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Stevie Wonder’s Trail to Braille

This is part of our series on the importance of braille literacy. We asked braille readers about their introduction to the braille system and how braille has changed their lives. This is part of a campaign to promote the Braille Trail Reader LE, a limited edition refreshable braille display from APH: https://bit.ly/2CNHeWO

A young Stevie Wonder smiling with his head resting in his hands
If you watched Stevie Wonder’s turn as an awards presenterat the 2016 Grammy Awards, you know he made a splash by reading the winner offan envelope embossed in braille, and Wonder took the opportunity to reaffirmhimself as one of the world’s foremost advocates for accessibility.

 

But it wasn’t always that easy.

 

The little boy who would grow up to be Stevie Wonder wasborn Steveland Morris in Saginaw, Michigan in May 1950. Born premature, he was hustled into anincubator in the hospital’s nursery ward. Doctors knew the incubators provided vital warmth and oxygen anddramatically improved an infant’s chance at survival, but what they did notknow was that too much oxygen could damage the baby’s eyes. And Steveland would be one of many thousandswho would emerge from the experience blind.

 

Traditionally, kids who were blind had attended residentialschools, but by the mid-20th century, larger cities had created day schoolprograms. By that time living inDetroit, with his mother Lula and five brothers and sisters, Stevie attendedFitzgerald Elementary, the public school that hosted students with visualimpairments. But he had attendance problems. Even as a boy of twelve, Stevie had beendiscovered by the hitmakers at Motown Records, and he, and his mother, were introuble with the Detroit Public School System, for truancy.

 

Berry Gordy, the legendary head at Motown, tried to head offthe problem by hiring a tutor, a middle-aged retired teacher from the KentuckySchool for the Blind, Peggy Traub. Mrs.Traub didn’t mind tutoring the boy but found the job of supervising a teenageboy on a musical tour more than she could handle. She suggested contacting the Michigan Schoolfor the Blind’s well-regarded superintendent, Robert Thompson, to see ifThompson could recommend anyone. Andindeed, Thompson could.

 

Ted Hull, a graduate of Thompson’s school, had just leftMichigan State University with his degree as a teacher of the visuallyimpaired. Contacted by Gordy’s sister,Esther, Hull agreed to take on the job. His story is told in fascinating detail in his 2000 memoir The WonderYears.

 

It was 1963 when Ted met Stevie for the first time. Ted Hull found that although Stevie wastechnically a sixth grader, he had missed so much time that he would need tostart Stevie out at the fifth-grade level. And he needed equipment: brailletextbooks, a talking book phonograph, a tape recorder, a Perkins braillewriter, a braille slate and stylus, braille paper, and a cubarithm board, a toolused to work out arithmetic problems in braille. And he needed to develop relationships,relationships with the tour coordinators and relationships at the MichiganSchool for the Blind, where Stevie would be enrolled as an ordinary studentwhen not traveling the world as a superstar.

 

Classes had to be fitted in between recording sessions,rehearsals, and performances. Impromptuclasses took place in hallways or corners backstage. As Hull remembered, “The world became hisclassroom.” And Stevie’s bright youngmind absorbed it all like a sponge. Itwas a unique experience, one designed expressly for a very unique youngman. In 1969, Stevie graduated from MSB. But his braille trail, his record as anadvocate for full accessibility, was only just beginning.

 

What’s your braille trail?Share your story to braille literacy with us for a chance to be featured in our braille literacy series: [email protected]

Eden Martin
He loves travelling and an amazing writer at FredForum. An extrovert who is found with a group of friends any day except when he is writing.

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