many other leaders in the Louisiana affiliate of the NFB. Among them were Harold and Joanne Wilson, Pam and Roland Allen, and Jerry and Merilynn Whittle. They all believed in teaching the skills of blindness. They taught me to believe in myself and in blind people.
Years later this belief in blind people led me to Baltimore, where I joined the staff of the National Federation of the Blind. I serve as a government program specialist at NFB headquarters. I work for the passage of legislation that will promote better lives for blind people. I also work to stop legislation that perpetuates society's negative stereotypes about blindness. Since I joined the NFB staff, I have had the chance to work on many issues related to the education of blind students.
In 2006, the National Federation of the Blind launched an initiative in Congress to have a commemorative coin minted in honor of Louis Braille's two hundredth birthday, which was celebrated in 2009. Funds raised from the sale of the coin help support programs and initiatives to increase the Braille literacy rate among blind students. In 2010 the NFB worked successfully for the passage of a resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives recognizing the importance of Braille for blind students.
Our most recent effort to improve the literacy rate of blind students took place in the spring of 2012. With other members of the NFB team, I met with the staff of Sen. Patty Murray of Washington to discuss issues of concern for blind students across the country. That discussion led to a "Dear Colleague" letter from Sen. Murray. The letter called upon Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to issue new regulations to ensure that the congressional intent set forth in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) relating to Braille instruction for blind students would be met. In the course of one week, members of the Federation from across the country urged their senators to join with Sen. Murray. When the secretary of education received the Dear Colleague letter, twenty-six members of the senate were listed in support of this important educational initiative.
I have enjoyed my work on these legislative issues. I view my work as a way of giving back the gift that was given to me twenty years ago. I know that some of you reading this article are longtime subscribers to Future Reflections. Maybe some of you are reading this magazine for the first time, having just learned that your child is blind. Whichever the case may be, I urge you to hold high standards for your blind child. Please know that it is okay if you don't know all the answers. Just ask the real experts, the experts who live the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind.