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.

A Lifetime of NBP Braille: From Reader to Proofreader

By Carey Scouler, Proofreader

I’m sure that everyone can remember or relate to the joy of receiving an expected gift in the mail as a child; counting down the days until it would be delivered, checking the mail every day for weeks, then eagerly ripping it open when it finally came. From the ages of six to ten, that gift for me was the chance to visit new worlds and delve into the lives of all sorts of characters, while at the same time learning new letters and words. It was the gift of literacy, a gift for which I owe all of my thanks to National Braille Press.

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Proofreader Carey Scouler and her guide dog Hayden

Ever since I was very young, reading has always been a passion of mine, and that passion was fueled considerably when I began receiving books from the Children’s Braille Book Club. My mother and I would sit on our plushy couch side by side, and she would animatedly read the printed words in a book to me. She would then gingerly hand me the book, and my fingers would carefully touch each braille dot as I learned new letters and sounded out words. This was a fun activity for us both, and I continued to enjoy reading as I branched off and began exploring more advanced braille books. This love of reading and my eagerness to learn the braille code couldn’t have been achieved without the wonderful books I first received from National Braille Press.

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Oh, The Places You’ll Go

The lessons I learned from the books were not the only thing about National Braille Press which stayed with me forever—so did their address. One day, while sitting in the back of my parents’ car, lovingly clutching “Happy Birthday, Rotten Ralph” (a print/braille book which my grandmother had often read to me), I casually asked my parents where 88 St. Stephen Street was after carefully examining the book’s title page. They told me where it was and we discussed possibly visiting. For a while after that, I checked the address on the cover of every book I received from NBP, each time still longing to visit and learn about where the books I had grown to love had come from.

As I got older, my love of braille led me to make some wonderful friends. When I was in fourth grade, I began competing in the Braille Challenge, a competition which tests students from grades 1 to 12 in different aspects of braille literacy such as charts and graphs and reading comprehension. The winners in the regional level would then have a chance to compete nationally. Through many years of participating in this contest, I made many wonderful friends, most of whom I’m still in touch with to this day.

When it came time for me to graduate from college and start looking for a job, I knew I wanted to do something involving words. I had graduated with degrees in English and journalism, and immediately started looking for writing and editing jobs. During the networking process, I realized that NBP was hiring and looking for a proofreader. I was thrilled at the idea of being able to read things I hadn’t gotten the chance to, while at the same time looking for errors and essentially practicing my editing skills. I took part in two interviews, and was hired to work as a proofreader a few weeks later. Now I can say that I’ve not only visited 88 St. Stephen Street once, but that I have been given the opportunity to go there every day. It’s such a wonderful feeling to know that each day, I get to be a part of helping kids and adults receive the same gift I was given—the gift of literacy.

The Sound of Accessibility: Braille Materials and Music Festivals

Every spring and summer, music festival fans travel the world to see their favorite bands perform, discover new rhythms, and enjoy the vibrant atmospheres of diverse venues. Each event has its own style: a bohemian layout, regional noshes and creative libations, and highly technical (or equally rustic) stage setups. When it comes to navigating through crowded and unfamiliar locations, blind music lovers need tools to orient themselves to the new space.

“I’ve been to concerts and sporting events. The more crowded and loud it is, the more overwhelming it gets. This is where a tactile map or directions in braille would come in handy to fall back on,” says Georgie Sydnor, NBP proofreader and country music lover. “With it being so loud, it’s hard to even find someone to help you navigate. Sometimes, I won’t go to an event when I know it lacks accessibility because it becomes too stressful.”

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Accessibility can be as simple as creating a list of concessions and where they can be found, or a tactile map of the venue marked with major stages, exits, and restrooms. These materials guide blind users and promote a general sense of the area.

Another NBP proofreader, Ashley Bernard, is an avid concert attendee with a recent penchant for electronica. She suggests a braille flyer handed out which gives landmarks to navigate to specific locations. “’For sections A-D, the nearest concession stand is near the main door.’ Short, simple, and descriptive enough to give someone like myself an idea of which direction to start off going,” Ashley says. “I’d most certainly choose a venue which offered accessible information over one that didn’t, regardless of price, time of day, or other variables. Accessibility doesn’t have to be high-tech, innovative, or intricate. The important thing is that it’s an option to some degree, when and if called upon.”

What resources do you use? What do you need? NBP is here to help. We love working with individuals and organizations to create braille projects for the best possible festival experience! Want to learn more? Email Nicole Noble at nnoble@nbp.org.

