Future Reflections         Special Issue: A Celebration of Braille

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In Praise of a Teacher: Thank You, Mrs. McGee

by Zena Pearcy

Zena PearcyEditor’s Note: Zena and her husband, Jeff, are both blind and also the parents of a twenty-three year old blind son, Wayne, who is a student at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. They have been active members and leaders in the Federation since the late 70’s. Currently, they live in Louisiana where Zena works for the Louisiana Center for the Blind, a rehabilitation program run by the NFB. Here is Zena’s Braille story:

My experiences as a person with low vision are a good bit different than those of others who grew up at the same time I did. I was born with an eye condition called micro-opthalmia. Simply put, this just means that my eyes never fully developed. My best vision as a child was probably about 20/400. I went to public school and read large print books, but I had to hold them about three inches from my face. No one ever talked to me about learning Braille and, as far as I know no one ever approached my parents about the possibility.

My father was in the Air Force, and the summer before I turned eight he exited from the military and we moved from Albany, Georgia, to Waco, Texas. In Georgia, I had a very close friend named Jeannie, who was totally blind. Jeannie only read Braille and I only read print. When I entered school in Texas I was placed in a self-contained classroom for blind children. I begged my teacher of the visually impaired (TVI), Mrs. McGee, to teach me Braille so I could communicate with my friend in Georgia. After some time, Mrs. McGee told me that she would indeed teach me Braille on two conditions. The first condition was that I had to take the lessons seriously and really study. Secondly, I had to start in the “baby books” that kindergarteners use and work my way through all of the readers until I got to grade level. I was so excited. I loved my Braille lessons. I read and read, and before the school year was over, I was reading in the fourth grade reader and was caught up to grade level.

I signed up to get Braille books from my regional library for the blind, and I was an insatiable reader. I read in the car; I read at night under the covers; I read at those awful Little League games where I felt so left out while my brothers played; I read in the closet while hiding from pesky little cousins. Well, okay, I know that wasn’t very nice, but it’s the truth!
I loved Braille, but no one encouraged me to read Braille at school. I was still reading with the print book inches from my face. This was in the 60s and 70s. I am not sure what large print books are like nowadays, but when I was growing up they were simply blown-up small print books. The pictures were horrid and very difficult to decipher. The hardback books were so tall and wide, that I had to stretch my neck and contort myself to get into a position where I could see the top or the bottom of the page. But even though I was uncomfortable and very slow in using large print, it never occurred to anyone (including me) that I should switch to Braille textbooks.

In the ninth grade I took a history class and my large print text did not show up on time. I guess this was the “A-ha!” moment. I borrowed another student’s Braille textbook, and life and history lessons went on. In the tenth grade a couple of us blind/visually impaired kids took Accelerated English which meant that we had to read about ten or twelve classic novels. Several of the books were not available in Braille, so our TVI, Mrs. Wade, worked countless hours either Brailling or dictating these texts to us, so that we could help Braille them. (I believe she thought that getting the books on cassette tape would be cheating.) In this particular situation, no one even asked me if I was going to read the print. I guess everyone knew it didn’t make any sense for me to spend hours and hours reading small print books when the Braille was available. Besides, my Braille was good enough to help transcribe those books, so I guess we all thought I had the right to read them in Braille, too.

My vision began to decline in my second year of college. I read my last small print book for pleasure that year. When I realized it had taken me all summer, I understood that I would never read an entire book with my eyes again. Because I was already a proficient Braille reader, I did not have to stop my life to learn a new skill. I also discovered that I could not read my print notes from class anymore. I had been shown how to use a slate and stylus to write Braille when I was a kid, but I had never used one seriously. Now I got myself a slate and started to take notes. At first I had to tape-record my classes as back-up while I struggled to pick up speed and accuracy with the slate. But I quickly learned a lot of little tricks in both note-taking and in using a slate, and was soon able to keep up and quit using the tape recorder.

No one knew when I was a child that my eye disorder would deteriorate the way it did. I was so fortunate to know Braille. While I was in college the first closed circuit television (CCTV) reading systems came onto the market. I got one and used it, and was grateful for it. I still use a CCTV to identify print materials that I want to review further with a live reader, or that I want to scan and read with a voice synthesizer or convert into hard-copy Braille. But I am so glad I did not have to rely only on the CCTV; I am so glad I had Braille, too. Braille is another tool in my toolbox. Braille is a skill that gives me greater versatility. If you can only see under certain lighting conditions, you need Braille. If you have to hold your speech up to your face to give a class presentation, you need Braille. If you have trouble reading your own handwriting or can’t see when you’ve written on top of something else, you need Braille.

Another major reason I am thankful for learning Braille is because I married a blind person. We have no communication problems like some couples do where one person knows Braille and the other does not. When our son was born, he was totally blind. Imagine how thankful I was--again--that I knew Braille.

After Wayne was born I called my elementary TVI teacher, Mrs. McGee, to tell her about our new baby. And I told her how thankful I was that she had taught me Braille. It was not until then that I learned that she had had to fight the principal of our school in order to get permission to teach me Braille. What a wonderful person and teacher she was. I am so glad I didn’t let her down, that I accepted her two conditions, took my classes seriously, and became a proficient and avid Braille reader.

Braille is a part of the blindness set of alternative skills. It allowed me to keep in contact with a blind friend. It allowed me to be an equal with my husband and a parent who could always help my son with his homework. I knew when Wayne’s Braille transcriber had made errors that could cost him points on his assignments and tests. I labeled things for him, and helped him cram for tests by reading to him from his Braille notes and textbooks while he ate breakfast. I understand when he says how neat a certain word looks in Braille, and I was the first one to get the joke when he said his name, Wayne, had six letters. (He was counting the capital dot.)

So, here’s my advice: If you are the parent of a child who reads Braille, please learn to read it yourself. If you are a parent of a kid with low-vision, please advocate for Braille instruction for your child. Learning Braille can open up so many opportunities; it did for me.

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