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

Why I Love UEB: As a Braille Producer and Reader

By Steve Booth

For several decades, the discussion about changing the braille code to Unified English Braille (UEB) has sparked passionate feelings. This code, named for its inventor Louis Braille, has been around for over 200 years and has served the blindness community well. January 2016 is the date that the Braille Authority of North America (BANA) has determined, after much consideration, to be the adoption date of UEB in the United States and feelings continue to be mixed. Anticipation, trepidation, and many, many questions still surround UEB.

Recently, NBP Publisher, Diane Croft, spoke with Steve Booth, a former NBP employee and current Braille Specialist at the National Federation of the Blind. When he proclaimed to “love UEB” we knew we needed him to post his thoughts on our blog.

Here is Steve’s take on UEB:

I admit I had my doubts about changing even one dot of a code that has worked so well since 1824.Steve Booth standing next to copy machine at his office

Today I’m ready to concede that those who took a leadership role back in 1991 toward what is now the Unified English Braille Code (UEB) were true visionaries.

They started with the premise that any system can be improved. It’s hubris to think otherwise. They then dove into the mechanics of what exactly should be improved and what could be left alone. They did this with several audiences in mind: the braille reader, the producer, the transcriber, and the braille teacher.

They were also looking at a code that, although it worked remarkably well with computer technology, still required human intervention to fix those parts that didn’t work. I know first-hand about those fixes! Formerly I worked as an assistant production manager at National Braille Press and now work in the Braille Certification Program of the Library of Congress, administered by the National Federation of the Blind. UEB has made my life far simpler . . . but I’m jumping ahead of myself.

The primary goal, according to the records of 1991, was to “make the acquisition of reading/writing/teaching braille easier and more efficient . . . [to] help reverse the trend of steadily eroding usage of braille itself.” Given the abysmal rate of 9.5% of blind school-age children who list braille as their primary reading mode, this makes good sense.

All told, UEB eliminates nine contractions that were found to be the most ambiguous: by, into, to, ble, com, dd, ation, ally, and the o’clock contraction. Each of these could represent something other than themselves, depending on their placement in a word.

UEB is also closer to its print equivalent, for example, braille will no longer join the contractions “of, and, for, the, with” in sequence without spaces. And the period. There is now only one dot formation for a period, instead of four different ways to represent it. Just as there are opening and closing parentheses in print, the same is true for braille. Word division is no longer recommended: “It is no longer preferable for words to be hyphenated.” When was the last time you used a dictionary to divide words between lines? I never did until I worked in the field. We have spent way too much time teaching word division to potential transcribers.

The list of improvements goes on, too many to elaborate on in a blog post. As a braille reader since the early 1960s, I have quickly adjusted to UEB. Anyone interested in acquiring some UEB skills while reading good material should subscribe to Syndicated Columnists Weekly, Syndicated Columnists Weekly covera short weekly from National Braille Press. I’ve been reading it for decades. NBP started producing it in UEB at the beginning of the year and I was able to adjust to new UEB symbols in the context of the material. NBP also offers a free UEB Briefs Symbols list if you ask for it (orders@nbp.org).

As a braille producer, my life is far easier. I no longer need to search for hyphens and dashes (to eliminate spaces around them) because braille now follows print rules. I can more accurately translate documents from braille to print with better results. Without word division, braille production is faster, plus the code offers more flexibility in handling the large variety of print styles now in use.

All in all, I’m completely in favor of these changes for a host of reasons that I would not have understood had I not been a braille producer, trainer, and reader. And did I mention, America has now joined six other English-speaking nations in its adoption of UEB, which means we all share the same code. I think Louis would have been pleased about that. His code was meant to be useful, above all.

No One Told Me Braille Was Hard, So It Wasn’t

Ten years ago, when I started working at National Braille Pressfemale hands on braille, braille was a new and foreign concept to me. As a sighted person, it seemed daunting, undecipherable, and hard. Lifelong braille readers assured me that learning braille was not that much different from learning to read print but I remained skeptical.  As I talked with more readers, the passion of those who embraced braille opened my mind and my skepticism gradually evaporated.

When I read Dr. Edward Bell’s post on the T-Base Communications blog on learning braille as a teenager, I was reminded how a simple shift in attitude can mean the difference between success or failure in any endeavor.

Here’s what Dr. Bell had to say:

No one said that braille would take a long time to learn, and so it didn’t.

No one said that braille was antiquated, and so it wasn’t.

No one ever told me that braille would make me a second-class citizen, and so it didn’t.

No one ever told me that braille would be among the most influential factors leading to my success, but it was.

Today, braille is a daily part of my life. Just last evening I used my braille syllabus and notes to lecture graduate students. This past weekend, I pulled out my trusty slate and stylus in order to write out notes for the speech I had to give at a statewide conference.

Daily, I use braille to label financial records, text books, and other academic materials. I use braille for taking notes during administrative meetings and during conference calls.

At home, I use braille to label CDs and DVDS, along with home appliances so I can use them independently. I don’t know how I would use my oven, microwave, or treadmill without braille.

How would I have read bedtime stories to my young daughters if I did not have braille? There is no doubt that I would be far less independent and successful if I did not have braille.

I guess all I have to say about braille is this:

It, like many things, is what you make of it. If you think it defines you as blind, you are correct. If you think it is somehow a defeat or failure, then it will be.

But if you think that braille is the path to literacy, freedom, independence, hope, success, satisfaction and fulfillment, then it will be. Or, at least it has been for me.

Read the full post

Edward Bell is the director at the Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University and actively researches the most effective ways to teach students and adults who are blind or have low vision.  He is also an active contributor to the Blog on Blindness. His students have gone on to become braille teachers, cane travel instructors, rehabilitation counselors, and advocates for the blind.