I’ve been totally blind since birth. My mother is also totally blind, so she knew the importance of literacy.
Ever since I was a baby, she read me stories; she says The Little Red Hen and Daddy Makes the Best Spaghetti were two of my favorites. When I was a little older, I would put my hands on the braille, and since I had the story memorized, I would run my hands from left to right across the page, mimicking how I saw her reading.
When I was three, I entered preschool, where I immediately started braille instruction a few times per week, and by the time I entered kindergarten, I knew uncontracted and contracted braille.
After that, I was immersed in braille in school and at home. My textbooks, including math, were braille. The braille teacher made me stories for library time, or I brought books that I had gotten from my state library. All appliances were labeled; I remember standing in our kitchen reading the key for the microwave and asking my mom, “What does m I x spell, or why do you defrost in the microwave if it is supposed to cook things?” Cans of food had dymo tape, as did the spices, jars of jelly, and sometimes packages of frozen food. We had braille playing cards, board games with labels, and instructions for how to play them.
Because of this early instruction, I was a veracious reader. There were whole Saturdays where my mom and I would sit in the same room
Reading our individual books. When I went to relatives’ houses, they often said, “don’t you want to do something else besides read?”
I always took the opportunity to read anything I could get my hands on, and if I could keep the books, that was even better. For example, I was 10 when the National Federation of the blind had its annual convention in Atlanta. It was my first time there, and my mom took me to the free children’s books section. We had UPS mail me 32 books; they were Goosebumps, Anamorphs, and Babysitter’s Club and each one had two or three parts. My bookcase with three shelves was already crammed full, so two boxes were put in my room so I could make space for my new collection.
Being literate helped me participate fully in academics and in extra-curricular activities. That was so useful for all subjects, especially Algebra, geometry, and trig, where equations had several steps as well as biology, chemistry, and physics with tactile diagrams of gene problems, the periodic table, or graphs with acceleration and force per second.
Back then, writing and languages were my passions. I wrote stories for our high school newspaper, magazine, and year book, and I eventually became the copy editor where I edited for spelling, punctuation, AP style, and paragraph structure. I would not have been able to do that through listening to it on the computer. I also took one year of German, two years of French, and four years, including advanced placement, of Spanish. Learning languages has four distinct parts: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. If I hadn’t had braille, I would have missed a critical component of this experience. Listening is *NOT* literacy, and I would have missed accent marks and had extreme difficulty learning new words.
I went to college and have degrees in print journalism and sociology. I had many braille textbooks because I scanned them and put them into my notetaker, so I could read them on a braille display. Now, I am studying for my masters degree for teaching blind students.
Helping children enjoy reading leads to success in school and in life. Sadly, many blind children are denied the opportunity for literacy. Since I’m totally blind, there was never a question about my reading medium. However, children who have residual vision are made to struggle with print, reading 10 words per minute and experiencing eye strain headaches. These blind children don’t learn reading is fun and don’t realize true literacy can take them to any real or imaginary world; instead they learn reading is a struggle, and they fall behind academically, which will affect them for the rest of their lives. Too many times, teachers of blind students teach print because they either did not have adequate Braille instruction in their preparation programs, or they believe Braille is too hard, too slow, and old-fashioned. Not true. I was tested a few months ago and can read 180 words per minute out loud and more than 300 per minute silently; that is because I was taught early and encouraged to read.
Today is Read Across America where every child is encouraged to read a book in honor of Dr. Seuss’ birthday. I read The Lorax on my Braille display. Creating life-long readers is a goal of this event, and blind children can be part of this group of people who never stop learning because they have access, through Braille, to the written word.