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
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 listeningrelying 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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