by Daniel B. Frye
On Thursday, March 26, 2009, the National Federation of the Blind hosted a celebration to launch the release of the 2009 Louis Braille Bicentennial Silver Dollar at our headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland. Over three hundred Federationists, members of the general public, and media representatives gathered in Members' Hall of the NFB Jernigan Institute to watch Edmund C. Moy, director of the United States Mint, officially unveil and present this commemorative coin to NFB President Marc Maurer. Mr. Moy presented President Maurer a plaque incorporating four of the coins (two proof and two uncirculated, displaying both the obverse and reverse of each type of coin). The NFB first vice president and chairman of our national Braille Readers are Leaders (BRL) campaign, Dr. Fredric Schroeder, also introduced and presented the Federation's report "The Braille Literacy Crisis in America: Facing the Truth, Reversing the Trend, Empowering the Blind" to Kareem Dale, special assistant to the president for disability policy. Mr. Dale reaffirmed President Obama's commitment to literacy and education for all, including the blind, and he promised to take the report back to the White House to digest its content and incorporate it in administration policy.
Finally, Dr. Joyce Winterton, assistant administrator for NASA education, made a surprise announcement that two of these Bicentennial Silver Dollars will be launched into space later this year on STS-125, the flight of the Space Shuttle Atlantis to the Hubble Space Telescope, the last space shuttle flight before the entire fleet is retired in 2010. The gathering enthusiastically received this announcement. Many were also touched when Dr. Winterton commented in passing that she intended to buy six of the coins for her grandchildren.
In addition to these presentations President Maurer delivered a keynote address to mark this historic occasion in which he described the government's decision to mint a coin honoring the two hundredth birthday of Louis Braille as an implicit recognition of our value as blind people. U.S. Senator Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, the original Senate sponsor of our Braille coin legislation, offered a video message of congratulations. Dr. Abraham Nemeth, the inventor of the Nemeth Braille mathematics code and one of several national ambassadors for the BRL campaign present at the celebration, reminisced with the audience about the powerful influence of Braille in directing the trajectory of his career and life.
Dignitaries, including a representative from the French ambassador to the United States, a staff member from Maryland Senator Benjamin Cardin's office, the director of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, the commissioner of the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind, and the superintendent of the Maryland School for the Blind, all joined us for this momentous celebration. Jessica Bachicha, a staff member in the NFB Department of Affiliate Action and a doctoral student studying vocal performance at Catholic University, sang the aria “I Want to Live” from act one of Charles Gounod's opera, Roméo et Juliet.
Jessica Bachicha sings an aria at the celebration.
To the delight of everyone present, three young Federationists, Marché Daughtry, Brandon Pickrel, and Jason Polansky, demonstrated the value of Braille when they read a resolution emphasizing the importance of the code. The text of their resolution follows:
[Brandon] WHEREAS, I, Brandon Pickrel, am a first grader who is proud to be one of the 10 percent of blind children who can read and write Braille, and therefore, I am more likely to graduate from high school and pursue advanced education; and
[Jason] WHEREAS, I, Jason Polansky, am a seventh grader who reads Braille and, therefore, I am more likely to be successfully employed in my field of choice; and
[Marché] WHEREAS, I, Marché Daughtry, am a sixth grader who loves to read Braille and therefore salute the members of Congress for authorizing the Louis Braille Silver Dollar, which will provide funds to the National Federation of the Blind to ensure that many other blind children and adults have the opportunity to be literate: Now, therefore,
[All three] BE IT RESOLVED that we will use the power of knowledge to build a future full of opportunity with the support of the National Federation of the Blind; and
[Brandon] BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that I will go to college because of the investment in the next generation made by the National Federation of the Blind; and
[Jason] BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that I will graduate from high school, go to college, and be successful in my personal life and my career because of the unwavering commitment to Braille literacy of the National Federation of the Blind; and
[Marché] BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that I will be a midwife because the members of the National Federation of the Blind will seize this moment in time to make change with a dollar.
