Braille: The Ticket to Freedom and Independence

Sighted people look at braille, and all they can see are dots on a page. All they can feel are bumps, and they do not mean a thing. However, to every blind person, braille means everything.

My name is Precious Perez, and I am from Chelsea, Massachusetts. I have a condition called Retinopathy of Prematurity, otherwise known as ROP. I was born two and a half months early, so my eyes were not developed, and the oxygen I needed to survive took my sight. I have never been able to see, but I have always been able to feel, and one of the first things I became accustomed to was the feeling of letters beneath my fingertips.

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Precious performing at NBP’s A Million Laughs for Literacy Gala in 2015

I began learning to read and write Braille in pre-school, at the age of three. I can remember practicing on the Perkins brailler, and reading words on a page. I can remember my mom putting braille labels on household items as I got older; feeling for the button on my television and finding TV in braille right next to it. I remember falling in love with books, and manually brailling out my math problems every night for homework in first grade. I remember the first time I was given a notetaker with a refreshable braille display. When I think of my journey as a blind person, I think of braille and how it has made me independent and free.

There are countless reasons why braille is significant. This code is used by myself and many others every single day. Bathrooms, ATMs, elevators: all of these signs have braille and print on them. If I need to make a bank transaction, I do not need someone to tell me where to insert my card or my headphones for audio feedback. I do not need someone to push my floor for me in the elevator, because there’s braille next to each button. I can find a women’s bathroom in any public building, because there is braille on the sign. I am not only capable of locating and identifying things, but I am able to do it without help from anyone else, which would not be possible without braille.

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Precious checking out braille materials with friends

Navigation and daily personal management tasks are not the only things for which braille is necessary. I am a sophomore at Berklee College of Music, and I take theory classes in which I use braille books. I can read key signatures, scales, notes, and rhythms along with my peers in Ear Training class with my textbook instead of listening back to a recording and needing to always memorize. I can analyze chord progressions and take notes in class using my notetaker. I can write articles like this one, and read over my writing to check my spelling, grammar, and punctuation without having to go character by character with my screenreader and hoping for the best. I can read anything I need or want to read, whenever and wherever I want to read it, just the way anyone with sight could. The same way sighted people use pen and paper, I can use a slate and stylus or a Perkins brailler. If the power goes out, I can always write things down if my laptop dies. Braille gives me the ticket to freedom that audio can supplement, but never give.

Braille is something I could not live without, and without a form of reading and writing, I would not be where I am today.

I am currently a summer counselor atBLIND Inc, an NFB training center in Minnesota, and I have been lucky enough to have the opportunity to share my love and passion for braille and its significance with blind middle school students who are eager to learn. Every blind person deserves independence and freedom. Living these truths would not be as feasible without the ability to take notes, read books for school, label household appliances and medicine, and a number of other things. Without braille, I would not be educated and free to educate others. “If reading mediums change and braille gets discredited out loud, I’ll counter the doubt.” Not only do I need braille, but every blind person needs braille. Braille is happiness. Braille is freedom. Braille is independence.

Braille in Hotels: Accessibility Away from Home!

NBP recently worked with the Residence Inn Boston Watertown to produce braille versions of their restaurant guide, shuttle service information, and points of interest in the area!

Director of Sales and Marketing, Korinne Robertson says, “The BRAND NEW Residence Inn by Marriott in Watertown, MA neighbors both Perkins School for the Blind as well as The Carroll Center for the Blind. Associates of the hotel feel it’s important that guests walk through the doors and settle into an environment where they will feel at ease, at home, and acquainted. Being able to provide them with tools and information about the surrounding area and hotel is a great amenity! We strive to provide as much as we can for all of our guests, and having guides and information about the hotel are essential to ensuring a seamless stay while away from the comforts of home.”

When visiting a hotel for the first time, blind and visually impaired guests need to get the lay of the land, figure out where they are going, and of course navigate to new places. Proofreader and frequent traveler, Chris Devin, always loves going to a hotel that accommodates him with braille materials. “If a chain has braille materials and we as blind people know they do, we are more likely to frequent that hotel.” It’s important for materials that are available in print to also be available in braille. “There’s a thought that all blind people can get their information from their iPhone. This is not always the case and that’s why braille is so important,” Chris advocates.

By having braille materials for your guests, you are showing them that their needs are important to you. You are giving them a chance to check out the best places to visit or eat, and information on how they can get around the new area.

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26.2 Miles for Braille Literacy

When Ilana Meyer and Marissa Sullivan cross the finish line of the Boston Marathon this Patriots Day, they won’t just have completed the world’s greatest race. For the last four months, they have run hundreds of miles in snow, ice, and rain, because they care about blind children and adults having access to the printed word. They’ve raised thousands of dollars in support of braille literacy, and National Braille Press is honored to have their support and to be a part of the 2017 John Hancock Non-Profit Program.

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#BeBoston, 2017 Boston Marathon, John Hancock 

Twenty years ago, when I competed as a runner in the Boston Marathon, all I wondered about was myself. How many people were in front of me? Behind me? How did I do compared to other blind runners? What was my time up Heartbreak Hill? I loved, and still love, that aspect of running, which allows me to compete with others, the clock, and myself.

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Joe Q running during training

Runners like Ilana and Marissa have shown me that running is so much more. Through John Hancock’s charity program, the Boston Marathon makes an individual act—completing the race—into an effort for others. That collective power has truly impressive results—over the last 6 Boston Marathons, NBP’s runners have raised over $100,000!

