Braille Monitor                                                    August/September 2009

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The Value of a Coin, of a Communication System, and of a Class of Human Beings

by Fredric K. Schroeder

Fred SchroederFrom the Editor: On Monday, July 6, Dr. Fred Schroeder, NFB first vice president and chairman of our Braille Readers are Leaders Campaign to increase Braille literacy in part by ensuring that all of the Louis Braille Bicentennial Silver Dollars are sold, thereby generating $4 million in matching funds for Braille literacy programs, addressed the convention. This is what he said:

The U.S. space shuttle Atlantis returned safely to Earth on Sunday, May 24, after completing a thirteen-day mission to refurbish the Hubble Space Telescope. A lesser known fact is that Atlantis carried with it two Louis Braille commemorative coins. What a contrast. On the one hand we have the Hubble telescope, representing the value of seeing, and, at the same time we have the Louis Braille commemorative coin, representing the value of touch.
This morning, at our March for Independence, we heard from a number of young people. Boniface Womber spoke of his goal to become a scientist, specifically an astronomer. We know that science seeks truth; it seeks understanding. But what does that mean? How are truth and understanding known? We know the old adage “Seeing is believing." But is seeing the only or at least the best way to know, to believe, to verify truth? Is sight the definitive arbiter of fact? Will blindness keep Boniface from reaching his dream, his dream of becoming a scientist, an astronomer?

In 1910 the astronomer Percival Lowell captured the imagination of the public with his book Mars as the Abode of Life. Based on extensive visual observation, Lowell offered a captivating description of a planet whose inhabitants had constructed a vast network of canals to distribute water from the polar regions to population centers nearer the equator. A few years earlier, in 1903, Lowell published a book entitled The Solar System in which he outlined his theory of planetary evolution. Based on mathematical analysis, Lowell was convinced that there must be an unseen ninth planet beyond Neptune. Lowell believed in intelligent life on Mars based on what he had seen, but he was wrong. He also believed, based on mathematical calculations, that there must be a ninth planet even though he could not see it, and he was right.

Seeing may well be believing, but, as Lowell's experience shows, sight is not infallible, and some truths are known without ever being seen, not the least of which is the human quest to create, to contribute, to make a difference. The insatiable drive for knowledge is not limited to those with sight. The ability to dream and to work toward fulfilling those dreams is the product of the mind, the human spirit, not the product of vision.

This year we are celebrating the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Louis Braille. We celebrate Louis Braille's life, his invention, and the access it gives us to the written word. We celebrate the Braille code, but most of all we celebrate the gift of knowledge, the ability to learn and work like others.

Before the creation of the Braille code, for the most part blind people lived in utter hopelessness, isolation, and poverty. Of course hopelessness did not end with the development of the Braille code. Hopelessness, isolation, and poverty persist and, sadly, continue to dominate the lives of far too many blind people today. But the Braille code opened a door. It replaced the absence of hope with the possibility of a better life. What that better life might be was not immediately known, but, without the means to read and write, no better life could easily be conceived. Over the ensuing century and a half since its development, Braille has made it possible for countless blind people to attain an education and to prepare for a productive life. Today blind people work in virtually every field and profession, applying their talents, pursuing their interests, working productively to support themselves and their families. Still, in spite of the code, its proven efficiency, its proven effectiveness, we are in the midst of a Braille literacy crisis. How severe is that crisis?

On March 26 of this year we released a report entitled “The Braille Literacy Crisis in America: Facing the Truth, Reversing the Trend, Empowering the Blind.” In that report we state that it is estimated that only 10 percent of blind children are learning to read and write Braille, yet recently that estimate has been challenged. Critics say that the 10-percent figure is misleading, that it overstates the problem; however, they have no better estimate to offer in its place. So why challenge the 10-percent figure? What could possibly be the point? Assuming the 10-percent figure is inaccurate, does anyone really believe that there is no crisis in Braille literacy? Can anyone argue that the number of blind children receiving Braille instruction is adequate? That most blind children, save those very few who may not need it, are learning Braille? Still it is a fair question. Where did we get the 10-percent figure?

According to the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) 2009 Federal Quota Registration, there are 59,355 blind students in America. Of these, 5,560, 9.4 percent, are classified as Braille readers. But that does not necessarily mean that the other 90 percent are print readers. Here is the breakdown:

These are the data. You may make of them what you will, but what leaps out at me is that roughly three times as many students use print as compared to the number who use Braille, 27 percent compared to 9.4 percent. In fact the percent of Braille readers is only slightly higher than the percent of auditory readers, 9.4 percent compared to 7.8 percent. And what can we make of the fact that the largest category, 34 percent, are reported to be nonreaders--20,246 students, one out of every three classified as having no reading potential at all.

So what does this all mean? We know there is a crisis in Braille literacy. We know that there is an urgent need to face the Braille literacy crisis before another generation of blind children is lost, left functionally illiterate, suffering a substandard education and constricted opportunities for employment. This is why we initiated the Braille Readers are Leaders campaign. We are taking action, action that will address the shamefully low level of Braille literacy among blind children, working-age adults, and seniors. Through our collective efforts we will

And this is only the beginning. On October 1, launching our 2009 Meet the Blind Month campaign, we intend to present the president of the United States with a book containing one hundred letters from blind children and adults, parents of blind children, and others calling on President Obama to direct the resources of the federal government in support of Braille, in support of the dreams and aspirations of blind children and adults. The letters will come from blind people who grew up reading Braille and who use it in their work and daily lives. The letters will come from blind people who never had the opportunity to learn Braille or who were discouraged from learning it on the misguided grounds that they had enough vision to get by using print. The letters will come from parents who have struggled, sometimes for years, to get Braille included in their children's IEPs (Individualized Education Program), and from parents who believed they had been successful in getting Braille instruction for their children only to find that the teacher comes around once or twice a week for fifteen or twenty minutes to teach their children to read. The letters will come from newly blind adults who have been told that Braille is hard to learn and too slow to be of any real value and that technology makes Braille obsolete. And the letters will come from blind seniors who have been discouraged from learning Braille, being told that older people are incapable of learning to read Braille well enough for it to matter.

These letters will be a testament to the importance of Braille, a testament to the difficulty many children and adults face in trying to learn to read. And they will be a testament to the ability of blind people to contribute, to learn, and to work alongside their sighted neighbors—people who, like others, want to marry, own their own homes, raise families, and participate fully in life.

At one time sight was required to be literate, but no longer. Touch gives us literacy and opens the door to knowledge, to facts and information, to contemplation and reflection, and to human thought and imagination. It gives us the opportunity to learn and work and live as others. This is the gift of Louis Braille. It is why we celebrate his life, his achievements, and his legacy. But our struggle for first-class status did not end with the advent of Braille. Indeed it was only the beginning.

Nearly seventy years ago blind people, organized through the National Federation of the Blind, came together to work toward full equality. The road has been long and the challenges many, but our progress shows that our dream is more than the hopeless yearning of people suffering under the crushing yoke of inferiority. At times we have been discouraged but never defeated. And we will not be defeated now. Blind people deserve the right to be literate. It is a basic right and one we intend to secure. This is why we initiated the Braille Readers Are Leaders campaign, to double the number of blind people who are able to read and write Braille by the year 2015, moving us ever closer to full equality--equality based on ability, not sight; equality based on drive, determination, and hard work, not the ability to see. Together we are showing the public that, while seeing is one way of believing, it is not the only way and that blind people too have both the right and the ability to contribute, to learn and work, and to live as others, and we will not be denied.

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