[All three] Ladies and gentlemen, we are Braille readers, and therefore we’ll be leaders. Please follow our lead and help us build a brighter future by giving the gift of Braille to every blind person in America.
The coin launch ceremony received national and local television and print press coverage. Our festivities were featured on the nationally broadcast ABC World News Tonight with Charles Gibson, and many newspapers around the country carried a version of the Associated Press article highlighting this centerpiece of our national BRL campaign. The text of the AP article follows:
Jordan Richardson has a degenerative condition that eventually will leave him completely blind. But as a child his teachers did not emphasize Braille, the system of reading in which a series of raised dots signify letters of the alphabet. Instead, they insisted he use what little vision he had to read print. By the third grade he was falling behind in his schoolwork.
"They gave him Braille instruction, but they didn't tell us how to get Braille books, and they didn't want him using it during the day," said Jordan's mother, Carrie Gilmer of Minneapolis. Teachers said Braille would be "a thing he uses way off in the far distant future, and don't worry about it."
That experience is common: Fewer than 10 percent of the 1.3 million legally blind people in the United States read Braille, and just 10 percent of blind children are learning it, according to a report to be released Thursday by the National Federation of the Blind. By comparison, at the height of its use in the 1950s, more than half the nation's blind children were learning Braille. Today Braille is considered by many to be too difficult, too outdated, a last resort. Instead, teachers ask students to rely on audio texts, voice-recognition software, or other technology. And teachers who know Braille often must shuttle between schools, resulting in haphazard instruction, the report says.
"You can find good teachers of the blind in America, but you can't find good programs," said Marc Maurer, the group's president. "There is not a commitment to this population that is at all significant almost anywhere." Using technology as a substitute for Braille leaves blind people illiterate, the Federation said, citing studies that show blind people who know Braille are more likely to earn advanced degrees, find good jobs, and live independently. "It's really sad that so many kids are being shortchanged," said Debby Brackett of Stuart, Florida, who pressured schools to provide capable Braille teachers for her twelve-year-old daughter, Winona.
One study found that 44 percent of participants who grew up reading Braille were unemployed, compared with 77 percent for those who relied on print. Overall blind adults face 70 percent unemployment.
The Federation's report pulled together existing research on Braille literacy, and its authors acknowledge that not enough research has been done. The 10-percent figure comes from federal statistics gathered by the American Printing House for the Blind, a company that develops products for the visually impaired. The Federation also did some original research, including a survey of five hundred people that found the ability to read Braille correlated with higher levels of education, a higher likelihood of employment, and higher income.
The report coincides with the two hundredth birthday of Louis Braille, the Frenchman who invented the Braille code as a teenager. Resistance to his system was immediate; at one point the director of Braille's school burned the books he and his classmates had transcribed. The school did not want its blind students becoming too independent; it made money by selling crafts they produced. The system caught on but began declining in the 1960s along with the widespread integration of blind children into public schools. It has continued with the advent of technology that some believe makes Braille obsolete.
"Back in about 1970 or so, I was heading to college, and somebody said to me, ‘Now that you've got the tape recorder, everything will be all right.’ In the early 1980s somebody else said, ‘Now that you've got a talking computer, everything will be all right,’" said Marc Maurer, president of the Federation. "They were both wrong. And the current technology isn't going to make everything all right unless I know how to put my hands on a page that has words on it and read them."
"Audio books are no substitute," said Carlton Walker, an attorney and the mother of a legally blind girl from McConnellsburg, Pennsylvania. Walker once met a blind teenager who had only listened to audio books; the teen was shocked to discover that "Once upon a time" was four separate words. Walker also had to lobby teachers to provide Braille for her eight-year-old daughter Anna instead of just large-print books.
"At three years old Anna could compete with very large letters. When you get older, you can't compete," Walker said. She once asked a teacher, “‘What are you going to do when she's reading Dickens?’ She said, ‘Well, we'll just go to audio then.’ If that were good enough for everybody, why do we spend millions of dollars teaching people to read?" Richardson, now an eighteen-year-old aspiring lawyer, worked on his Braille in a summer program when he was in middle school and can now read 125 words a minute, up from his previous rate, an excruciatingly slow twenty words a minute.
