Braille Is Sexy

The first braille I ever laid eyes on was a braille Playboy belonging to my blind friend, Edgardo, who lived on the third floor of my apartment building. It had the word Playboy emblazoned in black ink across the front cover
Playboy magazine in braille with the iconic rabbit-in-a-bowtie logo and National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped printed in the bottom left-hand corner. But when I opened the magazine up, it was completely blank—a vast expanse of white goose bumps, a blizzard of snowy dots.

I remember asking Edgardo, half jokingly, “Where are all the pictures?” and turning the magazine over and over in my hands, wondering if it was upside down or right side up. So many dots, each one casting a tiny shadow, like the view from an airplane flying over a country of igloos. “It doesn’t have any pictures,” said Edgardo, taking the magazine from my hands and reading it silently to himself. “But it has descriptions. And it has captions. And I have my imagination.”

Then he began to read aloud: “Becky Dupree, Miss March, leans seductively against a door jamb of the barn, wearing a cowboy hat and a button-down cerulean shirt open to her navel…” “Get out of here! It doesn’t say that,” I said. “Take a look at this,” he said, handing me back the magazine,Hands on braille his index finger-pointing to a row of dots halfway down the page, as indecipherable to me as a “You Are Here” sign in Mandarin. I was intrigued. So this was braille. But how on earth did it work? How were the letters represented? The punctuation? The paragraphs? Where was the alphabet in all this whiteout of dots?

It was right then and there that I resolved to learn it; to teach myself braille; to see for myself if Becky Dupree was indeed wearing a cerulean shirt unbuttoned to her navel. I was going to demystify this inscrutable code that most people, myself included, assumed was something that only the blind could apprehend. What did I have to lose?

Braille was the most interesting, the most provocative thing to cross my path since I’d broken up with my college girlfriend and run away to Boston where I was working a dead-end job in a delicatessen. With nothing to claim my interest or attentions, why not give myself over to braille?

“May I keep this?” I asked Edgardo, holding the braille Playboy to my chest in a protective, possessive attitude, as though it were Becky Dupree herself. Luckily, Edgardo was willing to part with the magazine, seeing as it was the March issue and we were now in the middle of July. He was months behind in his reading, the braille Playboys, Reader’s Digests, National Geographics and Washington Post Book Worlds in piles all around his apartment, leaning towers of braille growing precariously toward the ceiling like stalagmites in a dark cave.

The day after commandeering Edgardo’s Playboy, I signed up for a correspondence course in braille transcription through the Hadley School for the Blind in Winnetka, Illinois, and I spent the next twelve months learning the braille code. I kept Edgardo’s Playboy under my bed for that whole year, taking it out and dusting it off now and then to hunt for Becky Dupree, who, when I was finally fluent enough to find her, wasn’t even in there in the end. Once I’d read the whole issue, front to back, I finally realized, a little too late, that Edgardo had invented her. He’d made her up just to get my goat, which in the end is what goaded me on to learn braille.

A Revolutionary Tea Party: A Moment of Shared Accessibility

Boston fashioned its revolutionary identity hurling tea into the Boston Harbor—an iconic event that inspired a second Tea Party movement hundreds of years later. But this post is about a third Boston tea party event, not as well-known, but revolutionary in its own right.

Several months ago, four of us—Mike Mellor, author of Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius, Ann Cunningham, a renowned sculptor and tactile artist, JoAnn Becker, an NBP Trustee and technology trainer at Perkins, and myself, a publisher at NBP—attended the unveiling of the Edgar Allan Poe statue in Boston. Edgar Allan Poe statue in BostonOne of the best-kept secrets of Boston’s literary history is the fact that Edgar Allan Poe was born here.

Moments after they removed the covering from his life-size statue, the four of us pushed hard against an enormous crowd to get close enough to touch Poe’s swirling cape, to trace the enormous wingspan of his raven, even to insert our hands into the raven’s screeching beak. It was a moment of shared accessibility and we felt giddy.

In fact, it was the second time that day that we shared a moment of culture and art. Earlier, passing by the Museum of Fine Arts, we spontaneously decided to venture in to see what might be accessible to us all. As we walked through the heavy doors, Ann suddenly remembered that she had worked with Steve Landau at Touch Graphics, and Hannah Goodwin, Manager of Accessibility at the Museum, to create a tactile book that explores American Style through the centuries by showcasing contrasting teapot designs!

Each era was illustrated with an example of a teapot MFA book in print and braille on period teapotscreated in that period’s style, and embossed in low relief. Accompanying text, in large print and braille, described each design in detail. The coup d’ grace was an electronic pen that, when any element of the design was touched, would provide even more information. Unfortunately the battery in the pen had run out and we were not able to access this feature. But by now our batteries were already charged with this unexpected treat, as Ann and JoAnn sat down on an ancient museum bench to explore Style: Period Details Explored in Teapots as tactile designer and art devotee respectively.

