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.

Braille: More than Words

For years I had heard what a wonderful experience it was to meet our customers and hear how much they value braille and National Braille Press. Of course, I had heard this sentiment expressed before given my long tenure at NBP. But it was a totally new experience hearing it over a period of several days from almost everyone who stopped by our booth when I attended my first ACB convention.

Several days back from my trip, I received an email from Leah Bernie whose parents were both blind. Her story, like so many of the stories I heard at the convention, touched my heart. Here’s what she had to say:

Dear National Braille Press, 

I am a sighted daughter of Sighted girl with print/braille booktwo blind adults, and I recently had a baby and ordered a board book from you for my mother to read with my daughter.  As a result, I started receiving your newsletter. This got me thinking about the impact your organization has had on my life, and I wanted to share that with you.  

My parents have both been avid readers since they learned Braille. My mother went blind in second grade and excelled in school and reading after she learned Braille. She recently retired from the State of Texas as a rehab and Braille instructor. Growing up, we had an abundance of print/Braille books and she would read to my sister and myself every night. As we got older, my mother would borrow chapter books from the library, and my sister and I would follow along in print as my mom read aloud.  

My father has been blind since he was a baby, and is one of the most well-read people I know. He has always been a great example of pursuing academic as well as pleasure reading. His stories of being young in rural Alabama and gaining access to Braille books have made me appreciate my own access to books.  

I am a high school teacher, and recently realized how very many families do not read together or have that as part of their lives. I am grateful that my parents have set that example and instilled such a love of reading in both myself and my sister. I am further grateful for the Children’s Braille Book Club for making that possible. You are also making it possible for my parents to connect with their grandchildren in a way that might not be possible otherwise. This realization nearly brought me to tears.  

The work you do is so important, and I am eternally grateful to have and continue to be benefitting from the accessibility of Braille. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!

Respectfully, 

Leah Bernie

Thank you, Leah, and thank you to so many others who took the time to tell me how much NBP has meant to them over the years. We are currently celebrating the 30th year of the Children’s Braille Book Club, and it is stories like yours that remind us what is important.

The Creative Partnership of Shirley and Irma

On Saturday, I went to the movies to see Life Itself, an unsparing documentary that exposes the complicated relationship between film critic Roger Ebert and his co-host Gene Siskel. For nearly two decades, they sparred publicly and passionately—issuing “thumbs up/thumbs down” movie reviews—and opened our minds to the fact that art is subjective.

On Sunday, I opened the Times to read “The End of ‘Genius’” by Joshua Wolf Shenk (NYT July 20, 2014), who opines that the idea of the lone genius is a myth. “The pair is the primary creative unit… at its heart, the creative process itself is about a push and pull between two entities….” The article references numerous creative pairs—Freud and Fliess, King and Abernathy, Picasso and Braque, Einstein and Besso, McCartney and Lennon. Each brought something the other didn’t have, tensions ensued, creativity blossomed.

On Monday, I received an email message that tactile artist Irma Goldberg had died. She was watching her two young grandchildren, making tea and Jell-O, and suddenly she was gone. Irma had been part of a creative team for 23 years, working alongside Shirley Keller, founder of Creative Adaptations for Learning. Irma was the creative director, Shirley the driving force behind its remarkable products.

“Her desk and my desk abutted each other for 23 years,” said Keller, over the phone. “We sat that way all day—sometimes not saying a word, sometimes we couldn’t stop talking. We were closer than a married couple.”

Shirley would have a brainstorm—and storm it was—and Irma would put pencil to paper and work out the details, sometimes going to the library to research an animal or object for weeks before she actually began to render the tactile drawing. The result of their collaboration was a rush of tactile books that surpassed anything that had come before, classics like Goodnight Moon to Touch, Humpty Dumpty and Other Touching Rhymes, Let’s Learn Shapes with Shapely-CAL, Touch and Learn Tactile Activities, Touch the Stars, and the endearing ABC Illustrated Flashcards.

Tactile image of two mittens from Good Night Moon to Touch

Tactile illustration by Irma Goldberg from Goodnight Moon to Touch

So today I am grieving the loss of a beautiful woman, outside and in, Irma Goldberg. I grieve as well for her tireless co-star, Shirley Keller, who pushed the limits of their remarkable union to the benefit of blind children and adults everywhere. When Shenk speaks of “the push and pull of love itself” as a creative force, he’s talking about Shirley & Irma: a pair of geniuses.