Sunday, March 07, 2010

Braille provides independence to the visually impaired!

I've taken a lot for granted in my life, but never my sight. Born with a crossed eye, a condition known as strabismus, I started wearing eyeglasses at the age of 20 months, had surgery on my right eye at the tender age of 4 and spent countless hours in therapy, trying to combat what became my lazy eye, a condition known as amblyopia in which the brain for some mysterious reason doesn’t fully acknowledge images seen by the amblyopic eye.

The result has been a life with left-eye-dominated vision and a right eye that would be defined as legally blind if not for the miracle of prescription eyeglasses, which bring the eye back to 20-60 vision.

But if something ever were to happen to my left eye, I would be in deep visual trouble.

I don’t think about it all that much these days, but I did for two reasons last week. First, I spent a few hours with some of the 25 visually impaired people who gathered Tuesday in the state Legislative Building to celebrate Braille Awareness Day.

Did you know that Louis Braille, the French inventor of the pathway to literacy for the visually impaired, was born the same year (1809) as Abraham Lincoln, the 16th U.S. president, and Charles Darwin, the English naturalist and father of the theories of evolution and natural selection?

Or how about this: Blinded by an eye infection at age 3, Braille by age 15 had invented the Braille alphabet and the raised-dot reading system that fits letters under a fingertip.

But he wasn’t recognized for his achievement until two years after he died from tuberculosis at age 43.

This and so much more information about his incredible life is on public display on the Legislative Building’s third floor through March 15 as part of the National Braille Press’ Louis Braille traveling exhibit, hosted in part in this state by the Washington Talking Book & Braille Library, an arm of the Washington State Library.

The 20-panel display in print and Braille touches on the highlights of Braille’s life and reminds us why Braille remains important in today’s high-tech information age.

The National Federation of the Blind issued a report last year on the 200th anniversary of Braille’s birth that said more than 70 percent of blind Americans of working age are unemployed. But more than 80 percent of the blind people who are employed read Braille.

Reading Braille gives a visually impaired person a better chance of finding a job and pursuing a college education, said Danielle Miller, program manager for the Talking Book and Braille Library.

“It’s the key to literacy for blind people – that’s all,” said Alan Bentson, a visually impaired employee at the Talking Book and Braille Library in Seattle who attended the Olympia ceremony honoring Louis Braille.

Sitting at a table next to the exhibit, Bentson was reading a Braille edition of an autobiography of Louis Braille at a rate of about 200 words a minute, about one-half to one-third the speed of a sighted person reading a book.

“It’s not speed reading, no doubt about it,” Bentson quipped.

The NFB report also states that only 10 percent of America’s blind children today are taught Braille, compared with 50 percent in the 1960s.

Reasons for the decline include a lack of teachers and the public perception that Braille is obsolete.

As Secretary of State Sam Reed stood by the Braille exhibit and read to the gathering some of Braille’s life story, the rounds of cheers and applause that echoed through the Capitol Rotunda convinced me Braille’s path to literacy should be fostered, not forgotten.

The day after Braille Awareness Day happened to be the date for my biennial eye exam. Brian Sullivan, my optometrist at Olympia Eye Clinic, ran me through the paces and proclaimed that my eyes were disease-free. There was more good news: I don’t need a new, stronger prescription for my eyeglasses.

More than 60 years after being born with defective eyesight, I’m blessed to simply be visually impaired.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444


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