Observations WIthout Sight: Teach Your Children Well

While at a friend’s house a few weeks ago, a little boy loudly asked his mother, “Is that the one with bwinded eyes?” His mother quietly told him yes, and then quickly tried to distract him with other things. Not to be deterred, he asked me, “How did your eyes get bwinded?” I must admit that I don’t have much experience around little children and feel a bit awkward around them no matter what the situation. But I told him openly that my eyes didn’t work because I’d been born too early, before they were ready to work. (OK, not completely accurate, but close enough.)

His mother continued to shush him and I felt a little angry at this. I wanted to say (but didn’t) “You’re teaching your child, right here and now, that blindness is something we shouldn’t talk about, something shameful perhaps.” I doubt very much that this was her intention, and I can’t imagine what it’s like to have a young child and be embarrassed about what they’re saying or doing, worried that it will offend someone else. But if I could get one message across to parents of young children, it would be:

You know better than anyone how curious your child is, how eager they are to learn. Let them learn; let them ask questions, interact, engage. Please, don’t worry about me. There’s nothing your child could say that I haven’t heard before, and I’m not likely to be offended by a little one who is learning.

girl petting guide dogAbout a week after that, I was walking down the street when a little 6-year old girl and her father came up to me. She asked if she could pet my guide dog, Colbert. I stopped, had Colbert sit, and let her pet him. She asked me why my eyes weren’t open, and I told her that since they’d never worked, sometimes I just forget to open them. She asked about how Colbert and I did things, and her father told her that we do the same things everyone else does, just sometimes a little differently. She asked why I couldn’t see, and I told her I’d been born 3 months early. It turned out that so had she, and that we both weighed 1 pound 11 ounces.

This was a wonderful experience mainly due to her father’s open attitude, his willingness to allow her to ask questions, and to take that risk of possibly embarrassing or offending someone. If parents have a general attitude of kindness toward others and sensitivity to the feelings of other people, their children will pick up on this and learn from them. It will be much less likely that a child’s comments or actions when they see someone who is different will come from a place of criticism or meanness, and much more likely they will just want to learn!

Love your children, teach them to love, and allow them to engage, connect, and explore that common ground that we as humans all share!

 

Wynter Pingel works as a braille proofreader at National Braille Press in Boston, MA.

What’s in a Name?

A lot, actually, especially if you are trying to come up with a name for a new program or website. You want people to “get it” as soon as they hear it. And you want it to be easy to say (or type).

Earlier this year National Braille Press asked me to serve as a consultant on their new program for children.

“What’s the program about?” I asked.

They told me it’s a free, online resource offering accessible, multi-sensory activities for parents and teachers to help them bring picture books to life for their kids. There’s advice on how to describe pictures in books, how to explain colors to kids who are totally blind, and lots of ideas for ways to experience the intangible concepts in books, which can be particularly difficult for kids who are blind.

“Wow! That’s amazing! I’m definitely on board! What’s the program called?”

Well, that hadn’t been decided yet. Diane Croft, Publisher & Creative Producer at NBP, told me they were using a place-holder name: “Great Expectations.”

I didn’t love it (partly because it made me think of Charles Dickens and top hats), but it worked for the time being. Plus part of the fun was going to be coming up with a name and thinking about how to present this program!

We met with the brilliantly talented team at FableVision Studios, a transmedia development studio, to brainstorm and came up with a list of questions the program’s branding needed to answer. What is the message? What is the vision of the program? What are we trying to say?

We had some ideas based on the building blocks of what we already knew. We’re trying to make picture books more accessible. We also want families to understand that just because their child is blind doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy picture books. With the right motivation and adaptations, this is possible!

Our whiteboard looked something like this (only messier):

  • Picture the Possible
  • Picture Power
  • PicturePlay
  • The Whole Story
  • Touching Pictures
  • The Big Picture
  • Get the Picture
  • In Touch
  • Imagine Stories
  • Sensing Stories
  • Reading on the Move

It all felt so close… but not quite there. Picture the Possible and The Whole Story were frontrunners.

FableVision made up some really magnificent artwork to accompany the brainstorming process:

Picture the Possible sketch of a girl and her cat on a flying book     The Whole Story sketch of a girl sitting on a large book at a farm

And that’s when it hit me. It’s all about expecting more… more for our kids and from ourselves as parents and educators. Our children have the right to access literacy in the format that suites them best, but we can’t stop there. They also have the right to imagine and enjoy reading. They have the right to fall in love with a story or a character, to play out their own alternative endings, and to experience the words in the book in real, tangible ways. We need to help them learn how to get the most of books and we need to expect that this can happen.

We need to have Great Expectations!Great Expectations logo of a girl and her dog on a flying book

It’s not about Charles Dickens or top hats… it’s about attitude!

And that is the short version of the long story of how Great Expectations got its name.

Now I love the name!

Amber Bobnar lives with her husband and nine-year-old son, Ivan, in Watertown, MA, where Ivan, who was born blind and multiply disabled, attends the Lower School at Perkins School for the Blind. Amber is founder and website administrator of WonderBaby.org, a website dedicated to supporting parents and caregivers of children who are blind or visually impaired, with or without additional disabilities.

Asking for Braille in an Ink-Print World

“I’d like a braille menu, with a dollop of liberation, and some extra pickles, please”

We all know what it is like to ask for materials in braille. The responses to our requests run the gamut:

  • ‘Yes, of course we can do that for you!”
  • “We’re not required to, so we won’t.”
  • “What’s ‘braille?’”
  • “Gee, I didn’t think they still used that.”
  • “Yes, our goal is try to get it done hopefully, if we can, within a year, if we have the resources and nothing else comes up that is more worthy of our limited funds.”

