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Fall 2001 Table of Contents
Versión Español de este artículo (Spanish Version)

A Personal Journey to Literacy

By Jeff Moyer, Highland Heights, Ohio

Editor's note: Jeff Moyer is a true renaissance man -- songwriter, author, passionate public speaker, publisher, and champion of the dignity of all people. His unique blend of humor, music, and powerful ideas has been heard by audiences in 46 states, in Australia, throughout Canada, and in the Virgin Islands. Moyer's published books of classroom activities and his new musical How Big Is Your Circle? are at work in schools and communities worldwide, promoting acceptance of difference, genuine community, and overcoming exclusion, ridicule, and violence. Jeff's six albums of recorded original music span many styles, themes, and forms, but share the common attribute of lifting high the dignity of the human spirit and showcasing the thought, depth, and heart of this talented and versatile musician. His entertaining, moving, and uplifting keynotes make him a popular and sought-after conference presenter for diverse audiences at both national and international meetings. Texans may remember Jeff as the keynote speaker at last spring's TAER conference, or from the Future Horizons family workshop in Galveston. Outreach spoke with Jeff at TAER about his experiences with different media and his definition of literacy. If you would like to know more about Jeff, visit his website at www.jeffmoyer.com.

1. Tell us about your transitions into different learning media and what you use now.

I had full vision until I was five years old. I remember studying print wherever I saw it, and I eagerly awaited the day when I could master the ease and wonder of reading. When the day came to enter kindergarten, I brimmed with excitement. Throughout the school there was printing on bulletin boards, classroom blackboards and books were everywhere. By first grade, when print reading and writing was introduced, however, the early deterioration of my retinas was beginning to impact my ability to see detail. I remember being unable to see the print in the giant Dick and Jane reader that sat on the table in the front of the classroom, and the necessity of holding my reader closer than anyone else in order to read. When my parents observed, after a life threatening bout of measles, that I was not seeing normally, they were told by an optometrist that I wanted to wear glasses, and that there was nothing wrong with my vision. My father insisted that I not pretend, and I would snap the funnies to normal reading distance when he entered the room. In second grade, I was taken to an excellent ophthalmologist who began seeing me twice a year.

The grim march of vision loss continued with devastating results on my ability to read normally or easily. Throughout elementary school, the twin forces of increasingly smaller print and greater volume of reading, and my slowly eroding vision made schoolwork difficult, frustrating and disheartening. My dad bought every drug store magnifier he could find, I was prescribed bifocals that did very little good, and I felt like a drowning swimmer. The perplexed ophthalmologist scratched his head about the cause, but validated and documented the death of my retinas.

At age 11, I had crossed the magic threshold of legal blindness and two powerful things occurred. First, I was seen at a low vision clinic where I picked out a powerful magnifier for books and a telescope with which I could read the blackboard. These tools were wonderful and I remember my elation sitting in the clinic learning to use them. But using devices that look strange and are not understood by other students kept me from using them under anything but required circumstances. I can still feel the flush of embarrassment as I pulled the opera glass monocular out of my gym bag to read the board from the front row or read a test with my thick magnifier. My reading was now possible but slow, fatiguing and even painful, and I realized that creeping along with my magnifier was not going to get me through the volume of reading ahead of me.

My mother stepped in and began to read to me: a very welcome relief. At the same time, I was enrolled in the Talking Book program, and the world of easy, effortless, and boundless reading opened to me like a prairie. I would spend Sunday afternoons and many evenings reading book after book, and I relaxed and read and read.

That same year, I was pulled out of my local elementary school and placed in another district with a resource room and a special education teacher. Braille was introduced, and I remember the shame and pain that accompanied that year. No counseling or support was offered concerning the trauma and grief of losing vision, and my fear of blindness kept Braille at bay with steel cables of complete resistance.

Despite the best efforts of dear old Miss Stone, my Braille teacher, I refused to genuinely apply myself to the work under hand. The judgment of Miss Stone, a social worker and my parents was that I was not "ready" for Braille. In retrospect, the reality was that there would never again be the opportunity to learn Braille under the instruction of a teacher and with time committed to surmount the learning itself.

The school did have large print books, which I despised. The books were oversized, and I read smashed to my magnifier flat on the page. It was impossible to maintain a comfortable posture while reading the wide and long pages of the books. Reading with my magnifier always caused neck and back pain and ultimately chronic postural strain.

Miss Stone did teach me to type, and I took to the old Royal mechanical typewriter like a serious student of old Master QWERTY. After that one year in sixth grade, I never read a large print book again, but I sure started typing and never looked back. I typed on my large print typewriter and found it better than small print. Reading a page or so of typing was just another slow and glacial reading task. In any case, I think we got rid of that old beauty when I was in high school, and I traded the large print machine for a trim portable manual with regular type. I would check my place and make corrections with a high power magnifier which was needed, in any case, to read large print.

I was returned to public school and fellow students were paid to read to me at school and at home, and the accommodation of having certain tests read aloud to me at home or in a teacher's office. Actually, I use readers at least some of the time to this day.

