WBU-NAC region(Senior group) Fine Work
“Freedom at my Fingertips”
U.S.A. April Davis(30/Female)

"But the birds are in the way," I protested as I puzzled over a page in my third-grade reading book. The poem appeared in white letters against a sunset background, with darkened eagles' wings spreading across the margins and within the lines of the text. As I was already struggling with my limited vision to make out the words, the color contrasts rendered my efforts nearly futile.
I was a blind child who was not taught Braille. Since I have some residual vision (about five percent), my teachers decided that I should learn print along with my sighted classmates. Never mind that I had to hold the book a few inches from my eyes and could not focus on more than a few letters at a time. I dreaded reading aloud in class or giving speeches from prepared notes. In high school and college, I avoided, whenever possible, classes with heavy reading demands because I could not keep up. I was at a further disadvantage when studying for exams because I could barely read the notes I had taken in lectures. In my volunteer work, I felt hindered because of my functional illiteracy. I could not, for example, read stories to children in an after-school program unless I had virtually memorized the text in advance. On the job, tasks proved cumbersome as the adaptations I tried to make were more stopgap solutions than means to increase my efficiency and productivity.
Before I finished college, I knew that I could not continue to function at this level of compromised independence. After graduation, I attended the Louisiana Center for the Blind, an adult orientation center where students learn the skills of blindness, (Braille, cane travel, technology, daily living skills). It was incredibly humbling to walk into Braille class and start learning from the beginning, with the alphabet. But I was anxious to bridge the gap that had begun in elementary school, and I opted for Braille anytime I could get my hands on it. I used Braille to read recipes. I discovered, to my delight, that many local restaurants had Braille menus. Finally, I could peruse selections and make choice without imposing on harried wait staff who were often too busy to read aloud the entire list of offerings. At the center, I read many of the classics and other titles that I had wanted to read over the years but had been unable to enjoy because the print was too small.
I also discovered that Braille definitely has some advantages over print; I could read in many places where my sighted counterparts could not, such as in the dark or under the covers.
I learned that Braille can enhance or compliment one's skills in using adaptive technology. For example, my final project for computer class at the Center involved converting a printed restaurant menu into Braille. I initially used a scanner to convert the menu to text with which my screen reader was compatible. My screen reader proved inadequate for some of the necessary editing and formatting. I sometimes used a Braille display to read the menu or simply embossed a hard copy so I could determine appropriate line spacing and indentation.
Six months after completing my training, I began graduate work in the field of teaching blind students. I was so empowered by learning Braille that I had to pass it on! Because of Braille, graduate school proved much easier than my earlier stint in higher education. I used the slate and stylus to take notes during lectures. Much to my relief, I could read these whenever I needed to. Taking notes in Braille also proved helpful when assistive technology was unavailable or inconvenient to use.
During my student teaching, I kept records of student progress and lesson plan outlines in Braille. I found the teachers were extremely cooperative in allowing me to access important materials (such as worksheets) in advance so that I could convert them to Braille, not just for the blind students in question, but so that I too could easily utilize them. Sometimes, while conducting research for various classes, I could find helpful articles in Braille or use technology to convert them to accessible formats.
In 2005, I directed a summer program for blind teenagers. Braille proved invaluable, as I had to keep track of a variety of information, from budget items to students' schedules. While much of this could be kept in the computer, often I needed it in a more portable format. When we went on field trips, for instance, I carried a file folder containing Braille lists of phone numbers and other pertinent information.
Last year I was asked to give a presentation to parents of blind children—for forty-five minutes. In the old days, I might have written out several pages of notes in an astonishingly large font size and then timidly read them, my eyes close to the page and with no opportunity to make eye contact and to relate to my audience. This time, I used screen reading software to research articles on the Internet for my speech and prepared a braille outline of general topics to be covered, which I kept at my side and casually "glanced" at during my very relaxed talk. Braille gave me a facility and confidence which I could not have had before. I was able to look at my audience the whole time without disappearing behind a sheaf of papers.
For me and countless others, Braille has paved the way to independence. It is not mere coincidence that in the United States, among the working-aged blind who are employed, 90 percent use Braille. Braille levels the playing field, allowing one to compete on equal footing with one's sighted peers. Braille, sometimes with the help of assistive technology, enables me to readily seek and obtain information for work and leisure. No longer are the birds in the way.


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