WBU-AP Otsuki Award
"The Key to Our World"
Olivia Minh En (25, female, New Zealand)
photo: Olivia Minh En

I believe that I inherited my love of words from my father. One of my earlistmemories is of him teaching me to recite poetry in Cambodian and Viet Namese.
Later, I remember him reading aloud to me from Hairy Maclary F. Donaldson's Dairy as I followed along with my fingers.
I was born in a refugee camp in Viet Nam, the youngest of seventeen children. At eighteen months, I contracted Measles and, as a result, I became totally blind. My parents were devastated! What were they to do with a child who no longer had a future? How could they provide for her extra needs when there was no money, even less hope, and ten other dependent children to feed?
Fortunately, when I was three, my family came to New Zealand under a refugee sponsorship scheme. Through our Kiwi sponsors, dad found out about Braille, a system of six dots that could change the life of a blind person for ever by giving the person access to the world of the written word.
Being a wise man, dad knew the huge advantages that literacy would bring. He did not speak or read English at this time, but he quickly learned both so that, through print manuals and guides, he could teach me Braille himself before I started school. When told by various professionals that I was too young at three to learn Braille, he argued that a sighted child had contact with the written word, through public signs and picture books, long before that child could go to school. So why should his daughter be disadvantaged just because she was blind?
Thus, since the age of three, Braille had been a huge part of my everyday life. At first, I only really used it to read anything I could get my hands on. To my mother's consternation, when I was very young, I also used it to put sticky labels on every flat surface in our house, including the wallpaper.
Dad died when I was nine, just when I was beginning to truly understand that he had given me a much greater gift than the mere ability to read and write. By insisting that I learn Braille, he had given me the most essential tool that would enable me to access and fit into the world around me. Because of Braille, I have been able to perform at the same level as my sighted peers. In a school where I was the only blind student, I could do everything that was required of my sighted classmates -- reading aloud from Shakespearean plays, submitting music compositions using Braille music notation, completing mathematical and chemical equations using Nemyth. Throughout my high school and university years, I competed equally with other sighted students for top marks and scholarship. Today, I work as a lawyer alongside other sighted lawyers, drafting opinions, advising clients, and grumbling about sky-rocketing food prices and rock bottom sports performances. Today, I am living a "normal" independent life, living a future that my parents had thought was impossible.
While we often do not like to admit it, we in the world of the blind and vision impaired frequently measure our success by the degree of integration into the sighted world that we have achieved. This does not mean that we "aspire" to be like sighted people; we simply wish to be able to do all that a sighted person can do. For me, and for many blind and vision impaired people, Louis Braille's invention changed our lives by giving us the means to achieve almost complete integration. Braille gives us the chance to equitably access an education system that relies so heavily on the written word to convey information. In turn, this opens the door for us to higher paying, professional employment. Braille gives us a way to perform, with equal efficiency, many of those day to day tasks often required of sighted professionals, such as, for example, the detailed reviewing of written documents.
The changes that Braille has brought to the lives of blind and vision impaired people are not just limited to work and school. Braille has also increased our options such as participation in recreational activities. Personally, I use Braille to, among other things, play competitive Scrabble with other sighted players, join in card games with my family and friends, and copy down recipes for baking. One day, when I have children, I know I will use Braille to read aloud to them so that I can introduce them to the beauty of words just as dad did for me.
Braille has also changed the lives of blind and vision impaired people by making it easier for them to fully participate in many community activities. For example, with a little forethought and organisation, I can put all the words of common Christmas carols on my Braille Note, a small computer that features a refreshable Braille display. I can then attend community Christmas services and join in the singing, accessing the words on my Braille Note while others access the words on an overhead screen. Using Braille this way seems such a small thing, but it is the small things that make the greatest difference.
The changes that Louis Braille's invention has made to the lives of blind and vision impaired people cannot be fully ennumerated in a thousand words. At best, they can be summed up in three words -- access, integration and opportunity. When I think of all the things I can do and all the opportunities that are open to me because I know Braille, I am eternally grateful to the young French boy whose genius has opened the door to a brighter world for blind and vision impaired people. And I am thankful for a father who had the wisdom to see that the key to his child's future lay with that young boy's invention.


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