Filling An Empty Hollow With Braille

A letter arrived from Geraldine Lawhorn of Chicago, Illinois, with a sizeable check to renew her braille subscription to Syndicated Columnists Weekly and a request to “donate the rest to your wonderful work for children and all braille readers.”

GeraldineLawhornI never met Geraldine Lawhorn, but I have never forgotten her story, which she told in the Epilogue to Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius: “I was seven years old when my mother and teachers noticed I had an eye condition. Despite medical treatment, my eyesight deteriorated, and I was finally introduced to braille reading. Admittedly, I shunned reading braille as much as I could. I was satisfied having my mother read books to me, and I memorized facts readily.

“But, more and more, I was aware of a hearing loss. My mother had to read louder; I had to move closer and closer to the radio. For me, a teenage girl with exciting daydreams, the future looked hollow, just a hole out there in front of me.

“Then the director of the Braille Department at the Chicago public school sent a note to my mother, saying, ‘Send Geraldine back to school. We want her to graduate with her classmates. We will transcribe all her textbooks and assignments into braille.’

“Rapidly, braille filled the empty hollow with possibilities. I turned to braille for learning, for employment with the Hadley School, and for entertainment. For many deafblind people, social life is confined to braille-land. Our most welcome visitor is the mail carrier, bringing braille letters, library books, and magazines—these are our favorite things!

“Computer technology has opened new doors: I now join my hearing and sighted friends by sending and receiving email messages and chatting over the phone—all because we have electronic devices with braille displays.”

Geraldine Lawhorn closed her letter with one more unforgettable detail of her life:  “I enjoy all your selections in Syndicated Columnists Weekly. In December, I read your article on aging. It was my 97th birthday!”

Unified English Braille: Great Beginnings

I still smile when someone asks what I do for a living. I always like to field the questions generated by my response, but it’s a rare delight when the conversation reaches the most fascinating of developments in the Hands on braille pagebraille world: new refreshable braille devices, interactive tactile graphics (“Wow, that exists?”) and, perhaps most anticipated, the implementation of Unified English Braille (UEB).

As the Braille Authority for North America (BANA) Board Representative for NBP, I have had the privilege to be a part of the discussion around UEB since it was adopted last November, and truly, there’s not enough to be said about what has been done behind the scenes. Recently, BANA facilitated the UEB Transition Forum in Louisville, where braille advocates from around the nation gathered to discuss steps along the road to UEB.

The Forum was divided into four groups representing, Transcription and Production, Instructional Materials, Education, and Adult Learning. In separate work sessions, led by Frances Mary D’Andrea, BANA Chair and AFB Representative, and Mary Nelle McLennan, Vice Chair and APH Representative, we considered the following questions:

  • What needs to be done in the area of training in order to ensure an effective transition to UEB?
  • What needs to be done to build UEB transcription capacity?
  • What needs to be done to adjust systems so we can procure and deliver braille materials in UEB?
  • What needs to be done to transition children’s braille reading and writing instruction and educational assessments to UEB?
  • What needs to be done to transition adults’ braille instruction to UEB and to increase knowledge of UEB among adults who already use braille?

We approached UEB with gusto! The room was vibrant and energetic; words like “synergy” and “collaboration” were critical to our discussions. It was a melting pot of all things braille. Efforts and responses were recorded, and action steps were presented and discussed with the forum at large, with each area providing vital information for the bones of an implementation plan. We embraced and became excited about the future of braille.

Of course, the most significant discussion of the day centered on one thing: an expected date for full implementation. After nearly an hour of conversation and input from all represented areas, we settled it.

January 4th, 2016, the birthday of Louis Braille, will be a celebration, a day to review our UEB milestones and honor our achievements as a community. I feel so inspired to be at NBP during this time of enthusiasm and evolution. I think the next time someone asks what I do, I’ll just hand over my braille business card and invite them to the party.

Check back for blogs about UEB. To find out more, visit the BANA website:

Jackie Sheridan is Vice President of Production at National Braille Press.

To Infinity and Beyond: Abe Nemeth’s Legacy

Deborah Kendrick, braille enthusiast and opinion columnist for The Columbus Dispatch, wrote an impassioned tribute to mathematician Abraham Nemeth, who died Wednesday, October 2, 2013.

“A certain kind of time changed the channel on Wednesday,” Kendrick wrote. “Abraham Nemeth, two weeks shy of his 95th birthday, died. Abe NemethHis loss is being mourned and commemorated throughout our country and beyond. Because of the Nemeth code and the brilliant example of the humble man who devised it, blind young people today do not hesitate to pursue passions in science, technology, engineering or mathematics.

“For five years, I have been working on the biography of Abraham Nemeth. I have spent hours in his Southfield, Mich. apartment, listening to his memories, his jokes, his still-amazing piano playing.

