A Revolutionary Tea Party: A Moment of Shared Accessibility

Boston fashioned its revolutionary identity hurling tea into the Boston Harbor—an iconic event that inspired a second Tea Party movement hundreds of years later. But this post is about a third Boston tea party event, not as well-known, but revolutionary in its own right.

Several months ago, four of us—Mike Mellor, author of Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius, Ann Cunningham, a renowned sculptor and tactile artist, JoAnn Becker, an NBP Trustee and technology trainer at Perkins, and myself, a publisher at NBP—attended the unveiling of the Edgar Allan Poe statue in Boston. Edgar Allan Poe statue in BostonOne of the best-kept secrets of Boston’s literary history is the fact that Edgar Allan Poe was born here.

Moments after they removed the covering from his life-size statue, the four of us pushed hard against an enormous crowd to get close enough to touch Poe’s swirling cape, to trace the enormous wingspan of his raven, even to insert our hands into the raven’s screeching beak. It was a moment of shared accessibility and we felt giddy.

In fact, it was the second time that day that we shared a moment of culture and art. Earlier, passing by the Museum of Fine Arts, we spontaneously decided to venture in to see what might be accessible to us all. As we walked through the heavy doors, Ann suddenly remembered that she had worked with Steve Landau at Touch Graphics, and Hannah Goodwin, Manager of Accessibility at the Museum, to create a tactile book that explores American Style through the centuries by showcasing contrasting teapot designs!

Each era was illustrated with an example of a teapot MFA book in print and braille on period teapotscreated in that period’s style, and embossed in low relief. Accompanying text, in large print and braille, described each design in detail. The coup d’ grace was an electronic pen that, when any element of the design was touched, would provide even more information. Unfortunately the battery in the pen had run out and we were not able to access this feature. But by now our batteries were already charged with this unexpected treat, as Ann and JoAnn sat down on an ancient museum bench to explore Style: Period Details Explored in Teapots as tactile designer and art devotee respectively.

“I feel I have as clear a vision of what those teapots look like, and each unique period’s design, as anyone sighted,” said JoAnn, as we left the museum. “I had no idea until today that I prefer the Federalist period of teapots over the Empire era and precisely why!”

It seemed an ordinary and an extraordinary afternoon among friends—as simple and yet as exquisite as a teapot.

 

 

Apple Keeps Us Moving Forward

It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to. You would cry, too.

After spending a year plus editing Larry Lewis’s book iOS Success: Making the iPad Accessible,multi color apple store it had a pregnant shelf life of exactly nine months. That’s because Apple pushed out a new baby shortly thereafter. And did I mention NBP edited, transcribed, proofed, pressed, and designed Larry’s book in seven different formats?

And now it’s happening again. After spending ten months with the remarkable Janet Ingber on her new book, Learn to Use the Mac with VoiceOver: A Step-by-Step Guide for Blind Users, an email arrived in my inbox: Will Janet be updating her Mac book this fall when Yosemite is released?

I didn’t reply. Instead, I went out and bought myself an oversized, anti-viral, ultra soft, aloe-soaked box of Kleenex and had myself a cry party. And then… sniff…

I got a tweet from that rascal Jonathan Mosen that he was already working on version 8 of his book, iOS 7 Without the Eye, which we transcribed last year. I stopped mid-sniffle and dashed off an email: Johnny, same deal as last time? You bet, came the reply. And then the incomparable Anna Dresner phoned: Will we want her to update Getting Started with the iPhone? Yes, please.

Not a word of complaint from Larry or Janet or Jonathan or Anna.apple new products Our indomitable authors (and consumers) are already moving on. It’s the way things are. Our authors, who are also consumers, have been “in the game” since 1984, when NBP published “A Beginner’s Guide to Personal Computers for the Blind and Visually Impaired.” I haven’t calculated how many technology books have shipped out since then, but I do know we’ve sold 11,844 iOS books alone.

James Baldwin said, “People can cry much easier than they can change.” It appears some do; others move on.

