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.

Six Dots: NBP’s plans for the New Year

Each year at NBP, we look forward to celebrating two very important days: New Year’s Day, which is all about setting goals for the upcoming year; and Louis Braille’s birthday (January 4th), which inspires us to be as bold and ambitious in our goals as he was in his life.

Louis Braille’s intellectual curiosity and determination drove him to create the braille code, which has brought literacy and independence to countless blind children and adults. Share his amazing life story with Jen Bryant’s new picture book, Six Dots: A Story of Young Louis Braille, now available in print/braille.

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Inspired by his example, we at NBP will never stop advocating relentlessly for braille and braille literacy.

We will continue to grow our innovative Great Expectations program, which brings picture books to life for blind children through song, tactile play, engaged listening, and body movement. We will continue to serve families and teachers of the blind and visually impaired with our ReadBooks! program, which provides free bags of beginning braille materials to early braille learners to engage them early towards a path of braille literacy. We will continue to offer the fun Children’s Braille Book Club, which puts popular children’s books into the hands of children on a monthly basis. And, most importantly, we will continue to develop new, creative, and original children’s programs to meet the needs of all our young readers.

In addition to growing our children’s programs, here is what we have in the works for the new year:

  • We pledge to advocate for every blind and visually impaired child, veteran, and adult to have the tools and opportunities to learn braille.  We will continue to provide braille materials in every format that is needed to support braille literacy, including developing e-braille solutions at the lowest price possible.
  • We will strive to continue to expand our outreach and education with braille courses, offering training in Unified English Braille in the spring and specialty workshops on tactile graphics, formats, and technical materials in the months that follow.
  • Just as you’ve always been able to rely on NBP’s Publications department for excellent books on Apple/iOS products, our goal for the new year is to provide equally exciting books on Android-based apps and devices. In 2016 we published Getting Started with Android and plan to add even more books to serve the wide-ranging technology interests of our community.
  • In 2017, we also want to focus on getting more face-to-face time with our customers, by attending more exhibits and conventions around the country. We get so many ideas and so much good, constructive feedback when our customers have the opportunity to browse our books and products in person!
  • Attending more conferences nationwide will also give us the opportunity to network with additional businesses, educating them on the importance of providing braille materials.
  • Finally, we will strive to connect more with our customers and supporters by hosting more Because Braille Matters luncheons across the country, bringing the A Million Laughs for Literacy Gala to more people, developing activities and events that showcase our mission, and increasing the number of Literacy Champions who donate to us each month.

Updated 1/24/17

The Freedom of Independent Voting

I will always remember my first time voting; it was November 4, 2008, and I was finally old enough to vote! My best friend, Michelle, and I drove to our polling place. I had heard that there were machines that made it possible for a blind person to vote independently, so I asked the poll worker if I could use one. Her response was polite but disappointing: The machine was not working, and could my friend help me out?

Braille ballot from Rhode Island

Now that I’m older and somewhat wiser, I know that federal law requires that there be one working accessible voting machine at every polling place. I know that I could and should have asked for someone to try to get the machine to work. Failing that, I should have filed a complaint with my state’s board of elections. But I didn’t know any of this then, and luckily I trusted Michelle. We filled out our ballots, and off to class I went, proudly displaying my “I Voted” sticker for the world to see.

"I Voted" buttonMy first experience voting independently did not happen until 2014. In the intervening years, I could not go to my polling place, and had to fill out an absentee ballot. It is impossible to put into words exactly how free I felt when I voted independently for the first time. 2014 was a completely different experience. I didn’t even have to ask for the accessible voting machine! The machine was set up, and I was left to my own devices, just like anyone else. No one else touched my ballot, and no one else could even see what I was doing as it is possible to black out the screen of the accessible voting machine. Total privacy and independence, exactly what voting should be!

It boggles my mind that before the Help America Vote Act in 2002, not voting independently was the norm for disabled Americans. I’ve heard stories of blind people having to go into the voting booth with three different people: one from each party and a third person to fill out the ballot. While we’ve come a long way from then, there is still work to do.

While accessible voting machines are required at polling locations, most states don’t have provisions for absentee voting. Absentee voting also needs to be accessible, and everyone—poll workers and citizens with disabilities—need to be aware of the right for everyone to vote independently. As this monumental election year progresses, it is imperative that we get out there and vote. Voting is a right we sometimes take for granted, but it is one that many have fought for, and it is the best way we have to create change.

Nallym Bravo works at National Braille Press (NBP) as a braille proofreader. NBP has produced braille voting materials for several states and hopes that more states provide accessible voting materials in the future.

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.