“I feel I have as clear a vision of what those teapots look like, and each unique period’s design, as anyone sighted,” said JoAnn, as we left the museum. “I had no idea until today that I prefer the Federalist period of teapots over the Empire era and precisely why!”

It seemed an ordinary and an extraordinary afternoon among friends—as simple and yet as exquisite as a teapot.



What Braille Readers Found Interesting in 2014

What blog posts did braille readers and others interested in National Braille Press find  interesting in 2014? Our  annual report for our blog, Inside NBP, revealed the answer.

The top posts were:

  1. Ruby Bridges and Her Teacher Reunite Because of a Print/Braille Book” by Diane Croft
  2. Blind iPhone Empowerment” by Barry Scheur
  3. Observations Without Sight: Teach Your Children Well” by Wynter Pingel
  4. No One Told Me Braille Was Hard, So it Wasn’t” by Edward Bell
  5. Minding Your P’s and Q’s: Learning Braille as an Older Adult” by Helen Kobek

Hands on braille page

Here’s an excerpt from the Annual Report:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. Inside NBP was viewed about 11,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

What Does a Spicy Pepper Have to Do With Social Change?

By Bill Raeder and Jeanne Flannery

Kanthari is the name of a small pepper kanthari peppernative to southern India. It is hot and spicy, variable in its color and qualities as it ripens, and has nutritional and health benefits.  Kanthari is also an institute for social change in the southern Indian state of Kerala.  Its formal name is the International Institute for Social Entrepreneurs, but it is called Kanthari because it too is hot and spicy in its pursuit of the betterment of the human condition.

Social visionaries from around the world come there as “Participants,” each with their seedling of an idea for a grassroots project to reverse a social injustice inflicted upon some marginalized group. Staff and volunteers with relevant experience work as “Catalysts” to help Participants formulate their “big kanthari 1dreams” into concrete plans for well structured projects. Catalysts also provide them with tools for such functions as financial control, project management, and fundraising. Most of the Participants are from Africa and Asia and many of them have experienced in their own lives a “pinch point” where they have experienced and overcome adversity.

Take Samuel, for example, from Uganda, who was kidnapped and pressed into service as a child soldier. He was commanded to kill a woman who was disabled. Knowing he would be going before the firing squad, he refused. Because the commander of the firing squad happened to know his father, Samuel managed to get away and escape.  After his son became deaf from Malaria, he directly experienced discrimination against the disabled, and inspired by that disabled woman, he was moved to start an organization in service to disabled people in his country.

Yamin from Myanmar is blind. Her project is to enable other blind women in her country to become economically self-sufficient by teaching them how to bake and how to launch their own bakeries.

Odion from Nigeria suffered the death of her sister in childbirth and now plans to greatly reduce such needless deaths in her country by providing health and maternity education to child-bearing aged women.

Nagendra from rural Nepal saw as a youth the ineffectiveness of the monarchy in improving social conditions such as education, medical care, and basic infrastructure.  As a young man he was jailed when fighting for what became the successful overthrow of the monarchy. Now, 20 years later, he sees that waste and corruption, mismanagement, and incompetence have prevented the Republic from doing much better. He is starting a volunteer organization in his village to work shoulder-to-shoulder with elected officials and town administrators to identify and plan improvement projects and to provide training in project management, resource allocation, and sustainable leadership. His dream is to thus make his village a model of progressive good management of public resources.

Others are addressing prejudices against certain subgroups of society like widows who are shunned by the community and even unjustly blamed for their husband’s death; teenage girls who become pregnant and are expelled from school as bad examples and are shunned by the community, even by their families; individuals with albinism who dread going out because they are so denigrated, even raped because of the superstition that sex with an albino will cure AIDS.

These are some of the 19 Participants that Jeanne and I worked with in our five-week stay there. We were volunteer Catalysts helping the Participants develop and present their “Dream Speeches” to be given as their last assignment before graduation. The requirement of presenting their project in a succinct, well-structured, and well rehearsed speech was for many of them also an exercise in refining and clarifying their project plans. Also, none of them learned English as their first language so they invited assistance with vocabulary and rhetoric. The Participants were happy, committed, and spirited as was the whole campus, so for us, working with them was an enriching and joyful experience.

braille without bordersThe two founders, Sabriye Tenberken from Germany and Paul Kronenberg from Holland are themselves wonderful models of social enterprise. They previously founded Braille without Borders, a school for blind children in Tibet, and The Farm, also in Tibet, a vocational training and skills development Center for the blind with its environmentally and financially sustainable agriculture and economically sound production of ancillary products like cheese and bread. Less than a decade ago, having delegated the daily management of the school and the farm to their graduates, they set forth to multiply their effect by founding Kanthari to stimulate, train, and support others to develop like projects.

