The NFB of Maine's Commitment to Braille Literacy

How many children in America are not taught to read?

The answer is 90 percent if the children are blind. Most Americans are shocked to hear this statistic. And we should be. The blind read and write using Braille, so why is our educational system failing to teach Braille to so many children? Why are these children being denied the opportunities that come with a proper education? What if you could not read and write? Where would you be today?

There are three primary reasons for this educational crisis: (1) there are not enough Braille teachers; (2) some teachers of blind children have not received enough training; and (3) many educators do not think Braille instruction is even necessary.

To bring critically-needed attention to this educational crisis, the United States Congress authorized the minting of the 2009 Louis Braille Bicentennial Silver Dollar with a portion of the sale of each coin going toward a revolutionary and comprehensive Braille literacy campaign.

Learning to read and write is fundamental to education, which in turn is paramount to full and equal participation in American society. To learn more, read our report

In the fall of 2009, the National Federation of the Blind put out a call for Americans to write letters to President Barack Obama expressing the role that being able to read and write Braille plays in their lives. Today, only ten percent of blind children are learning to read Braille in school'a shocking statistic that alone reveals glaring problems in the education of blind children in theUnited States.

The NFB was flooded with responses from a large variety of blind and sighted people from school children to working professionals to retired senior citizens. While there are great variances in the people responding, one factor was the same: that Braille plays a vital role in their lives and is an important and, indeed necessary, tool for the blind.

We have compiled one hundred of these letters, representing diverse perspectives, into a book which was presented to President Barack Obama. On February 1, 2010, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. receive the publication on behalf of the president at an ceremony at the United States Department of Education with leaders of the National Federation of the Blind, blind children, andparents of blind children.

Here is the letter written by the President of the Maine Affiliate, Patricia C. Estes.

"Too Much Vision for Braille"

I am an active fifty-six year old grandmother and small business owner in Maine. I was told at the age of twelve that I was legally blind and was assigned a counselor from the Division for the Blind. I was on the college track in junior high school and had lots of reading to do and notes to take. Even though I could read large print back then, my mother asked the counselor about Braille instruction for me and we were told that I had "too much vision for Braille" and that I should learn to use the vision I had. Well, that may sound like a charitable thing to say, but I didn't need charity.

The fact is that I had too little sight for print.

I am writing in the hope of making a difference in the life of even one other blind person. I am writing to save that person the time, agony and headaches I (and my family) have endured while I've tried to rely on unreliable vision. I was given magnifiers, copies of math books that opened up to cover half of my twin bed and recordings of the required works of Shakespeare read by well-intentioned volunteers with Maine accents so thick as to make Shakespeare unintelligible! And all of this was rarely on time. Using what sight I had caused me terrible eye strain, which didn't surprise anyone. The migraines got so bad that I regularly missed school one day a week.

Even so, I was accepted my junior year of high school to Colby College in Waterville, Maine. Here it gets silly, but the impact on my life has been serious. For those who may not know, Colby is very expensive and very difficult to get into and though not technically an Ivy League school, it's very close. Since the counselor had told us that I couldn't handle the large university campuses in the Maine system and that I had to go to a school in Maine for them to pay for it and my support materials, I chose and was accepted to Colby. As with many colleges, all freshmen had to have at least one roommate. But since I had to listen to all of the many books on tape and had a person come and read to me the things that were not recorded (like Homer, thank goodness), I was finding it difficult to do my work in a noisy room and my work was too noisy for the library. The solution was a second room for my seven inch reel-to-reel recordings and studying. And they say Braille is "cumbersome"! Because they wouldn't teach me Braille, and since I had to use what vision I had, the State of Maine ended up footing the bill for two rooms for me at Colby College. But only for two years, I left after my sophomore year. I spent much time in the infirmary with migraines and found the work more difficult as my vision worsened. I couldn't pour over the writing of Yeats and Joyce and I had no way to even take notes and manipulate my own information. And it would be good to note here that a completely blind student from Maine was also attending Colby at the same time. Hal was literate in Braille and graduated.

I got married and tried school, again, but couldn't handle the strain, fatigue and the headaches. And then as a young mother, my biggest fear was that our children wouldn't be readers…and how was I going to help them?

About this time, I met several accomplished Braille readers through the National Federation of the Blind. They were successful and personable and they could read! They read Braille so fluently that they could give speeches, take notes on speeches and enjoy leisure reading through Braille books.

I am happy to say that our children are voracious readers and I am finally motivated by more lost vision to teach myself Braille so that I can read with the smartest grand children ever! But I've had many false starts and have had to beg and borrow to try to get Braille instruction in Maine. I've had a lovely retired nun try to show me flash cards of Braille contractions written out in black marker. I have had people from Maine Center for the Blind come to my house, but they read Braille by sight and had little to offer me. Now I'm frantically trying to catch up with this latest loss of sight. At least I am motivated, not everyone is willing to work this hard.

Some of us are pleading to not be functionally illiterate! Braille reading and writing is vital to a blind person's sense of self and future and health. It's only reasonable: why re-invent the wheel? Louis Braille has got it down! And it's not difficult, not anymore difficult than learning any other language: the blind person just needs to be immersed in it. This works better when life is less busy and our time is more our own as students. But any newly blinded adult deserves this opportunity.

Braille literacy may be a choice for some, but for me it has been a matter of civil rights and quality of life.