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Learning to Read Again

By Priscilla P. Ching

Editor's introduction: Priscilla is a graduate of the O&M Master's program at Louisiana Tech University. She was a national scholarship winner in 2000. In this article, she discusses her experience of becoming literate by learning to read Braille and how that changed her life.

A few weeks ago I had a brief encounter with a Braille teacher who was quite adamant about the importance of using whatever residual sight I had for reading. "If you have any little sight left at all you should be reading large print and you don't need to learn Braille."

Time did not permit me to have a more thorough discussion with him and we departed. However, as I walked home that afternoon, I pondered over the validity of his statement and reflected upon my experiences with blindness and literacy.

As a young child, I was diagnosed to have "lazy eyes" and I was often called "the little girl with a pirate patch" who wore little glasses with uneven thickness. Every day, I had to exercise my eyes by staring at different patterned cards. I was also forced to watch TV with an awful colored screen over it. If my eyes decided not to cooperate (and they never did), I would see nothing on the screen except a thick column of blackness. Therefore, I was never addicted to watching TV. Just like the other kids at school, I also had to learn to read. But my "good" eye was patched purposely so that I had to learn to read with my "bad" eye. Learning for me became difficult and uncomfortable. Eventually, I did not enjoy reading beyond what was required in school.

When I was 14, I became so frustrated with my vision that I quit taking piano lessons altogether because I couldn't read the music anymore. Moreover, schoolwork and homework became unbearable. Every page of reading demanded every ounce of energy and time I possessed. Soon I developed constant headaches and eye fatigue that no medicine could cure. Then, after series of medical examinations, I was finally diagnosed as having a congenital defect on my optic nerves; therefore, the problem was irreversible.

From that day forward, my room was cluttered with piles of large print books, a large screen computer, magnifiers, and bright light bulbs. My life was one big school assignment after another. The large print books were helpful at the beginning, but after a few minutes of concentrated reading, my eyes began to hurt, and I had to rest them. I struggled tearfully to keep up with school, yet always found myself falling behind. My doctor excused me from taking Physical Education (P.E.) because she thought I would have eye-hand coordination problems. So I spent all my high school P.E. periods indoors, looking out the window and wishing that I could participate with my classmates. In addition, I missed out on most of the social events with my peers because I had to study, which often lasted long hours after midnight. I became a "nerd" silently.

My poor vision continued to trouble my academic efforts. I was accepted at a good university, but the insurmountable demand for higher and comprehensive reading and writing took a heavy toll on me. Although all of my textbooks were in large print, I still couldn't read them all. Eventually, I couldn't even take my own notes in class nor could I write fluently and effectively. I was left with no way to communicate with others through the written medium. In my sophomore year, I had to change my study habits from that of reading to that of listening—relying on readers and tapes. Yet without taking my own notes, I was unable to retain the large amount of information imparted in lectures. As a consequence, I was not learning anything, and life seemed miserable.

At the end of my senior year, I had the privilege to shadow a low vision teacher for a quarter. She taught Braille to all her kids, as young as four and five years old. While she read them stories, she let them run their fingers over the Braille text. It fascinated me to see that blind children with different degrees of vision were still able to learn to "read," yet I, a college student, was "illiterate" and lacked the tools to "learn." But what about the professional advice that I had been given throughout my life that reading large print and visual aids maximized my residual vision? Obviously, they are not always effective, as in my case. I wonder why Braille was never offered to me as an alternative technique to reading.

After graduating from the university, I decided to attend an NFB Center for training in Braille and other necessary skills for independence. To my surprise, Braille is something attainable with some self-determination, discipline, and a good Braille teacher. In just nine months, I was able to read again. For the first time in ten years, I read a novel for fun called Anne of Green Gables in Braille, without having any headaches or eyestrain. I felt a sense of accomplishment and freedom. If the novel were in large print, would I be reading it with such a sense of enjoyment?

In short, since I lost my ability to read, I have lost ten years of learning, including accessing information, conceptualizing thoughts and developing higher literacy skills. Large print did play a minor part in accessing information for me, but the time and effort that I spent in trying to see the print greatly diminished my ability to comprehend and retain information. In my experience, using large print is not the long-term solution to my increasing demand for reading, both for academic and personal reasons. Braille, on the other hand, is a viable option to meeting the literacy needs for any degree of blindness. In my case, I now have an alternative to access printed information other than relying solely on large print. The advancement in computer technology has also broadened the accessibility of Braille in my daily usage. I am happy that I have regained my reading and writing abilities through Braille and I am proud to be literate once again. As I continue to improve my reading speed. I hope I will be able to make Braille an effective tool in my life.

In reference to the comment that was made at the beginning of this article, another respected Braille teacher looks at Braille reading this way: "Learning Braille gives you another option, weapon, and choice. Without Braille, no matter how much you can see you will still be limited in certain ways." It took me 10 years to realize the truth of this statement.

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