Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan at Halloween: Trick or Treat?

The first time I met my Jewish mother-in-law, I delivered a carefully rehearsed Yiddish greeting I thought was hilarious. She and my husband were speechless. That day I learned a “shiksa” should never attempt Jewish humor.

JoAnn Becker and Diane Croft dressed for Halloween as the Lollipop Guild characters from the Wizard of Oz

With that memory branded in my book of social blunders, I have never told a blind joke. (There aren’t that many good ones anyway, and all of them involve Helen Keller.) But one Halloween, when a blind friend of mine and I were talking about dressing up, I shared a fantasy I had: Wouldn’t it be funny to go as Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan? My shadow side wanted to challenge people’s notions that blindness is a “serious” subject:

Who are they?

I think they’re Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan.

Yes, but the one dressed as Helen Keller appears to really be blind.

I don’t know. Are they making fun of blindness?

That’s terrible. I think that’s terrible.

My friend and I hooted with laughter at the thought. But Victorian costumes are expensive, so we went instead as the Queen of Hearts and the Mad Hatter, and the following year as the Lollipop Guild (complete with dance routine). This year we’re rehearsing our lines as The Blues Brothers: “It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark… and we’re wearing sunglasses.”

Ironically, it turns out we have shifted some attitudes about blindness by not pulling the blind card. Neighbors and local establishments now wait expectantly to see “who we are” each year, delighting in the fun. And when passersby stared at the Mad Hatter’s white cane? We shouted with glee, “Off with her head!” It was funny, really it was.

Next Stop, Fenway Park! Using Braille to Travel Independently

As I accepted the National Disability Awareness Recognition Award, which NBP received from the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA), I couldn’t help but think back to thirty years earlier when the MBTA, better known as the “T,” came into my life because of braille. As a little boy, I had no interest in anything that was related to blindness, particularly the cane and braille.

However, my mobility instructor, Paul McDade, was undeterred in getting me to learn how to use the cane and travel on the T independently. One day, he presented two very interesting things. "Go Sox!" spelled out in print and braille letters on large window at NBPFirst, he suggested that I learn how to get to Fenway Park, something every young Red Sox fan should know. How else can a Red Sox fan cheer on his favorite players?

Second, he gave me an MBTA tactile map in braille. He presented it as the tool I would need to map out my route, but it was much more than that. Playing with the map and tracing each T Line gave me an understanding of the different routes.  Feeling the contours of the lines and knowing which stop was which, not only helped me figure out how to get to Fenway, but it also got me interested in riding the T. I had every stop on the MBTA memorized in no time at all from studying the braille subway map.

At 7 1/2, I was getting to Fenway Park by myself. I used my cane, got on the Red Line in Central Square, rode to Park Street, and then boarded the Green Line for Kenmore Square. The braille map promised adventure. There were other places I wanted to go, so I began to look forward to mobility class and riding the T!

It’s funny how sometimes life is circular. Thirty years after my exploration of the tactile and braille map, I was celebrating NBP’s partnership with the MBTA to continue to make information accessible for blind and visually impaired travelers. We will be working on other tactile map projects in the next few months and I can’t wait to get one in my hands and hit the road!

To Infinity and Beyond: Abe Nemeth’s Legacy

Deborah Kendrick, braille enthusiast and opinion columnist for The Columbus Dispatch, wrote an impassioned tribute to mathematician Abraham Nemeth, who died Wednesday, October 2, 2013.

“A certain kind of time changed the channel on Wednesday,” Kendrick wrote. “Abraham Nemeth, two weeks shy of his 95th birthday, died. Abe NemethHis loss is being mourned and commemorated throughout our country and beyond. Because of the Nemeth code and the brilliant example of the humble man who devised it, blind young people today do not hesitate to pursue passions in science, technology, engineering or mathematics.

“For five years, I have been working on the biography of Abraham Nemeth. I have spent hours in his Southfield, Mich. apartment, listening to his memories, his jokes, his still-amazing piano playing.

“As sharp and brilliant at age 94 as any ordinary mortal one-third his age, his reservoir of memories and jokes seemed bottomless. ‘Will that one get in the book?’ he asked me more than once after regaling me with a joke or pun, limerick or riddle. He loved playing with words almost as much as numbers.

“Surrounded by his braille books — Jewish prayers, mathematics, philosophy and economics — and his numerous awards and honors (a bust of Louis Braille among his favorites), he quoted his beloved grandfather to me regarding the availability of time.

“‘What do you mean you don’t have time?’ his grandfather chided. ‘You have all the time God created.’”

Abraham Nemeth found the time to invent the internationally recognized Braille Code for Mathematics and Science Notation that forever changed the assumption that complex mathematics and science was beyond the reach of blind individuals. Read the full tribute, “Deborah Kendrick commentary: Mathematician opened many doors for the blind.”

Abilities Expo: It’s About What You CAN Do

The Abilities Expo has exhibited in seven U.S. cities to bring information on products, services, technologies, and resources for people with disabilities. Their website states: “It’s about introducing opportunities that can enrich your life…especially ones that you never knew were out there.”

Joanne at Abilities Expo_

NBP Staff member, Joanne Sullivan, at Abilities Expo in Boston

NBP recently exhibited at the Abilities Expo in Boston, the first time that it took place in our backyard. It was a great mix of vendors, informative workshops, and fun activities like adaptive sports, dance, and assistive animal demonstrations.

Many visitors stopped by to learn about our work and to gather information for a teacher or a friend. The day I attended, I enjoyed talking to the braille readers, TVI’s, and parents who dropped by to say hello and check out our latest books.  I did notice that most of our visitors did not have a connection to braille or NBP, other than an interest in our work.

Over 4,000 people attended the Boston Abilities Expo, were you one of them? Have you heard of the Abilities Expo? We would love your thoughts as we plan for 2014.