By tenth grade a reel-to-reel tape recorder sat on my desk in my room and I listened to all my textbooks, read by the National Braille Press. Stronger and smaller magnifiers allowed me to read for short periods, and I even took timed tests, but not very successfully without accommodation.

During my college career, cassettes became a part of my reading world and have stayed a constant companion, initially supplementing, and then replacing, reels of tape and records.

I began using CCTVs in the early seventies, and was blown away. I could see easily to read and write, although not for bulk reading. I had hoped that those amazing devices would free me to jump onto print and finally read effortlessly. I even convinced the State of California Department of Rehabilitation to buy me a system for college. I presented a cost/benefit analysis showing how much money would be saved over reader service. Alas, with the magic box I was still not able to read volumes of text, but I was able to read my notes without effort and study without postural strain and discomfort. After school, I continued to use CCTVs on the job, including two camera systems for monitoring typing and reading simultaneously.

I worked for several years at Telesensory Systems Inc., and while there I became one of the first individuals to use a computer that generated enlarged characters. The engineering department where I worked doing human factor studies on new technology used a massive development computer, that included programs for word processing and an intriguing computer game called Dungeons and Dragons. A friend wrote a program that "painted" the screen with greatly enlarged characters. This gave me access to writing and even to the addictive adventure game. I didn't know the program code, so my writing was not editable, but I certainly did use the capacity. I would give the print command to the computer and printer in another room and then go and retrieve the grants, reports, teaching materials or whatever I was working on, tear off the sheets, and give them to my secretary to retype on an electric typewriter. Talk about repetition!

In 1984 I obtained a new portable computer called The Viewscan. It was a wonderful system, with a right to left scrolling orange on black computer screen. Many presentations were written and read using that magic box. But my retinas were losing the battle against slow death and within a few years the system became unusable. I still kept a CCTV on my desk and would use it for straining to see very limited text, but my desktop computer use had morphed into voice output, augmented by enlarged characters.

In 1988 I obtained a Keynote, a highly portable word processor with voice output. For the first time, I could write and read my work without effort. I am a songwriter and poet. At the time I was also writing many grants, articles for publication, and the other sorts of business communication required of an ambitious young administrator. Books were mine through cassettes and the elegant little players that had evolved. But for me, reading is as much about reading my own writing as it is reading books. So computers that gave me the ability to freely write and edit, review and refine, were a dramatic boost to my overall literacy. The technology has changed for me, but I still use voice output computers exclusively and love the freedom and power they provide.

Ten years ago I severely damaged my hands through overuse, typing, guitar playing, and carrying my portable computer back and forth from work. Repetitive strain injury is the leading workplace injury these days, and I found myself with very painful, limited hands. I can't type on a regular keyboard, lift a suitcase, shake hands, clap, or do anything else that requires much finger grip and articulation. I moved to a Braille `n Speak and now a Voicenote due to the Braille keyboards that require less finger torque and range of motion. Technology saved me once again.

Several years ago I began using the Kurzwiel Voice for input into my desktop computer. This has proven to be an excellent, albeit tedious, method for input and data retrieval, and is a great step forward when paired with a screen reader and voice synthesizer.

2. Do you consider audio input as a literacy media?

Absolutely. One needs to know how to write, spell, think critically, digest, and absorb the written word, but I have been reading through listening for over 40 years. From sixth grade through graduate school and throughout my busy and varied career activities, live readers, tapes, computers and scanners have been my key to the wondrous world of ideas and communication. I have listened/read avidly since childhood and have been a writer of one sort or another throughout my life. The fact that my Braille skills are limited to Grade One input and the labeling of items in short, simple notes is beside the point.

Literacy should include the ability to read and write. Thanks to technology, those of us who did not have a solid education that included Braille instruction can still compete and share in the discourse between people. Across time, that is the hallmark of literacy.

I do believe that children need to be taught a literacy media that is portable and efficient. Today's technological tools have provided the means through which we can now easily write and read using small portable systems that generate refreshable Braille, synthetic speech or enlarged characters. As long as one is competitive, actively learning and gaining independence and learning skills, does it matter if a tool is used? Some might argue that reliance on technology is not literacy. Is reliance on a wheelchair not mobility?

Braille and print rely on literacy through the fingers and eyes. I am a highly literate person, relying on literacy through the ears.

I'm Reading with my Ears

I'm reading with my ears you know,
I'm reading what I hear
The words I read fulfill my need.
They make ideas clear
I'm grateful for the faculty communication here,
I'm reading what I'm hearing,
yes I'm reading with my ears.

I'm listening with my eyes you know,
I'm hearing what I see
The signs and faces of my friends
Make it quite clear to me
I'm listening with my eyes
to all the language that I see
I'm listening with my eyes,
your hands are speaking right to me.

I'm looking with my hands you know,
I'm seeing what I feel
When I can touch it means so much,
it makes concepts come real.
I'm seeing with my hands -
all that I touch I really see Ideas rush.
It makes sense to touch.
It makes it clear to me.

I'm living my own life.
You know, I'm living my own way
The differences in how I do don't need get in the way.
The only blocks I face
are those within some people's minds
I'm living free inside of me.
I've left my fear behind.

(c) Jeff Moyer 1996

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