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.

Finding a Touch of Genius

Many of our customers and friends know that NBP, with support from The Gibney Family Foundation, offers a $20,000 prize called the Touch of Genius Prize for Innovation.  What few people know is how this process works.

Louis Braille flaming headTouch of Genius Prize for Innovation logo

The Prize was developed to inspire an innovator to continue the promotion of braille literacy for blind people worldwide.  Each year, NBP puts out a call for applications and receives a wide variety of projects ranging from educational methods to tactile literacy products to high-tech solutions.  This past year was no different with NBP receiving twenty competing applications.

Once I organize all of the application materials, complete submissions are passed to our esteemed Adjudication Committee for evaluation using our criteria of innovation, sound intellectual merit, feasibility, relevancy, and ability to make meaningful changes.  The deliberation is a two-step process in which the committee first meets via teleconference to discuss the applicants and select those for further consideration.  After I receive additional information requested during our teleconference, the committee members descend upon our offices in Boston for a ‘meeting of the minds’ to experience prototypes, appraise the projects’ viability, and “fight” over who our ultimate winner will be.

This year, the final deliberation meeting lasted five hours.  In the end, the Adjudication Committee was so impressed with the applicants that they decided to split the Prize money between one Awardee and two Honorable Mentions.  The Prize was awarded to Emily Wharton for her submission of the “Code Master Adult Braille Instruction System” and Honorable Mentions were awarded to two teams –Michael Coleman, Michael Rosen, and Joshua Coffee for their submission of “inTACT™ System for Interactive Tactile Graphics” and Cagatay Concu, Kim Marriott, and John Hurst for their submission of “GraVVITAS: Graphics Viewer using Vibration, Interactive Touch, Audio and Speech.”

I am astounded every year by the depth of knowledge our committee members possess in their individual areas of expertise.  I am also repeatedly impressed by the creativity of our applicants in discovering innovative solutions to the problems associated with advancing tactile literacy for blind individuals.  After four years administering the Prize, I continue to walk away from our meetings with my head swirling with new information and with hope for the future of braille and tactile literacy.