From the Editor: Following its February release, we occasionally plan to print selected passages from Let Freedom Ring: Braille Letters to President Barack Obama, our volume of one hundred first-person accounts about the importance of Braille. Many of these narratives present compelling accounts of how the code or its absence has influenced the lives of blind people. These narratives should be helpful in local Braille advocacy initiatives; will be effective educational pieces for the general public on the value of literacy for blind people; and will introduce a series of interesting people, often accomplished blind role models.
This month we spotlight four contributors who share their impressions and personal experiences of Braille in the following letters. Angela Matney lives and contributes to the work of the Federation in Virginia. Reared in the relative isolation of rural West Virginia, she has--with the benefit of Braille--distinguished herself in diverse careers: mathematics teacher and attorney. Angela Howard Frederick is an active leader in our Texas affiliate and a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Texas. With Braille to hand and her personal commitment to social justice, Angela's potential to shape the society in which she lives and works is unlimited. Barbara Loos, a longtime leader in our Nebraska affiliate, surveys in her letter to President Obama the influence that Braille has had in the various areas of her life. Finally, Gary Wunder, secretary of the National Federation of the Blind and president of our Missouri affiliate, profiles the importance of Braille. Knowledge of the code has enabled him to succeed personally and professionally. Here are their letters:
August 28, 2009
Dear President Obama:
Neither of my parents finished high school. My father, a coal miner, left school after the sixth grade. Both of my parents eventually earned GEDs. They were determined that none of their children would want for educational opportunities.
When Mom and Dad decided I would attend the same school as my brothers and sisters, they knew they faced an uphill battle to ensure that I would receive an accessible education. The school board told my parents that I would not be taught Braille until I reached the sixth grade. My parents understood that I would not be literate until I learned Braille. With the help of the National Federation of the Blind, they persuaded the school board to provide me with Braille instruction in the schools of our southern West Virginia community.
Zane, my Braille instructor, was not a certified teacher of the vision impaired; in fact, she never attended college. She did hold a certification in Braille transcription. She began working with me when I was four years old. Under Zane's instruction I completed a Braille reading curriculum in addition to all the assignments given to my sighted classmates. Beginning in kindergarten I had extra lessons in the Nemeth Code, the Braille system of mathematical notation. I thought at the time that it was unfair that I had more work to do than my classmates. Now I am grateful that Zane and my parents understood just how important it was that I become literate.
Because I began learning the Nemeth Code at such a young age, mathematics was accessible to me. I eventually earned a bachelor of science degree and a master's in math, and I taught post-secondary mathematics courses. I am certain that I could not have done these things without Braille.
I recently graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law. In a few months I will begin my employment as an attorney in the business section of a Fredericksburg, Virginia, law firm. My facility with Braille will enable me to conduct legal research efficiently and to access crucial information in client meetings.
My parents were determined that their children would benefit from greater educational opportunities than those that had been available to them. The fact that one child was blind was immaterial. Because of their tenacity and Zane's dedication, I can quickly skim through restaurant menus, solve mathematical equations, scan legal articles for typographical errors, and read to my young nieces and nephews. I now realize just how lucky I was to receive phenomenal Braille instruction. I can only hope that one day soon my experience will be the rule rather than the exception.
Angela Howard Frederick
August 22, 2009
Dear President Obama:
I would first like to thank you sincerely for the moving victory speech you delivered on election night. I remember your speech, not only because you so ably captured the mood of the country, but because of the eloquent and understated way that you included disabled people. As a blind person rarely do I hear people with disabilities included in the list of groups who have contributed to something bigger than ourselves. It meant a great deal to many of us that you spoke of the contributions of our group with such normalcy.
I would like to share with you a little about myself and the role that Braille has played in my life. I am diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, an eye disease that causes the gradual deterioration of the retinas. I have been slowly losing my sight since the age of three, and at the age of thirty-three I now see light out of only one eye.
