Editor’s note: How long does it take a child to learn to read? For thirteen-year-old Anna Miller, who is blind and multiply disabled, the road to literacy has been a long road, indeed. Was the struggle worth it? The final chapter is not yet written – most of Anna’s life is still before her – but Anna’s mom, Sally Miller, has no doubts in her mind about the worth of literacy. Here is Sally’s inspiring account of the triumph of patience and persistence:
I believe every child should receive a good education with reading as the foundation. Whether I believe this because I am a teacher, or simply because I am a mother and reader myself, I don’t know. At any rate, I am convinced of the value of literacy for all children.
When I was young I loved to read. I carried a book with me wherever I went. I read at every chance I got – while riding the bus, waiting in line, eating lunch, before I’d go to sleep at night. Later, when I had a family of my own, I read at every opportunity – when my babies were sleeping in my arms, and while the clothes were in the washer. And I read to my children. I wanted to ensure that they would have a good foundation for wanting to be readers, too.
My oldest son took to reading with enthusiasm. At 26 he’s still an avid and excellent reader and writer. Our second child enjoyed having others read to him; but didn’t master it as readily as his brother had. After he was diagnosed with a form of dyslexia, and once it was addressed, he too, learned to read. Recently, my husband and I were reflecting on how difficult it had been to help our now 21-year-old son achieve this important milestone in his life compared to our first son’s ease in learning to read. We finally decided that God had a plan – to prepare us for the struggle that would be the journey toward literacy for our third child.
When we adopted our daughter there was no doubt in our minds that she would learn to read. After all, we were readers; we had helped our first two children learn to read; Anna would also be a reader. Therefore, there was never any question about when or how she would learn to read. It was just understood that SHE WOULD READ! Unfortunately she had a mountain of obstacles in her way. Let me explain.
Anna came to us as a foster child at the age of four. She was born blind – totally blind. Her birth family considered this a severe handicap, and they mistakenly believed she was unable to learn at all. Because they had no expectations, they did not provide her with even the basic stimulation all babies need in order to learn. When she came to us, she was depressed and really didn’t have any skills.
Fortunately, she had been referred to, and tested by, the local school district at the age of three, which led to her inclusion in a pre-school program for the visually impaired. It was difficult for her teachers to deal with her because of her behavior problems; but they did begin pre-Braille skills when she was four. It was an uphill battle. Anna was tactually defensive. This isn’t unusual for a child who can’t see; but in this case her defensiveness was compounded by past abuse at the hands of both children and adults. She fought like a little tiger because she was so afraid. And she was a biter. Oh, was she a biter! Few people could get near her, let alone touch her. Our first hurdle to reading was gaining her trust.
While we worked daily to love her we were also teaching her that she could trust both those at home and those at school. It was a combined effort and one that eventually paid off. Pulling her out of her private little world inside her head – feeding her regularly, potty-training her, and even bathing her – were daily challenges. Getting her to touch Braille letters or words on a page were excruciating tasks. She didn’t want us to hold her hands where they needed to be and she couldn’t abide the feel of the raised dots on her fingertips. We devised all sorts of alternatives. We had her touching and playing with marshmallows, JELL-O, flat plastic disks, whipped cream, candies of every flavor, and different textures. Eventually she began to trust us, and by age seven she was finally learning the letters of the alphabet.
Can you imagine a five-year-old not knowing how to crawl or use her hands? We couldn’t either. But there she was on our living room floor with our two teenage sons, one in front and one in back, moving her hands and feet to simulate the crawling motions. Her tendency was to use the backs of her hands to push her body up from the floor and was quite indignant that we insisted on her using the palms of her hands for this task. No matter how stubborn she was about doing it her way we were more stubborn and determined that she do it our way. It was always a test to see who could be stronger. We didn’t always win; but then, neither did she.
Gymnastics classes and occupational therapy helped with body awareness and to show her the possibilities of moving her body for fun. She didn’t know at the time that it also helped strengthen her hands as well as her whole body. Her gross motor skills continued to develop and become second nature to her. All the while she was learning to recognize the alphabet in Braille, and finding out that they could be put on paper to tell stories about her.
Then came the Braille writer. Oh, the Braille writer! First of all, Anna considered it work. That is, WORK, spelled with capital letters. She hated it. And when she was told that she had to use her fingers independently – well, that just made it worse than anything we’d had ever asked of her. It was more than she was willing to confront. However, we were more stubborn than she was. One letter at a time, one reward after another (Okay, so they were bribes!), one day after another day, on and on…. By the age of nine she was writing the alphabet on the Braille writer.
Reading and writing. All schoolchildren learn to do it. Anna was destined to read and write. Right? Well, not if she could help it. She did everything in her power to keep it from happening. Papers were torn from the Braille writer, the raised letters were scratched out with her fingers, and she would refuse to read. She definitely didn’t pay attention to what she was reading and asking her what a story was about was impossible. The lessons were turned into confrontations. Meanwhile, whether she liked or not, she was learning to read. We marked the milestones as we went along. We congratulated her on the smallest of victories, made celebrations of mastering a new word or contraction. Reading the letters were good, reading a whole word was terrific, making it all the way through a sentence (even if it was only three words) was magnificent. Slowly but surely she was getting the words from her fingertips to her brain, the electrical sparks were flying and she was learning to read paragraphs and stories – “Pam and Tim were playing on the seesaw.” Spelling words were being read from the page and spelled back out through the Braille writer. By the age of eleven Anna was grudgingly reading short stories.
Braille literacy doesn’t come easy; well, not for some people. You name it, we’ve tried it: library books, constantly looking for new ways to make reading and writing an adventure, summer reading programs, Dr. Seuss books, rhymes, the Braille Readers Are Leaders Contest, jokes, teachers who never give up, pen pals through the Slate Pals program, poems, big brothers who read stories with lots of inflection and the silliest voices. It hasn’t been easy. It’s been one of the hardest jobs we’ve ever taken on. But, through perseverance, hard work, and just plain being more stubborn than Anna, we think we’re winning the battle for Anna to learn to read.
One of the library books that came from the South Carolina State Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped this summer was Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham. Her big brother had read it to her using marvelously silly voices, describing the looks on the characters faces, showing as much humor as he possibly could. As a result, Anna also enjoyed reading Green Eggs and Ham, to herself and to others. She enjoyed it so much that she asked for her own copy. Fortunately, we were able to buy a copy in the exhibit hall at the NFB National Convention in Philadelphia. She read it again and again and again. She read it because it was FUN. She ENJOYED reading to us! She read on the bed, and in a train, and in the rain. She read it to those who wanted to listen; she read it to those who didn’t want to listen.
Guess what? At the age of thirteen, Anna has learned to read!