This year, Ilana and Marissa have already raised more than $20,000 so that others can share their love of reading. Their journey over the 26.2 miles is a reminder of the power of selflessness and of pushing oneself to the limit. Their race is not only a physical challenge, but also an act of altruism which will put books into the hands of blind children and adults—making a difference in their education, literacy, and day-to-day lives.

Marathon Monday has a different meaning for me now than it did twenty years ago. I no longer watch for just the top finishers—I now go out on the course to cheer on our champions, who truly exemplify what it means to run for others.

By Joe Quintanilla, Vice President of Development and Major Gifts

Happy 90th Birthday, National Braille Press!

Today we tip our hats to the founder of National Braille Press, Francis B. Ierardi, an Italian immigrant who, 90 years ago, on March 17, 1927, pressed 200 copies of the first braille newspaper in Boston, called The Weekly News. With all volunteer help, this early experiment became the first braille newspaper ever published in the Western Hemisphere; it quickly expanded across the United States and to other English-speaking countries.

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Francis Ierardi in the pressroom

As we celebrate this special day, we reflect proudly  on an amazing history that to this day impacts thousands of blind people around the world. Let’s start with a letter to Mr. Ierardi from Helen Keller on Feb 3, 1936, where she thanked him for two publications: The Weekly News and a woman’s magazine created by NBP called Our Special.

“… They mean more to us who are doubly handicapped than to others who only lack sight. Their enlivening pages restore to us as it were the aspects, colors and voices of the light-filled world. They bear us over sea and land wherever we will, and we are free. Gone is the crushing weight of immobility and tedium! Our spirits rise light and glad in the thought that we can still think, read, write and sometimes fill our hungry hands with useful work.”

Over the years we have received similar letters of congratulations from First Ladies Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacqueline Kennedy, Rosalyn Carter, Nancy Reagan, and Laura Bush.

An amazing fact about NBP is that we have sustained many hardships over 90 years, surviving the Great Depression, major recessions, wars, and runaway inflation. Because we are not a direct service organization, such as a school for the blind or a rehabilitation center, we do not receive annual federal or state funds to support our work. It is with the help of our generous donors and loyal customers that we have been able to fulfill our original mission of producing materials for the blind, “promoting finger reading,” as described in our Articles of Incorporation, and supporting braille literacy.

We certainly have adapted since 1927. The Weekly News evolved into SCW (Syndicated Columnists Weekly), we created the Children’s Braille Book Club, and we invented the print/braille book that is modeled by organizations around the world today. Our Readbooks! program continues to help thousands of parents understand the importance of braille in their child’s future, and we embrace technology for the future of e-braille in the digital world.

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NBP building, c. 1950s

So, Happy 90th National Braille Press! What is next? Of course, we will continue to provide our braille materials for kids and adults as well as reach out to parents and teachers with our children’s literacy programs. However, we’re not done growing. We aim to contribute to the design and development of a quality braille and graphic tablet for the blind; to advocate for a braille interface in those driverless cars in which we will ride into the future; and to continually innovate in children’s braille programming.

Thank you for supporting our work and our commitment to braille. We will celebrate our 90th throughout the year, in Boston and across the country. Visit our website, nbp.org, for local events and updates. NBP is bringing the world to your fingertips every day.

The Touch of Genius Prize: Recognizing Braille Innovation

By Hannah Ransom Canning, Executive Assistant

When I first started in September 2016, I received a full breakdown of tasks that I would be fulfilling in my new position as Executive Assistant to the President. One of these tasks was taking on the role of the Program Administrator of the Louis Braille Touch of Genius Prize for Innovation. It seemed a little intimidating that I would be managing all of the coordination for submitters and calls and meetings for our Adjudication Committee.

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However, having now worked with the team to bring this competition to its fruition, I couldn’t imagine a more understanding and helpful group of people who are dedicated to fulfilling the meaning behind this prize. The Louis Braille Touch of Genius Prize was developed to inspire innovators to support tactile literacy. After putting out a call for applications, we received 18 submissions from around the world that displayed their best efforts and ideas to continue supporting braille or other tactile literacy innovations. After careful deliberation, the Adjudication Committee decided our winner was John Hudelson, for his submission of BELLA. BELLA is the Braille Early Learning and Literacy Arcade, a programmable, educational software and hardware gaming platform using audio, visual, and tactile feedback to teach pre-braille skills, braille reading, and braille writing. By inserting a card with a barcode on it programmed for one of the four games or story option, you can interact with the device to use BELLA in a variety of teaching methods. The games KeyCrush, Whack-A-Dot. Cell Spotter, and Alphabet Cards are used to teach the chords of the braille alphabet, finger dexterity, and letter association between letters, braille cells, phenomes, and words by following prompts on the brailed barcode cards. The committee tested all of these features and were impressed by BELLA’s responsiveness and ability to program different cards for some of the games.

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The committee also selected Mandy Lau’s Reach and Match Learning Kit and Inclusive Learning Program for an honorable mention. This kit and its accompanying curriculum is designed for children with vision impairment as well as those with multiple needs to develop braille literacy and communication & social skills through tactile strategies and play-based activities. The kit contains mats that are differentiated in a variety of ways. On one side, they have a color: red, blue, green, or yellow, with a corresponding raised-line pattern. On the opposite side, there is a large brailled and large print block and an indented line to follow this “Braille Trail” to learn the braille alphabet. The Reach and Match Kit’s curriculum includes many programs to help preschool and kindergarten teachers.

From this competition, I have discovered how many creative individuals there are who are researching and developing new ideas. The submissions we received showed much promise and ingenuity, and the committee encouraged many of the submitters to improve their designs and consider submitting an application next year. Administering the Touch of Genius Prize gave me the opportunity to get my feet wet in the world of braille literacy, and I am looking forward to learning even more.