They have taken a raw piece of jungle on a lake shore in the outskirts of the city of Trivandrum and created an attractive and kantharifunctional award-winning eco-friendly campus. In addition to an auditorium, various assembly rooms, a dormitory, an office building, and a kitchen from which three meals a day are served year-round, there is an outdoor amphitheater where 7:00am lectures are often conducted. Notably there are numerous places indoors and out where small groups of people may be spontaneously attracted to confer.

The class of 2014 graduated on December 19th with Participants acquiring their new appellation, Kantharis. They’ve gone home now to commence “Act V,” setting up their projects while still under the active mentorship of Catalysts back on campus.

Applicants for the class of 2015 starting in May are now being recruited with an online application deadline of February 15th. Special attention is being given to attract blind applicants.

Successful applicants who become participants receive a full scholarship including room, board, and laundry facilities, but they must meet these requirements: pay for their own transportation and visa, provide their own pocket-money, be 22 years of age or older, have sufficient proficiency in English for the conduct of all activities, have basic computer proficiency, and the big one – they must have a big dream.

Learn more about graduate Kantharis and their projects.

For the story of how a blind woman from Germany ended up as the cofounder of a school for blind children in Tibet and as the creator of the braille code for the Tibetan language read the fascinating book, My Path Leads to Tibet by Sabriye Tenberken.

Why We Love Louis Braille

Wouldn’t you just love to give Louis Braille a tour of National Braille Press? To see the whole staff anticipating his arrival, scurrying around, but in a professional way, a little bit, with glee? To hear a knock on the door, open it and see Louis Braille, all humble and curious about doorbells? “Welcome, Mr. Braille!” you would say, containing your delight. “Please, come right this way…” as you begin gracefully angling through doorways together, guiding him from room to room, station to station, showing him the technologies that are his great-great-great-great-grandchildren?

And the pinnacle of the tour: putting into his hands the perforated and bound justice of parity-priced children’s braille books? Louis BrailleHow keen it would be to show him the enormity and organization of what he created, now in full form, breathing and active in a triple-decker building in Boston? To say to him, “Louis, we are so proud to claim you as our own.”

We would love to do all of that because we love Louis Braille. We love Louis Braille, most of us, without even knowing we love him. It’s a funny kind of love, this, for someone we have never seen in action let alone met. We have never seen him on YouTube demonstrating (patiently? grimly? amusedly?) how to track efficiently. We will never see him scissor his hands out mid-page, or ear him chuckle about a quietly read joke. We will never see his fingers gallop and click their way along the route of a slate, stylus plucking paper, inverting us forward. But still, unmet, we love Louis Braille.

braille alphabetLouis Braille is beloved for both his mystery and familiarity. Like a divine and wise ghost who trails around after each of us, and yet is everyday and forever untouchable. But we feel he is a good friend for what he gave us, what he went through for us. He would know what we continue to go through, as we seek access to the printed world. He would marvel at our progress, and yet feel concerned for us, and have the merest bit of shock that, with his code available, we non-print readers still struggle to gain access to the word.

Perhaps most significantly though we love Louis Braille because he died relatively unknown–no obituary and an insignificant burial. But he made a huge difference in millions (over time, billions) of lives. He was a small man in his world in his time, but his life and his contributions remind us that every person touches many others.

And what he did makes life better for those of us fortunate enough to know braille. In that way, he makes us feel that we matter. Our lives matter, our literacy matters, our safety and comfort matter. In a world where we still struggle for access, struggle to know what is on our bank statements and rail against an internalized message, “You are blind so you do not matter,” Louis Braille’s existence reminds us that our contributions matter. That our sufferings and joys, our letters in braille, our relationships, our successes and our losses, our thoughts and our humor all matter. We matter dot-by-dot…the way each itty-bitty dot matters in our reading. We are here, and we matter.

We will never know this man, this giver, this man-of-hands, this dotted sleeper giant of the blindness community. But we love him deeply, and we will continue to create, in his name, a literary world of freedom and justice. He embossed his way into our hearts, minds, spirits and bodies. And that is loveable.

And, as he leaves the halls of NBP, samples of embossed, definitive justice in-hand, we say to him, “Thank you, Mr. Braille, for gracing us with your presence here at NBP and in the world. We feel you here with us, and you are loved.”