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Happy Birthday Louis Braille!

January 4 2011 | by

Dear Louis Braille,

I’m writing to send you a birthday greeting. Tomorrow is your two-hundred-and-second birthday, which means that braille, the code you invented that allows people who are blind to read and write and communicate, must be about 187 years old, since you were only 15 when you invented the code! Dear Louis, that just blows me away!

When I was 15, I was busy pretending that I could see just fine. My nose was quite literally buried deep inside every book I read; I was spending three or four more hours getting my tenth-grade homework done than my fully-sighted classmates, and I was in a “math basics” class (for dummies) because the guidance counselor at the high school I was attending said none of the math teachers could figure out how to teach geometry to “someone like me!” I would have been so much better off, dear Louis, had I known the braille code or about your life’s work of making braille the accepted literacy code for people
who are blind worldwide and going forward in time.

Dear Louis, I was misguided for so much of my youth about blindness and about braille. First, I thought that if I could see, even a little bit, I wasn’t “really blind.” Most of my teachers and all of the Caroline County, MD, public school administrators thought the same thing.

That’s why they insisted that I use print, and that’s why they couldn’t figure out how to teach me geometry or physics, and that’s why I spent so much time on homework.

And that’s why I gave up on piano lessons, which I loved, when I couldn’t read the music in the Grade Three John Thompson music book, and also why, two years later, I went off to college without any useable blindness skills at all!

In college, Louis, I went crazy trying to keep up with the reading load. Then I discovered that I could hire people to read aloud to me. And when I signed up for books from Recording for the Blind (now Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic) things got better. Even so, I had to change my intended major from Spanish and stopped at Spanish III because I couldn’t read the print in the advanced Spanish textbooks. Imagine how much happier I might have been with my classes and my choices about majors if I had known Braille! It’s a sad state of affairs that this misguidance is still occurring in today’s mainstream schools with children who have extremely low vision or are blind. Sometimes parents are told that because of “modern digital communications” like audio books, braille isn’t really necessary. But in my opinion, braille is essential for literacy gains.

Dear Louis, it took me several decades to see the proverbial light, but thank God I found out that braille is just about the most useful skill a person who is blind – even a person with very low vision – can learn! Thank God I took the braille reading and writing courses from the (free) Hadley School for the Blind, and from a teacher in my state’s Division of Rehabilitation Services! Thank goodness there were braille magazines to help to practice my braille skills, like “Our Special Magazine,” from National Braille Press, and the Matilda Ziegler Magazine (now sadly discontinued in hard-copy braille).

Oh, dear Louis, the stories I could tell – about learning to use a Braille’nSpeak and then taking notes in graduate school faster than any of my sighted classmates; about borrowing print-braille books from National Library Services and joining National Braille Press’s “Braille Book Club,” so that I could read picture books to my then four-year-old son while I was learning to read the braille code myself. Louis, my young sighted son didn’t care how slowly I read, he only cared that I was reading him a story, and later on, when he was struggling to learn to read print, we read together, I reading one braille page, and he reading the next print page – until we had both mastered the skills of literacy! He was my last of six children, and the only one to whom I was ever able to read aloud!

Dear Louis, I have so many reasons to thank you. Without your code, I couldn’t do my job. Without your code, I would be unable to keep personal records, to copy recipes, to find addresses and phone numbers for friends and colleagues. Without your code, I couldn’t label my microwave or my oven controls – Imagine having to ask a family member for help every time I wanted to cook them a meal! I don’t think I could have succeeded in graduate school because I could never have given an acceptable oral presentation, or read my class notes even an hour after I had written them, or kept track of my research, especially the bibliographic information! If I didn’t know braille, I would have missed out on the hundreds of books I have downloaded and read from and the National Library Service’s Web Braille project. And without your code, dear Louis, I would never have developed the self confidence I enjoy (most of the time) today, or have embraced my disability the way I have come to now.

Dear Louis, thank you from the bottom of my heart! And, happy birthday!

Penny Reeder


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