“As sharp and brilliant at age 94 as any ordinary mortal one-third his age, his reservoir of memories and jokes seemed bottomless. ‘Will that one get in the book?’ he asked me more than once after regaling me with a joke or pun, limerick or riddle. He loved playing with words almost as much as numbers.

“Surrounded by his braille books — Jewish prayers, mathematics, philosophy and economics — and his numerous awards and honors (a bust of Louis Braille among his favorites), he quoted his beloved grandfather to me regarding the availability of time.

“‘What do you mean you don’t have time?’ his grandfather chided. ‘You have all the time God created.’”

Abraham Nemeth found the time to invent the internationally recognized Braille Code for Mathematics and Science Notation that forever changed the assumption that complex mathematics and science was beyond the reach of blind individuals. Read the full tribute, “Deborah Kendrick commentary: Mathematician opened many doors for the blind.”

Did Louis Braille Realize His Impact on the World?

As author of Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius, I spent the last week of June in Paris, where I participated in an international colloquium, “The History of Blindness and the Blind.” My assignment was to discuss Louis Braille as a worldwide benefactor, and incidentally to show that Helen Keller was correct in claiming, “we the blind are as indebted to Louis Braille as mankind is to Gutenberg.”

Mike Mellor and French translator in Coupvray, France.

Mike Mellor discusses last minute details of his talk with the translator, Dr. Hannah Thompson, Royal Holloway, University of London, England.

Evidence of Braille’s broad reach was amply provided during the 2009 celebrations of the bicentennial of his birth. Many countries issued postage stamps featuring Braille (and sometimes braille dots), and the United States minted a silver dollar coin in his honor—an honor rarely granted to non-U.S. citizens. His worldwide achievement is suggested by the fact that my biography has been translated into seven languages: Afrikaans, Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Korean and Polish.

Louis Braille could not possibly have known that the ingenious code he had developed by the age of 15 would be adapted to non-alphabetic languages, and he would surely have been aghast at the thought that braille messages could be sent thousands of miles through the air. Yet, there are clues that he had some sense of how great his achievement was. For example, in the 1840’s his reputation as a teacher was such that he was invited to become the tutor of a blind prince in the Austrian royal family. With an uncharacteristic lack of modesty, he declined, stating that he was the tutor of ALL blind people not just one blind individual.

Just a few years later, terminally ill in the infirmary of the National Institute for Young Blind in Paris, Louis again showed he was aware of his extraordinary achievement. Perhaps in some kind of delirium, he told those in the room that he had experienced the majesty of religion and felt that his mission on earth had been accomplished. Indeed it had. Though he died January 6th 1852 his benefaction continues.

A completely unexpected bonus of attending this conference was the experience of accommodation in a convent. Some of us guests were housed in the spotless, spartan rooms of the Sisters of the Assumption. No TV, no radio, but with wi-fi connection to the web. For me, a long-time New Yorker, it was a delight to wallow in the simplicity, grace and tranquility of the convent, to escape from the ever-present cacophony of the modern world. The sisters had made a vow of silence between 07:00 and 08:00, and guests were asked to honor this practice. The only sound at our simple breakfast of bread, butter, jam, yoghurt and tea or coffee, was of teeth crunching the scrumptious French bread.

Technology Does Not Replace Braille

When I posed the question, “Are we witnessing the demise of braille?” in last week’s blog post, I anticipated it would strike a nerve. After working at NBP for nearly 10 years, I know how passionate readers feel about braille and credit it for their educational and professional success. My NBP colleagues and I share in their assessment of braille as an essential means for literacy.

I am wondering, however, what the responses would be from parents, teachers, school administrators, and others who have the power to make decisions about braille learning for blind children. Do they feel as passionately as “Jeff” who posted, he would “hate to see a total shift away from the use of braille because in reality, it’ll lead to whole generation of illiterate people.”? Will the out-of-the box accessibility, via audio, of some of today’s technology change the way blind children will learn? There are many factors at play when you consider the education of blind children – limited public-school resources, the shortage of TVI’s, and a broad brush approach to serving kids with disabilities—I just hope that braille does not get lost in the shuffle.

Equally passionate were the responses concerning braille in the digital age. While opinions were varied, one sentiment is clear – technology does not replace braille. Instead, technology has unlimited potential to enhance and increase braille usage but the high cost of assistive technology remains a critical barrier that must be addressed. As one deaf/blind woman stated, “It’s sickening that braille is offered for premium pricing.”
I am thrilled that so many took the time to respond to this blog post. I want to dig deeper into this issue, and I am currently working with my colleagues to develop a short survey on how braille is used today—with and without technology. Stay tuned for more information on that survey. Thank you for your enthusiasm and let’s keep this dialogue going. I don’t know if the future of braille depends on it, but I don’t want to take any chances.