"Just try it," Carrie Gilmer said. "Go get a paragraph, get a stopwatch, and try to read twenty words a minute. Try and read that slow and see how frustrating it is." Fluent Braille readers can read two hundred words a minute or more, the Federation says. Carrie Gilmer is president of a parents' group within the Federation of the Blind. She believes poor or haphazard instruction is largely responsible for the decline in Braille literacy, but she says sometimes teachers push Braille only to meet resistance from parents. "They're afraid of their child looking blind, not fitting in," Gilmer said.
The report outlines ambitious goals for reversing the trend, including lobbying all fifty states to require teachers of blind children to be certified in Braille instruction by 2015. But its immediate goal is to simply make people aware that there's no substitute for Braille. "It's not just a tool to help people function--it can bring joy," Maurer said.
"The concept of reading Braille for fun is a thing that lots of people don't know," Maurer said. "And yet I do this every day. I love the beautiful, orderly lines of words that convey a different idea that can stimulate me or make me excited or sad. ... This is what we're trying to convey."
As the formal ceremony concluded, members and guests scattered throughout Members’ Hall to take advantage of the Braille-related activities on display. Most formed a winding circle around the hall’s perimeter to be one of the first to purchase the Louis Braille Bicentennial Silver Dollar. Those present had an exclusive opportunity to buy this keepsake before it went on public sale from the United States Mint at noon on March 26. Others visited booths featuring the evolution of Braille; rare books embossed in Braille and other tactile codes, including a first-edition copy of a book in which Louis Braille introduced his new code to the world; and an array of Braille technology. Cookies with the Braille letters B, R, and L were available for sampling, and a lucky few got to swing at a piñata that, when finally broken, disgorged hundreds of chocolate Louis Braille coins for everyone to enjoy. Visit <http://stage.nfb.org/nfb/Audio-Video_Center.asp?SnID=520038847> to hear a recording of the entire event.
On the same day and throughout the following week, many Federation affiliates and chapters held their own celebrations to recognize the release of the Louis Braille Bicentennial Silver Dollar. Over thirty state affiliates obtained proclamations and resolutions from political leaders (mostly from governors or state legislatures) hailing the release of the coin and all it symbolizes for blind Americans.
Our Nebraska affiliate, for example, held an event at the Lincoln Children's Museum, where Lieutenant Governor Rick Sheehy presented a gubernatorial proclamation declaring March 26, 2009, Braille Readers are Leaders Day in Nebraska to affiliate president and NFB national board member Amy Buresh. Scott LaBarre, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado, reported that forty Federationists braved an early spring blizzard to be at the state capitol for an affiliate-sponsored press conference and to watch the unanimous adoption of Joint Senate Resolution 31, noting the release of the Louis Braille Bicentennial Silver Dollar and its attendant promise to create enhanced Braille literacy for many. Space constraints do not allow us to profile every state or local event, but we received reports from Michigan and New Jersey, among others, detailing their efforts. Each event reflected the local color and personality of the affiliate or chapter in question.If you are interested in purchasing the Louis Braille Bicentennial Silver Dollar to help promote the NFB's national BRL campaign, contact the NFB Independence Market at (410) 659-9314, ext. 2216, or contact the United States Mint at (800) 872-6468 (USA-Mint); the coin can also be bought online from the United States Mint by visiting <http://www.usmint.gov>. Please consider buying a coin or two. They will make wonderful historic souvenirs, and they will help promote our Braille literacy efforts. Finally, with the purchase of every ten thousand coins, one blank segment in a forty-piece mystery artwork will be revealed, and, when all four hundred thousand of the authorized coins have been sold, we'll all be able to marvel at what should be a stunning picture. The emerging bas-relief will be on display for all members and guests to see when they visit the National Center for the Blind. The introduction of this artwork at the conclusion of the celebration served as a bit of inspiration and motivation to get about the serious work of raising money for Braille literacy. Now it is up to you to do your part.