 

First Impressions: Why You Need Braille Business Cards

Recently, NBP worked with the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation in Boston to produce braille labels for their business cards. We asked Executive Director of the Foundation Steven M. Rothstein some questions on why he got his cards done in braille.

NBP: Why do you think braille business cards are important?

Steven: “Accessibility and inclusion were important to President Kennedy, and I thought this would be a valuable statement about their importance today.

In addition, I have prior experience working with groups and individuals with different levels of abilities and challenges, including those with visual impairment. I want to be able to effectively communicate with those individuals.”

NBP: What motivated you to get these done?

Steven: “The unemployment and underemployment rate for people with low or no vision is very high in our society. This is a small step to raise awareness and encourage others to be inclusive in their workplace as well.”

Front and back of braille business card

NBP has worked with many organizations and companies to provide braille business cards, from College of the Holy Cross to The Iris Network.

Ordering braille business cards is a simple step toward accessibility for your business. Having your cards done shows people you care about their reading needs. It also creates a conversation. The cards are very appealing to someone when you are networking. By having braille on your cards, you are opening up a conversation. What do they say in braille? Why is accessibility important to your business?

NBP’s Director of Sales Nicole Noble has been using her braille business cards for 8 years to network and connect with a wide variety of people. Nicole says, “Having braille business cards has opened the door to many conversations with both sighted and visually impaired individuals. They have served as a platform to raise awareness and communicate proficiently to exchange information and resources.”

-Whitney Mooney, Sales Associate and Social Media Creative

A Blind Voter’s Story

For my last birthday, my two daughters presented me with a truly awesome and thoughtful gift: a contribution to National Braille Press. In their note, they recalled the wonderful bedtime reading rituals with their dad. We all loved NBP’s children’s braille books, and as they’ve grown up, they’ve hung onto those books. Perhaps someday I’ll get to read those (and new NBP books) to grandchildren, but that seems a good way off yet.

Now, what does this have to do with voting? Like reading, our participation in this most wonderful civic activity, voting, is a family affair. I remember the four of us walking into our local polling place a few years back when our youngest daughter came of voting age. By the way, it was a primary election in a non-presidential year. As you likely know, mid-term primary elections have woefully low turnout, but there we were, showing up to welcome our daughter as she joined the electorate for her first vote. Oh yes, her older sister is most assuredly a dedicated voter too, and she was lucky enough to be in school in Ohio when Bruce Springsteen was doing campus shows to energize young voters, and she taunts me to this day about getting to stand within 15 feet of him while he played acoustic guitar. Ugh!

I love voting, always have. For years, people with vision loss usually had to request some kind of assistance to cast their ballot. But, after widespread voting problems in 2000, advocates, including me, worked to get the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) passed. This law included accessibility requirements. As a result, I remember excitedly casting my first truly independent vote in the 2002 primary election in Maryland. I practically skipped out of the booth. The only thing that rivaled it was getting to mark a ballot to vote for my wife for school board back in Illinois.

OK, so, what does this have to do with braille? First, individuals who use braille as their reading medium should be provided an absentee ballot in braille, if requested. Braille ballots never really emerged as a practical access solution for voting at the local polling place, but braille is a critical tool for research and learning about voting and candidates. When independent access to newspapers and candidate information became possible for me with the emergence of online information in the 90s, I was thrilled to be able to prepare my own braille guide listing candidates and a bit of background. Thus armed, I knew I could vote independently, even spelling the names of my preferred candidates if for some reason that was necessary.

Just recently, I requested a braille sample ballot from my county Board of Elections. This is something I encourage everyone with a need for accessible media to do. The braille document is on its way, and just like my sighted family members who received a print sample ballot, I’ll have mine in my preferred accessible version. Then, I plan to show up at my polling place, and with an audio interface to the ballot, make my choices independently and privately.

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Photo: Massachusetts Information for Voters, 2016 Ballot Questions, Braille Edition

Of course, the four of us Schroeders will all be voting in November, though alas, with the daughters away at school, we’ll not be able to go to the polling place together.

As I prepare to vote, and as another birthday comes around to remind me of my daughters’ gift to me and NBP last year, I’ll be using braille as one of my key tools for independence, and I’ll be thanking NBP for making braille widespread, commonplace, and yes, even, cool.

Our friends over at the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) have assembled a very nice newsletter about voting at the following web link:

Sources:

http://www.afb.org/info/blindness-statistics/research-navigator-a-quarterly-series-on-research-in-blindness-and-visual-impairment/research-navigator-voters-with-vision-loss-in-the-2016-elections/235

By Paul Schroeder