Did Louis Braille Realize His Impact on the World?

As author of Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius, I spent the last week of June in Paris, where I participated in an international colloquium, “The History of Blindness and the Blind.” My assignment was to discuss Louis Braille as a worldwide benefactor, and incidentally to show that Helen Keller was correct in claiming, “we the blind are as indebted to Louis Braille as mankind is to Gutenberg.”

Mike Mellor and French translator in Coupvray, France.

Mike Mellor discusses last minute details of his talk with the translator, Dr. Hannah Thompson, Royal Holloway, University of London, England.

Evidence of Braille’s broad reach was amply provided during the 2009 celebrations of the bicentennial of his birth. Many countries issued postage stamps featuring Braille (and sometimes braille dots), and the United States minted a silver dollar coin in his honor—an honor rarely granted to non-U.S. citizens. His worldwide achievement is suggested by the fact that my biography has been translated into seven languages: Afrikaans, Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Korean and Polish.

Louis Braille could not possibly have known that the ingenious code he had developed by the age of 15 would be adapted to non-alphabetic languages, and he would surely have been aghast at the thought that braille messages could be sent thousands of miles through the air. Yet, there are clues that he had some sense of how great his achievement was. For example, in the 1840’s his reputation as a teacher was such that he was invited to become the tutor of a blind prince in the Austrian royal family. With an uncharacteristic lack of modesty, he declined, stating that he was the tutor of ALL blind people not just one blind individual.

Just a few years later, terminally ill in the infirmary of the National Institute for Young Blind in Paris, Louis again showed he was aware of his extraordinary achievement. Perhaps in some kind of delirium, he told those in the room that he had experienced the majesty of religion and felt that his mission on earth had been accomplished. Indeed it had. Though he died January 6th 1852 his benefaction continues.

A completely unexpected bonus of attending this conference was the experience of accommodation in a convent. Some of us guests were housed in the spotless, spartan rooms of the Sisters of the Assumption. No TV, no radio, but with wi-fi connection to the web. For me, a long-time New Yorker, it was a delight to wallow in the simplicity, grace and tranquility of the convent, to escape from the ever-present cacophony of the modern world. The sisters had made a vow of silence between 07:00 and 08:00, and guests were asked to honor this practice. The only sound at our simple breakfast of bread, butter, jam, yoghurt and tea or coffee, was of teeth crunching the scrumptious French bread.

Best-sellers from the 2013 Conventions

We’re just back from the 2013 conventions in Orlando and Columbus – the National Federation of the Blind, and the American Council of the Blind, respectively. Because these two conventions usually bump up against each other (they even overlap from time to time!), our Publications team splits up and sends two people to each convention.

Photo of Tim Turnbull chattin with a customer at the ACB Convention in Columbus.

Tim Turnbull chats with a customer at the ACB Convention in Columbus.

We spend most of our time at the conventions in the exhibit hall, showing and selling our books and other tactile products. We love getting to meet our customers and supporters face to face; our customers, in turn, appreciate the rare opportunity to browse a table full of braille books.

Now, we’re back in the office. We’ve entered the orders and tallied the sales – and here are the top-selling books and braille items from the 2013 conventions!

  1. iPhone iOS6 Updates, (all formats combined)
  2. Magnet: “Be the Person Your Dog Thinks You Are,” print/braille magnet
  3. Magnet: “Good friends are like stars. You don’t always see them, but you know they’re always there!” print/braille magnet
  4. Magnet: “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.” – Helen Keller, print/braille magnet
  5. iOS Success: Making the iPad Accessible, (all formats combined)
  6. Getting started with iPhone and iOS5 for Blind Users, (all formats combined)
  7. Wednesday Morning Quotations, braille spiral-bound booklet
  8. Magnet: “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning how to dance in the rain…” – Vivian Greene, print/braille magnet
  9. Magnet: “Keep Calm and Carry On,” print/braille magnet
  10. Twenty-Two Useful Apps for Blind iPhone Users (2nd Edition), (all formats combined)
  11. Magnet: “”Anyone can be cool, but awesome takes practice,” print/braille magnet
  12. Twenty-One Apps We Can’t Live Without, (all formats combined)
  13. Magnet: “What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us.” – Emerson, print/braille magnet
  14. iPhone Tactile Screenshot Quick References iOS6, large print/braille & tactiles
  15. 100 Hungry Ants (with blocks), print/braille picture book with 100 blocks
  16. Froggy Learns to Swim, print/braille picture book
  17. (tie) Hop on Pop, print/braille board book
  18. (tie) That’s Not My Monkey!, print/braille board book
  19. (tie) Magnet: “To the world you may be one person, but to one person you may be the world,” print/braille magnet
  20. (tie) Magnet: “Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly,” print/braille magnet
  21. Braille-marked Measuring Cups and Spoons
  22. Make Way for Ducklings, print/braille picture book

Read more about specific books and products.

