Celebrating Over Half a Century at NBP: A Tribute to Helen

Today marks the retirement of Helen Fahey, whose career at NBP spans more than 50 years.

During my first few months at NBP, I was told there was going to be an 80th  birthday celebration for a fellow staff member.  ‘Did you say 80?!  How long has she worked here?’ I asked.

I learned that her career at NBP started in 1946 as a summer job.  Upon graduating from Perkins School for the Blind, Helen approached NBP founder Francis Ierardi for a full-time job.  He said no.  Although she had proven herself, Ierardi felt she needed to explore life outside the blindness community.  As a result, Helen got a job inspecting safety catches of M1 rifles during the Korean War and returned to NBP in 1960.   During her time here, Helen has worked on hundreds of publications from The Weekly News (NBP’s founding publication) to Harry Potter, walked countless miles up and down the collating table, and, at one time, managed half the employees in the building as the collating supervisor.

Helen and her guide dog Fletch on her last day of work at NBP

Helen and her guide dog Fletch

After hearing her history, I imagined meeting an imposing, institutional figure; I grew up in parochial school where women that well-respected and with such career longevity were intimidating at best.  And then I met Helen – a warm, inviting woman whose guide dog, a German Shepherd named Fletch, is the most imposing thing about her.

Fellow employees describe Helen as cheerful and loyal.  I add the words strong and spunky.  Age hasn’t slowed her down as evidenced in an interview from 2008 in which Helen remarked, “I got here at 9:30 and I’ve already stapled 300 books, and I took time to get coffee and a bagel.”  (It was only 11:30)

National Braille Press has thrived for 86 years because of the people who work here.  There is a real sense of camaraderie among the employees and a pride in their work.  Helen has been an integral part of the fabric of NBP for many years.

Helen, we wish you much enjoyment in your retirement as you spend time with your family.  Thank you for everything.

Living Vicariously Through an iPhone Aficionado

I’m not a gadget person or a techno-freak, but even I get excited about apps that are changing what it means to be blind.  My good friend and partner in crime, JoAnn Becker, has recently become an iPhone aficionado.  In the early days, we shared a good belly laugh when she couldn’t answer the bloody thing before the caller hung up.  (Turns out using the iPhone as a phone isn’t the easiest feature for a blind user.)  But each time we hang out, JoAnn has mastered some amazing new app that transforms her smartphone into something else.

As the designated driver wherever we go—and truth be told, if I’m traveling from A to B, I’m already lost—I always come armed with printed directions from MapQuest plus a TomTom for back-up.  But on this trip, the TomTom wouldn’t charge, and it’s murder to read directions and watch the road at the same time. So JoAnn pulls out her iPhone, Let’s try Google Maps.  I listen to her tap-tapping in rapid movements, and in short order a feisty voice says: “Walden Pond. Make a U-turn in 200 yards…. 100 yards… MAKE A U-TURN!” Thirty minutes later, we’ve got our toes in the pond.

White cup and saucer on a wooden tableSitting at Café Fixe later that day, JoAnn smiles, Watch this!  Tap-tap-tap-swipe.  She holds the iPhone over the table. Flash. Tap-tap.  The coffee shop is completely quiet when Siri announces: “White cup and saucer on a wooden table.”  WHAT?  People glance up from their papers.  They don’t realize they have just witnessed a moment in the history of accessibility.  A free cellphone app correctly identified and spoke what was in front of us.  “The moment was all.  The moment was enough,” wrote Virginia Woolf.  Never have a white cup and saucer looked so ahhhmaazing!

Promoting Braille with Ducklings

Kids feel the print/braille version of Goodnight MoonLast week, NBP hosted an event to read several of our print/braille books to blind and sighted pre-school children. We had a print reader and a braille reader team up to share the Boston classic, Make Way for Ducklings (Penguin Young Readers), and a few other favorites. Our goal is to make these events more than just spending a nice afternoon with a good book – we want to raise awareness about braille as a literacy tool and let the world know that braille is still essential in a blind child’s education.

It seems that braille is still novel enough in the sighted world to draw attention in the media that helps us to spread the word about braille’s benefits. The kids always love our reading events—what’s not to love about a listening to a good story—and it’s always fun to feel the braille bumps on the pages after the storytelling.

As I traveled to the event with our braille reader for that day, she remarked on how much she loved Make Way for Ducklings. She thanked me for bringing a new copy because she had worn down the braille on hers from repeated readings to her children, and now grandchildren. She also expressed how much she loved braille – a common refrain among braille readers—and how afraid she was that it wouldn’t be used as much by future generations. I hear this sentiment often and it’s why we take our advocacy role seriously when it comes to literacy for blind children.

As we celebrate Children’s Book Week, the longest running national literacy week that honors books and the joy of reading for young people, remember that braille storybooks are an important part of this equation. Braille is still one of the best ways for a blind person to be literate and that’s worth celebrating all year.

A Beep Ball Story: Baseball for the Blind Brings Childhood Dream to Life

A few weeks ago, I attended the premiere of the award winning documentary, The Renegades: A Beep ball Story. It was a wonderful event that showcased the athletic talents of blind people, and it was a special moment for me.  The 200 people in attendance seemed inspired by this film:  they laughed; they cried; and they saw what was possible when a community comes together to provide support and opportunity.

As a fundraiser, you always hope your events will inspire people to take action.  You hope that they believe in the great cause you believe in.  This event was a little different for me.  I did want people to be inspired and I did want them to take action.  I wanted attitudes about blind people to change if they needed to be changed.  But I also had a very personal tie to how the evening went because I was the subject of the documentary.  For a lot of my colleagues and friends, they were seeing me in a new way and in a different uniform.  No dress shoes, cleats instead.  No button down shirt, a jersey, batting gloves and a blindfold instead.

Joe Q diving into a base during a beep ball game.Wanting to play little league baseball when I was a kid was something that drove me to play baseball for the blind.  When I was asked to participate in the documentary, I just had one desire – that was to have people say, Joe Q can play!  He can hit!  He is good!  The child in me still lives, I guess.

The other aspect of this documentary that was different for me was that Jack and Liz, the film makers of Best Dog Ever Films, are also good friends and have been supportive of me since my days at Boston College.  I take great pride in our friendship and their talents.  To take 120 hours of footage and make it into 1 hour and 14 minute story is impressive.  To also portray us as who we are, and still make the story interesting is remarkable.

The Renegades: A Beep Ball Story is a fantastic film that can inspire in many ways.  It can inspire us to take chances and be active as blind people, to stand up for people, to volunteer and make a difference in people’s lives, and to be creative and use our talents to help others!  Stay tuned for when it comes out in DVD and let me know if this film inspires you.  To Jack and Liz, our volunteer coaches on the Renegades, our supporters, and my colleagues at NBP, your support inspires me!