The Creative Partnership of Shirley and Irma

On Saturday, I went to the movies to see Life Itself, an unsparing documentary that exposes the complicated relationship between film critic Roger Ebert and his co-host Gene Siskel. For nearly two decades, they sparred publicly and passionately—issuing “thumbs up/thumbs down” movie reviews—and opened our minds to the fact that art is subjective.

On Sunday, I opened the Times to read “The End of ‘Genius’” by Joshua Wolf Shenk (NYT July 20, 2014), who opines that the idea of the lone genius is a myth. “The pair is the primary creative unit… at its heart, the creative process itself is about a push and pull between two entities….” The article references numerous creative pairs—Freud and Fliess, King and Abernathy, Picasso and Braque, Einstein and Besso, McCartney and Lennon. Each brought something the other didn’t have, tensions ensued, creativity blossomed.

On Monday, I received an email message that tactile artist Irma Goldberg had died. She was watching her two young grandchildren, making tea and Jell-O, and suddenly she was gone. Irma had been part of a creative team for 23 years, working alongside Shirley Keller, founder of Creative Adaptations for Learning. Irma was the creative director, Shirley the driving force behind its remarkable products.

“Her desk and my desk abutted each other for 23 years,” said Keller, over the phone. “We sat that way all day—sometimes not saying a word, sometimes we couldn’t stop talking. We were closer than a married couple.”

Shirley would have a brainstorm—and storm it was—and Irma would put pencil to paper and work out the details, sometimes going to the library to research an animal or object for weeks before she actually began to render the tactile drawing. The result of their collaboration was a rush of tactile books that surpassed anything that had come before, classics like Goodnight Moon to Touch, Humpty Dumpty and Other Touching Rhymes, Let’s Learn Shapes with Shapely-CAL, Touch and Learn Tactile Activities, Touch the Stars, and the endearing ABC Illustrated Flashcards.

Tactile image of two mittens from Good Night Moon to Touch

Tactile illustration by Irma Goldberg from Goodnight Moon to Touch

So today I am grieving the loss of a beautiful woman, outside and in, Irma Goldberg. I grieve as well for her tireless co-star, Shirley Keller, who pushed the limits of their remarkable union to the benefit of blind children and adults everywhere. When Shenk speaks of “the push and pull of love itself” as a creative force, he’s talking about Shirley & Irma: a pair of geniuses.

NBP’S Test Kitchen: The Search for Healthy Frozen Meals

“Not as much beef as veggies, but that’s okay,” says Bill, between bites.Chicken Enchiladas Suiza by Smart Ones Ed likes what he’s eating but wants more: “It’s good but not nearly enough. I could eat another four of these… with about three bottles of hot sauce.” Yeah, but Ed, it’s Weight Watchers.

It’s lunchtime and Bill and Ed have agreed to participate in NBP’s test kitchen. Beef Merlot by Healthy ChoiceBill is sampling Beef Merlot by Healthy Choice, and Ed has agreed to try Smart Ones’ Chicken Enchiladas Suiza from Weight Watchers.

A handful of employees—Bill, Ed, Edie, Amber, Wynter, Joe, Elizabeth, Susan, and Joanne—volunteered to try an assortment of prepared meals for NBP’s upcoming book: Healthy Frozen Meals: Cooking Directions and Nutritional Values from Lean Cuisine, Healthy Choice, Amy’s and Weight Watchers. The goal was to test which ones actually tasted good—reported one employee, “the chicken wasn’t rubbery and the broccoli actually tasted like broccoli”—while counting calories and fat. The first step was to read all the product reviews online, select those with the highest ratings, and then gather some culinary appraisals from the staff. Those meals that passed the taste test will be included in NBP’s braille edition, along with cooking directions, nutritional facts, and general ingredients.

Frozen meals have come a long way from the original TV dinners where you peeled back the aluminum foil and grabbed for the brownie. Today the selections are overwhelming, which makes it difficult to know what to buy, especially if you can’t see the row upon row of packaged frozen foods that line the grocery aisles. Barcode scanners, including those on an iPhone, can give a visually impaired shopper access to product information, but they can’t vouch for what tastes good.

So for one month only, at 88 St. Stephen Street, there was such a thing as a free lunch.

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.”