An iPad Book Giveaway: Because We Can All Use the Help!

iOS Success by Larry L. Lewis, Jr.

iOS Success by Larry L. Lewis, Jr.

A question I hear a lot is: “I finally bought an iPad for my visually impaired daughter! Now what?”

Parents of children who are visually impaired know that iPads are being used in schools or by their kids’ TVIs. But that doesn’t mean they know what to do with an iPad after it comes out of the box!

I was in this position, too. I am “Mom” to the sweetest and cutest little boy, Ivan. Ivan is eight years old and was born blind and multiply disabled. I had an iPad, and I knew it was supposed to be “good” for my son. Now what? I didn’t even know where to start!

That’s when I wished for a guide like iOS Success: Making the iPad Accessible. Larry Lewis’s new book is designed specifically for parents and teachers and takes you step-by-step through iPad basics. He shows you how to set up your iPad and get the most out of the accessibility features. As a blind iPad user himself, he absolutely knows what he’s talking about and (best of all) he writes in a clear and tech-free language that is easy to follow!

Ivan and mom playing with their iPad.

Ivan and mom playing with their iPad.

Larry’s book starts at the beginning (he actually writes about taking the iPad out of the box and what you can expect to find in the box) and works up to much more complicated features (like connecting the iPad to a refreshable braille device or using the iPad as a word processor). And because the book is so easy to follow, it’s pretty simple to skip ahead or jump back based on your own comfort with the iPad and what you need to know.

I would say this book is a must-read for any teacher or parent planning to work on an iPad with a child who is blind. To enter to win a free print copy of the book, visit the iOS Success Giveaway Page and enter your name in the drawing. The contest will run until July 20th at midnight.

Amber Bobnar runs the WonderBaby.org website, a support and information site for parents of children who are visually impaired.

Fashion and Universal Design: A Timepiece for Everyone

The founder and CEO of Eone, Hyungsoo Kim, sends me an email. He’s going to be in Boston and would like to visit the Press. He has invented a universal wristwatch called The Bradley. I open the link and fall head-over-heels into the future. Onscreen I watch a sleek fashionable timepiece rotate on a virtual stage where I can view it from every angle. Wow. I immediately email a blind engineer friend of mine, check this out, and send him the link. He emails back: What’s so great about it? I am reminded that my entire impression is based on how it looks. My friend is, after all, an engineer and he wants specifics—just the facts ma’am. I begin my explanation: It just looks sooo cool.

Of course I haven’t said anything useful. What makes eye candy so hard to describe?

I try again: I like the matte finish on the titanium face, the elegant dashes for numbers, the way the two ball-bearings roll around. It’s… it’s… it’s so cool. Anyone would want to wear it.

The Bradley Timepiece

The Bradley timepiece

Now I’m got my foot wedged in tightly. “Anyone would” implies that what a blind person would care to wear and what a sighted person would care to wear is somehow different. Of course that’s not true. What I’m really trying to say—and suddenly I realize it—is that products that are typically designed for the blind are rarely fashionable.

Too many products for the blind are characteristically utilitarian, unimaginative, and colorless. Okay, so color may not have anything to do with it because this watch is grey and it’s beautiful. I guess what I’m saying is that the designer, Hyungsoo Kim, a graduate of MIT, took the concept of inclusive design seriously. This is not a wristwatch for the blind; it’s a timepiece for anyone who loves style. Kim confirms my impression in a follow-up email:

“After meeting with as many blind user groups as possible, we quickly realized that they were as concerned with fashion and style as they were with function. In almost every meeting, one of the first questions was always about the look, the material, the size, and even the color of the watch.

“Our aim was to design a timepiece that everyone—no matter if you’re sighted or blind—likes to wear. In our early interviews with people who are blind, most of them wanted to use and wear something that is not exclusively made for the blind. They indicated that there are already too many products that focus on, and therefore magnify, the ‘difference’ and ‘disability’ of the people who are visually impaired, which keeps reinforcing the distorted stereotype and misconceptions people have toward the blind.”

One fashionable timepiece for all—that’s my “wow” factor.

Note: The Bradley timepiece is available to preorder on Kickstarter.