We breathe deeply, as we step into the unpredictable, choppy and often chilly tidal pool of Request. We breathe deeply as we take in each response, knowing this will not be the last time we need to ask. We know that we might be facing the need to fight for what we sometimes have the right to have, but often do not have the right to have, but need. Fighting takes a lot of energy, as does educating people. As does being without freedom—without our right to read.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires some entities ADA poster(namely governmental and public educational organizations) to provide braille upon request. Private entities are not required to provide braille specifically, but are required to provide materials in a format accessible to the non-ink-print reader. This format can, at the discretion of the institution, take various forms including braille, or reading an entire document to the non-ink print reader over the telephone. The latter option is usually not very effective for us, but as the law now stands, it is within the right of the private institution to offer only that.

When pressed to provide us with braille, some private institutions will do so, sometimes because it is the right thing to do, sometimes for good public relations (although we braille readers are a pretty small population to impress), but many private institutions do not respond positively. To show a contrast: I frequent a popular restaurant in Cambridge Massachusetts, where I have asked about braille menus for over two years, and nothing has come of it except pluck, promises, sympathy and well-wishes. My local bank, on the other hand, received my request, researched their options and began sending me braille statements within months. They didn’t have to; they chose to. They chose to give me my freedom.

It can be difficult to ask for what we need. We have to do it constantly. We run the risk of being denied (sometimes crudely, rudely or cruelly), degraded, hurt and demoralized. But we must persist, and ask for braille materials when we need them. The ADA should have covered our right to read. Instead they left a yawning hole that we braille readers step or fall into everyday day, and we have the sore ankles to show for it. But we can persevere: we can advocate for changes to the law that will weave us into the fabric of social life; we can appreciate what we receive from the people who understand what our freedom looks like; and we can take the risk of educating the ink-print world about what braille means to us.

And we do all of this because, frankly, we must assume (if only for our own well-being in the world) that they care and mostly want to do the moral—if not legal—thing.

braille Starbucks menu

Reading a Starbucks menu in braille, produced by NBP

And we can talk with others about the burden of asking; others who understand that asking someone in power for one’s freedom is a very intense and courageous thing to do. Because, very clearly, when we are asking for anything in braille, we are asking to be freed. Until that freedom comes to us by law, we will need to continue to push for it, and have sore ankles. And sometimes, sometimes, we get that braille menu, with those extra pickles, and it includes that dollop of liberation.

How Braille Played a Role in My Summer Internship

“There is a wonder in reading Braille that the sighted will never know: to touch words and have them touch you back.”–Jim Fiebig

Learning to read and write braille are essential skills for any visually impaired person to learn and braille remains an important skill which I use on a daily basis. Throughout grade school, and now in college, I use braille every day to read, write and communicate quickly and efficiently. It was no different when I began my summer internship in Boston.

Marisa Parker with colleagues

Ann Murphy, Marisa Parker, and Stephanie Fleming at O’Neill & Associates

For the past few months, I have worked as a public relations intern at O’Neill and Associates (O&A). O&A is a Boston-based public affairs consulting firm that I became familiar with while volunteering as a National Braille Press spokesperson on numerous occasions. Writing  press releases, compiling lists of media contacts and taking notes on client meetings and conference calls are all part of my duties as an O&A intern.

My refreshable braille device, which I use to take notes in meetings or on client calls, functions like a laptop for me. I use the computer to write press releases and compose media lists. My refreshable braille display and the text-to-speech screen reading computer software, JAWS, are indispensable tools for me to successfully complete my intern responsibilities.

I not only use braille at my internship, but also as a college student. At school, I am learning to play the flute and am teaching myself the braille music code so I can learn pieces quickly and capably. I use braille to read books and edit papers as well.

I am very fortunate that from an early age my family and teachers encouraged me to read and write braille. If a person is literate more opportunities are open to them. For this reason, it is important for visually impaired people to have the opportunity to learn braille. Organizations such as National Braille Press make this idea a reality by publishing accessible braille materials for the blindness community. Every day, I realize more and more that braille has become an integral part of my life which I do not take for granted and could not live without

Apple Keeps Us Moving Forward

It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to. You would cry, too.

After spending a year plus editing Larry Lewis’s book iOS Success: Making the iPad Accessible,multi color apple store it had a pregnant shelf life of exactly nine months. That’s because Apple pushed out a new baby shortly thereafter. And did I mention NBP edited, transcribed, proofed, pressed, and designed Larry’s book in seven different formats?

And now it’s happening again. After spending ten months with the remarkable Janet Ingber on her new book, Learn to Use the Mac with VoiceOver: A Step-by-Step Guide for Blind Users, an email arrived in my inbox: Will Janet be updating her Mac book this fall when Yosemite is released?

I didn’t reply. Instead, I went out and bought myself an oversized, anti-viral, ultra soft, aloe-soaked box of Kleenex and had myself a cry party. And then… sniff…

I got a tweet from that rascal Jonathan Mosen that he was already working on version 8 of his book, iOS 7 Without the Eye, which we transcribed last year. I stopped mid-sniffle and dashed off an email: Johnny, same deal as last time? You bet, came the reply. And then the incomparable Anna Dresner phoned: Will we want her to update Getting Started with the iPhone? Yes, please.

Not a word of complaint from Larry or Janet or Jonathan or Anna.apple new products Our indomitable authors (and consumers) are already moving on. It’s the way things are. Our authors, who are also consumers, have been “in the game” since 1984, when NBP published “A Beginner’s Guide to Personal Computers for the Blind and Visually Impaired.” I haven’t calculated how many technology books have shipped out since then, but I do know we’ve sold 11,844 iOS books alone.

James Baldwin said, “People can cry much easier than they can change.” It appears some do; others move on.