Information Is Power

It is said that information is power, and for those of us who are blind and read braille, the impact of that statement can be huge. To wit:

About 30 years ago, the personal computer was making its way onto the stage as an empowerment tool for those of us who are blind. It had the potential to make us a lot more independent than we had been without them. Old IBM PCWith considerable foresight, NBP published A Beginner’s Guide to Personal Computers for the Blind in 1984. I read the book with great interest. I wanted one of these computers, and I wanted it yesterday. Only problem was, I didn’t have the money to buy one. At that time, PCs cost thousands of dollars, and a bad investment could mean that you’d be stuck with a very expensive paperweight, along with severe buyer’s remorse.

Enter my brother Stephen, the businessman of the family, who could look at things objectively and technically, and who would eventually help me buy my first computer. National Braille Press was featuring a demonstration of six personal computers and screen-reader software as part of its book launch. Prior to the “competition,” I read the book, explained everything to Stephen, and he agreed to fly up to Boston to attend the demo. The room was so packed with other blind observers, my brother and I barely found room to sit on a piano bench.

After the demo, we made our decision, and a few months later, I got my first computer: an IBM PC/XT with a then whopping 10mb drive. Since then, I’ve never looked back! I even used my computer to write a review for a follow-up book NBP published on computer peripherals. Since reading that first book, I’ve bought and used lots of computers, smartphones, and other devices. In fact, to this day, I use computers to make my living.

None of that would have happened if NBP had not been on the cutting edge of technology, providing us with TIMELY information that would and did, and still does, empower us. The knowledge gained from that first book enabled me to continue to be gainfully employed and to better adapt to a changing work environment. Long story short: Knowledge is power, and to that end, thanks, NBP!

What Do Braille Readers Want?

I arrived at NBP the same year EPCOT Center opened at Disney, gas cost $1.59 a gallon, and the world’s first compact disc player was released in Japan. My job was to ask blind people what they wanted in braille and to “make it happen.” At that time, braille books were primarily on loan from NLS or from a network of volunteer home transcribers.

Asking braille readers what they wanted elicited a common refrain: “One thing we don’t need is more religious material—do people think all we read is the Bible? We want current stuff: major newspapers, bestselling novels, cookbooks for every palate… and we don’t want to wait two years to get it.”Getting Started with the iPhone and iOS for Blind Users book cover

The two-year wait ended around the time Bookshare was founded in 1989, WebBraille became a reality a decade later, and refreshable braille devices joined the Internet to offer real-time access to everything imaginable.

So what do requests from braille readers sound like today?

“What do you have on iPads for blind students?”

“What do you have on using the iPhone if you’re blind?”

“What do you have for my nine-year-old niece who’s blind and wants to cook?”

“Do you sell braille Valentines?”

“Do you have a book on exercise programs for blind people?”

“My blind son needs a science fair project.”

“Do you, by chance, have a Catholic Bible?”

Wanting access toStir It Up! Recipes and Techniques for Young Blind Cooks book cover “bestsellers” has evolved into needing “information specific to the lives of people who are blind”—information that cannot be found from mainstream sources.

For the record, these requests are being made the same year Texas opened BiblioTech, the nation’s first – and only – bookless public library, a braille-encoded crop circle appeared in California, and the brains of two rats were successfully connected to share information.

Future braille predictions? I agree with management guru Peter Drucker: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”