BOSTON — Anne Marie Walsh's vision was just good enough in her youth for her to get by without learning Braille.
Now she's blind and, without Braille, illiterate.
"For 15 years, I've been floundering without being able to read or write," said Walsh, now 39. "I'm an intelligent person and to think I'm almost 40 years old and illiterate is a sin."
Walsh runs her own food service business in Bedford, not far from where Helen Keller attended Radcliffe College. Walsh never finished college because she was totally blind by that age and could not keep up with her studies.
She is one of the hundreds of blind people who are pushing to increase Braille literacy. The Massachusetts Legislature is considering a bill that would tighten education requirements to make sure Braille is taught to the blind and the visually impaired.
Of more than 1,000 blind students in the state, only 50 are using Braille texts. Walsh is trying to teach herself Braille, and says she is finally able to do her own bookkeeping using her new skills.
Supporters of rigorous Braille training say they are not opposed to high-tech help, and many use computers and electronic readers with voice simulators as aids.
But they say voice simulators cannot replace the speed and efficiency of the Braille system of raised characters, developed in the last century by a Frenchman, Louis Braille. Fluency in Braille allows blind people to read as quickly as sighted people.
Supporters say Braille literacy is crucial to getting a job. Nationwide, 70% of working-age blind people are unemployed, said Kim Charlson of the Braille Revival League.
Of those with jobs, about 90% are literate in Braille. Only about 30% of those who are unemployed have Braille skills.
A recent study in the Milbank Quarterly, a social science journal, estimated there are about 1.1 million blind people in this country.
Organizations representing the blind say the numbers of blind people are increasing, because people are living longer and vision frequently declines with age.
There are several reasons for the decline in Braille use. Children with disabilities have been "mainstreamed" into the public school system, where Braille training may not be available. And new technology has given the blind alternatives, such as talking computers.
"Since that trend started, more and more students have been allowed to go through school and graduate without having any functional Braille skills," said Oral Miller, executive director of the American Council of the Blind in Washington, D.C.
Massachusetts State Rep. Patricia Jehlen said the problem also stems from a decline in diseases that cause blindness in infancy and early childhood.
"The main causes of blindness are now ones that kick in later in life," Jehlen said, adding that while a child still has some sight left "there's a certain amount of denial both by parents and teachers."
Walsh knows about such denial. Her mother recently reminded her that she had a chance to learn Braille when she was 9, but she declined. Now she wishes an adult had made the choice for her.
"I would like to see a lot of children saved this heartache," she said.