A Sighted Man’s Path to Braille

I am sighted and am often asked how I got into this field – if I had a personal connection to “blindness”. Most of my career had been working with non-profit organizations, but with a focus on education and the environment. I still remember the phone call I received from an executive recruiter in New York when she mentioned the open position for the president at National Braille Press.

Brian MacDonald's grandmother, Josephine-Ululani-MooreI had never heard of NBP, but I immediately had a flashback to my youth, and my maternal grandmother who was blind and would often sit me on her lap to teach me braille. My grandmother, Josephine Ululani E. Moore, grew up in the territory of Hawaii. When she was a young woman in her twenties, she lost her vision. This was caused by the 1918 Spanish Flu – it is assumed that the infection damaged her optic nerve.

I remember my grandmother as the most upbeat, happy and enthusiastic person I’d ever met. She had lived through extreme economic challenges. Her first husband left her. She survived the depression, remarried, and had a couple more children. My grandmother authored a cookbook, she gave lectures on the spiritual interpretation of the Hula dance, and she was an avid swimmer. It is her spirit, attitude, and independence that attracted me to help support the mission of NBP.Posed photo of Josephine-Ululani-Moore

My grandmother died peacefully in her sleep at our home when I was in high school. This was many, many years ago, before the personal computer was invented. I often think of her and how she would marvel at the technology of today.

My goal is to find technological solutions that will enable people who are blind or visually impaired, regardless of age or position, to compete in the world on an equal playing field. We are living in an amazing technological age and the need for braille remains as vital as ever.

Braille: Still a revolutionary idea

3 stamps featuring Abraham Lincoln, Charles Darwin, and Louis Braille

Postage stamps featuring Louis Braille, Abraham Lincoln, and Charles Darwin

Three revolutionary boys were born in the dawn of 1809: Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday we celebrate this month, Charles Darwin, and Louis Braille. I search Google for a comparison of their fame: Lincoln leads with 72,700,000 results, Darwin with 27,300,000, and Braille trails the pack with 1,180,000.

Who’s to judge their relative achievements? Each faced strong opposition to their points of view; each persevered with a fierce resolve and quiet strength. Most people are aware of the fortitude shown by both Lincoln and Darwin in the face of withering opposition, but few know that Braille’s trailblazing approach to reading and writing for his “fellows in misfortune,” as he referred to his classmates, was banned at the school where he invented it, under threat of punishment. “We had to learn the braille alphabet in secret,” as one student claimed later, “and when we were caught using it, we were punished.”

Fast-forward to a call this week from a customer, a sweet lady, from San Antonio, Texas. “I have an iPhone,” she begins the conversation. She heard NBP has a book to teach her how to use it. We do, I say, would you like the book in braille… it’s three volumes. No, she’s a slow braille reader, she admits, what other way can she read it? I offer eBraille. No, she doesn’t have a refreshable braille display. Word? No, she doesn’t have a computer. ePub? Doesn’t know how to use her iPhone yet. DAISY? No, no DAISY player. “I just have an iPhone,” she sighs.

Well, it looks like braille is your best bet, I say. Take it slow. A few pages a day and you’ll learn to use your iPhone. I hear her smile on the other end. Despite all these newfangled ways to read, only braille is going to teach her to use an iPhone in the 21st century. What a revolutionary idea.

Finding a Touch of Genius

Many of our customers and friends know that NBP, with support from The Gibney Family Foundation, offers a $20,000 prize called the Touch of Genius Prize for Innovation.  What few people know is how this process works.

Louis Braille flaming headTouch of Genius Prize for Innovation logo

The Prize was developed to inspire an innovator to continue the promotion of braille literacy for blind people worldwide.  Each year, NBP puts out a call for applications and receives a wide variety of projects ranging from educational methods to tactile literacy products to high-tech solutions.  This past year was no different with NBP receiving twenty competing applications.

Once I organize all of the application materials, complete submissions are passed to our esteemed Adjudication Committee for evaluation using our criteria of innovation, sound intellectual merit, feasibility, relevancy, and ability to make meaningful changes.  The deliberation is a two-step process in which the committee first meets via teleconference to discuss the applicants and select those for further consideration.  After I receive additional information requested during our teleconference, the committee members descend upon our offices in Boston for a ‘meeting of the minds’ to experience prototypes, appraise the projects’ viability, and “fight” over who our ultimate winner will be.

This year, the final deliberation meeting lasted five hours.  In the end, the Adjudication Committee was so impressed with the applicants that they decided to split the Prize money between one Awardee and two Honorable Mentions.  The Prize was awarded to Emily Wharton for her submission of the “Code Master Adult Braille Instruction System” and Honorable Mentions were awarded to two teams –Michael Coleman, Michael Rosen, and Joshua Coffee for their submission of “inTACT™ System for Interactive Tactile Graphics” and Cagatay Concu, Kim Marriott, and John Hurst for their submission of “GraVVITAS: Graphics Viewer using Vibration, Interactive Touch, Audio and Speech.”

I am astounded every year by the depth of knowledge our committee members possess in their individual areas of expertise.  I am also repeatedly impressed by the creativity of our applicants in discovering innovative solutions to the problems associated with advancing tactile literacy for blind individuals.  After four years administering the Prize, I continue to walk away from our meetings with my head swirling with new information and with hope for the future of braille and tactile literacy.

In Her Own Way

I don’t know if it’s true everywhere, but our customers like to share their stories and their lives with us. This story begins with the February book selection for our Children’s Braille Book Club. Since it’s Black History Month, we chose Henry’s Freedom Box. I didn’t think that much about our decision; we had featured Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman, and even President Obama in previous years. So when a parent called to ask about February’s selection, I said, “It’s about a man, a slave, who wanted his freedom so badly he mailed himself up North in a crate.”  Silence.  “It’s…a true story.”  No response.  “I mean, he arrived safely…It turned out okay.”

It wasn’t until that moment that I realized that not every parent is comfortable exposing a child to the painful legacy of our past. I thought, how do we decide how and when to tell our children the truth about the sordid facts of American history? Do we wait until they hear about it for the first time in history class?

Henry's Freedom Box book cover

Henry’s Freedom Box © Scholastic

Then Liane Getty called, describing herself as “the proud mother of two beautiful young boys, Liam, age 9, and Brandon, age 7.”  She told me the amazing story of how she and her husband had taken a trip to The National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  “My husband, Todd, said he had to show me something,” said Liane, who is blind. “He placed my hands on a 2×3-foot wooden crate. I am honestly thinking to myself, what’s the big deal about a wooden crate? Then my husband started reading me a story about a slave named Henry who mailed himself to freedom. I told my husband that I had just seen that book on NBP’s website—how coincidental is that!

“My boys returned to the lobby, upset and frightened about what they saw at the exhibit. When I asked them what was so scary, they said ‘everything with the slaves.’ It occurred to me that they did not realize that the Civil War was about slavery. I tried to think of something encouraging to say, and I remembered one of your print/braille magnets with the quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: Do one thing every day that scares you.

“I repeated Eleanor’s encouraging words and explained to the boys that if Henry did not do that one thing that scared him that day, he might never have gained his freedom. My beautiful boys took a deep breath and said, ‘We’re ready to go back to the exhibit.’”

What an amazing mom. She had decided she wanted to be the one to tell them the truth. I said, “We’ll mail Henry out this week, in a box. So he’ll arrive safely.”