One of the reasons your victory speech moved me so much is that it is rare that disability is portrayed as something that is normal and that can be successfully managed. I suppose this is the reason why those tools associated with disability are often thought to be things to be avoided. The sad irony of this is that often the stigma associated with disability results in the denial of the alternative tools and techniques that can enable disabled individuals to lead productive lives.
When I was growing up with limited vision, my parents were told by teachers and special education professionals that I should not learn or use Braille unless I absolutely needed to do so. Like blindness itself, Braille was presented as something that was shameful and that should only be used when all other options became useless. Consequently, I faced many struggles as a young student. I found reading print slow, embarrassing, and excruciatingly painful. I would spend many hours trying to complete homework at night because it took me so much longer than it did other students. When I couldn’t read print any longer, I was given an enlarging machine that had to be wheeled from classroom to classroom, forcing me to sit in isolation from other students. This was one of the most painful experiences of my life. All of this was to avoid using the reading method that would eventually transform my life.
When I was thirteen, I took part in a summer program for children at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. This is one of our country’s most impressive training centers for blind adults and children. While participating in this program, I was given the opportunity to learn Braille. My desperation to have a medium through which I could read led to many nights of studying with the lights out after everyone else had gone to sleep. I learned the entire Braille code in a month; it usually takes adults from three to six months to learn the entire code.
After a few heated discussions, the special education teachers agreed to let me try to use Braille in school. The experiment was a smashing success. My grades improved by leaps and bounds, and I discovered a love of reading and learning that would transform my life.
After earning a bachelor’s degree, serving as an AmericCorps VISTA volunteer, and working for a student loan company for several years, I decided to return to school to pursue my doctorate in sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. I am working on my dissertation on women in Texas politics, and I teach an undergraduate course in social problems.
As you are well aware, advances in technology have transformed classrooms across our country. I make use of technology as much as my peers. I use PowerPoint in the classroom, and my students send their papers to me through email. Yet, despite these technological advances, I credit Braille as one of my most important tools for independence. I have taken Braille notes in all of my graduate coursework, and I use a Braille questionnaire as I interview elected women leaders for my dissertation research. In order to keep myself organized and competent, I label students’ papers and tests with little Braille notes, and I label my file folders in Braille. I also keep my Braille-writing tools handy in order to take quick notes to myself when meeting with students. Perhaps even more important than these strategies, Braille is an essential tool that enables me to live independently. I label many household appliances in Braille so that I can use them competently, and I use Braille to label items as important as medication and cans of food, and as fun and interesting as CDs and DVDs.
I am sure that you have by now read the statistics on the correlation between Braille literacy and employment outcomes for the blind. I also hope that the stories you read in the pages of this book will put human faces to those statistics. I count myself among the most fortunate of blind Americans. Because of the foresight of the adults who provided the opportunity for me to learn Braille, I am now building a career out of my passion for reading, writing, and learning. I hope that you will join in our commitment to continue the fight to ensure that all blind children in this country can count themselves fortunate in having the opportunity to become literate, productive members of our communities.
Angela Howard Frederick
August 28, 2009
Dear President Obama:
Reading and writing have always felt magical to me. Even the nickname my brother still uses for me comes from what I called the pen my dad carried in his pocket, with which I was fascinated. Since my parents were partners in the newspaper in Weeping Water, Nebraska, where I grew up, the sounds, smells, and type used in hot metal printing were part of my everyday life. As a child born blind, the one thing I could not figure out was how various people could pick up a book or newspaper and say exactly the same words--even if the second person to say them hadn’t heard the first one. And I was intrigued when people wrote things down because the page did not reveal anything to me.
Then my blind sister, a year older than I, started school at the school for the blind in Nebraska City, and I spent a lonely school year wondering what it would be like when I got there. Although one initial result was that I traded loneliness for homesickness, one lifelong payoff was that I received the gift of reading and writing Braille. Since I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, the population at the school was larger than usual, due to some specific causes of blindness during that time. Although the cause of our blindness is still unknown, the fact that we grew up then allowed us the benefit of having both friends and competitors who were blind. We were expected to learn Braille and to use it proficiently.
