Future Reflections Convention Report 1997, Vol. 16 No. 3


Braille Helps Girl Become Book Champion

by Danny Heitman

Reprinted from the Sunday Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, July 13, 1997.

Eight years ago, Angela Lucek was born into a family of readers. When her mother, Vivian, was a little girl, she read every book in her school library. Walt Lucek, Angela's father, is also a spirited reader who likes to read books aloud with his children. So perhaps it was only natural that Angela would come to love reading herself. But before Angela could follow the family tradition, she had one major obstacle to overcome. Legally blind, Angela faced a world where most books were forever closed to her. But that didn't stop Angela.

Today, Angela is a tireless enthusiast of Braille books who has won national and state awards for her achievement. Last year, Angela won third place in her age division in the national Braille Readers are Leaders contest. The honor came after Angela read 63 books—that's 1,871 pages of Braille. Angela also won the Louisiana State Library's grand prize for its summer reading program in her division, beating out children who were much older.

When Angela was born in San Antonio, she spent her first four months struggling for life in an intensive care unit. She battled a variety of health problems before doctors allowed her to leave the hospital, Walt Lucek said.

"Everything's OK now, except for her eyesight," Angela's father added, "If she has a large print book, she can make things out if she holds it close, but it's a strain. With the vision problems, it was either read to her, or let her listen to the tapes (recorded books). But she was never very interested in tapes.

"When Angela was in the hospital, we didn't know if she was going to make it," her mother recalled. "Of course, we were very happy that she lived. But my biggest sorrow was thinking that she wouldn't read. Reading is a great love of mine. When I was in elementary school, I decided that I wanted to read every book in the school library. It took me a couple of years, but I did it."

In encouraging Angela to use books, the Luceks faced two options: books on tape, or Braille volumes. But books on tape failed to charm Angela. She "wouldn't sit still for five minutes with the books on tape," said Vivian Lucek, "Since she's learned Braille, we can't get enough books for her."

In a study published last year, researchers concluded that Braille readers stimulate the same part of the brain when they read that sighted readers use when their eyes scan a text. Other experts have found that because of the way the brain works, Braille users retain more of what they read than people who use recorded books.

"There's just no comparison between Braille and recorded books," said Warren Figueiredo, a resource specialist with the Braille and Technology Center of the Louisiana School for the Visually Impaired. "Recorded books may be good for recreational reading, but for homework, you definitely need Braille. Recorded books are passive. You sit there and listen—that's all you do."

"In school, you have to be able to find and retrieve things, and that's almost impossible with recorded books. Also, punctuation and spelling are virtually invisible in recorded books."

Four years ago, Walt Lucek's employer transferred him from San Antonio to Louisiana. Lucek, who works for Mazda, was given a choice of which part of the state he'd call home. Lucek decided on Baton Rouge, figuring that the state's capital city would have the best services to help Angela learn.

So far, the Luceks have been happy with their decision. Angela attends Villa Del Rey Elementary School, where she's gotten instruction tailored for the visually impaired.

"We've been very fortunate with her teachers," said Walter Lucek who credits the public school system with advancing Angela's command of Braille. Vivian Lucek mentioned teachers Beryl Threeton and Gail Canova as being especially helpful with Angela.

As Angela's reading skills have progressed, the Luceks find themselves constantly challenged to find Braille books for her. Figueiredo allowed Angela to borrow many of the books that she used for her reading contests, Vivian Lucek said.

Because the family also includes 4-year-old Janice and 1 and a ½-year-old Bridget, who are both sighted, the Luceks must often buy both regular and Braille versions of books. "It costs $37 for the `Cat in the Hat' in Braille," Vivian Lucek said. The print version is $10.

Despite the expense, the Luceks have built a formidable Braille library, including Braille cookbooks that allow Angela to work in the kitchen. "Last night, I made `Peaches and Cream,'" said Angela referring to a dessert cake she had prepared with her mother. Using special equipment, Vivian Lucek also transcribes direction from cookbooks into Braille recipe cards for Angela.

Most of the Luceks' Braille books were purchased through the mail. Though a crucial source of Braille materials for Angela, mail-order buying doesn't afford Angela the pleasure of browsing that other readers enjoy. That convinced Vivian Lucek that the public library should have a children's Braille collection.

Library officials took Lucek's suggestion to heart. Last January, staff at the East Baton Rouge Parish Main Library, with help from the state library and several local organizations, opened a Braille collection for youngsters. Project donors included the Baton Rouge Downtown Lions, the LSU Delta Gamma sorority, Junior League of Baton Rouge, and the Greater Baton Rouge chapter of the National Federation of the Blind.

Since the collection opened "Angela gets so excited when we talk about going to the library," Vivian Lucek said. Books in the collection bear their titles in little ridges of Braille near the spine. To browse, Angela runs her fingers along the shelf, pulling books and scanning titles until she finds something of interest. "Whenever she comes to the library, Angela makes a beeline for the books," said Emily McCoy, who oversees the Braille collection as head of children's services. "Her first time here, she just grinned and read the title of every single book on the shelf. She had this look of really intense concentration on her face. She's very goal-oriented. She always goes straight for the books."

"One of my happiest moments as a mother was the first time Angela read to me in Braille," Vivian Lucek said.

"It's really more of a nuisance than a handicap," Walt Lucek said of his daughter's blindness. "She can learn just as much as anybody else."

To share Angela's reading and supervise her homework, Walt and Vivian Lucek have learned Braille, too, though not as well as Angela. "We haven't been able to keep up with her," said Walt Lucek. "This summer, we're taking a correspondence class in Braille from Hadley School for the Blind."

The Luceks are also trying to start a special arm of the local chapter of the National Federation of the Blind for parents of blind children.

In the meantime, when she's not reading, Angela has decided on another goal to keep her busy.

"I want to be a writer," Angela said.