Braille has been a key ingredient in my education. I graduated with distinction from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Throughout my career Braille has been invaluable. I have directed an orientation center for the blind, have taught Braille and the use of adaptive equipment for the blind, and have transcribed materials using both Braille and audio texts. My first husband died when our children were five and seven, so I did much of my parenting as a single mother. My knowledge of Braille allowed me to meet these responsibilities. I have been active in my church, book groups, AmeriCorps, and the National Federation of the Blind. I like to read, do word puzzles, create art, grow plants, and write, among other things. As you might imagine, Braille was critical for all of these personal and recreational commitments.
I feel fortunate that I grew up in a family where literacy was expected, at a time when Braille was the understood road to literacy for the blind, and at a place where its instruction was competently provided. My mother read aloud to my sister and me before we learned to read ourselves and afterward, especially when we couldn’t get specific books in Braille. Both of our parents read unavailable college texts to us.
One of the ironies of our technological age is that, although Braille is much easier to print and more portable (what used to take up many large volumes can now be carried around in small machines with refreshable Braille displays), most blind children are not being taught how to read and write it. While it is possible to get audio books and to use computers with speech output, listening to something doesn’t put the spelled, punctuated, formatted text in front of the hearer. It also can rob a person of the most magical part of reading and writing—interpretation.
When I read something in Braille, I create the voices, the cadence, and the mood, and I can experience the swift, silent, unencumbered thought that is faster than spoken language that happens inside a reading brain. If what I’m reading is technical, Braille allows me to explore its nuances. If it’s light reading, I can skim and take what I want. Fortunately for my fellow students and me, we were doing all of this before we heard the dismal reports mostly spread by those who, whatever they might claim, had neither the interests of the blind at heart nor an understanding of Braille.
When I write, I do my best to give my reader clues through punctuation and style about how I want them to feel and think about what I’m offering, and sometimes even what I hope they’ll do once they’ve read it. Again, without Braille this would not be possible.
Mr. President, I hope that you will see this letter as a call to action. The 90 percent illiteracy rate among blind children, the 70 percent unemployment rate among working-age blind adults, and the inability of many blind seniors to live independently are indefensible. Please do whatever is in your power to do to help us reverse the literacy crisis that currently exists for blind Americans. I am heartbroken that blind people of all ages, who should be competing on terms of equality with their sighted peers, are not doing so because Braille, the essential tool for their literacy, is being denied them at a time when it is more available than it was when I was young.
We, in the National Federation of the Blind, are doing what we can through the sale of the Louis Braille Bicentennial Silver Dollar and other initiatives to change what it means to be blind in positive ways, including seeing to it that blind people learn Braille. But we need your help. You can count on us to do our part. Will you do yours?
August 28, 2009
Dear President Obama:
When I think of Braille, I think of places I've never been except through my fingertips. I think of places I have been because my fingertips allowed me to make the money to go. I think of dreams that came true because the secrets to making them reality were found in the pages of a Braille book.
When I was a child in school, there was no question whether totally blind people would learn Braille. Today people make the decision more complicated by saying that technology provides us with alternatives, but what technology could ever replace your need to read, to scribble a note to your wife on your anniversary, or to write yourself a reminder to get the cake for your daughter's birthday? Technology supplements what and how you read, but never does it supplant your need to read. So it is with your brothers and sisters who are blind.
I make my living writing computer programs. One overlooked period, one misplaced indentation, and the program I've written for my day's pay doesn't work. How are those mistakes avoided or detected when they happen? For blind people, through Braille. If much of what we learn is through imitation, how do we see the spelling of words or the punctuation used to form grammatically correct sentences? Blind people use Braille.
In a world forged by so many technological marvels, please help us be on the right side of the digital divide--not casualties of the information age, but significant contributors in it. Leader or loser, specialist or spectator: reading makes all the difference.