The Road from Princeton to Boston: The Princeton Braillists and an Enduring Legacy

Four colossal bookcases. Seven thermoform machines, five binding machines, and two light projectors. Twenty boxes bursting with aluminum tactile graphics ranging from fungi to fish, electricity to elements, geomorphology to geometry, mitosis to moon phases. And the pièce de résistance: 40 volumes amounting to 2,177 pages of the most comprehensive maps available in a tactile format.

Four decades of thoughtful devotion have been poured into the compendium that is The Princeton Braillists’ collection. Beginning in 1965, armed with a background in Experimental Physics and a penchant for handicrafts, Nancy Amick created tactile images to accompany audio texts for Recording for the Blind in Princeton. Drawing on her childhood experience with copper embossing, Nancy generated textures, patterns and lines in sheets of flexible aluminum, designing hundreds of diagrams for math and science textbooks, and simultaneously developing novel techniques to become an expert in the field of tactile graphics.

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In 1980, after Recording for the Blind shifted  its company focus, Nancy and Ruth Bogia, a certified braille transcriber, resurrected a dormant non-profit: The Princeton Braillists. Their first tactile volume, “Basic Human Anatomy,” was released in 1988, and eight years later they advertised their first set of tactile maps: “Maps of North and South America”. The all-volunteer operation expanded to include Fran Gasman, a transcriber for the New Jersey Commission, Phyllis Branin, who assisted in assembly, and Nancy’s family, including her husband Jim and daughter D’Maris. By 2016, The Princeton Braillists had created 35 books covering Europe, Asia, Africa, North and South America, as well as 18 U.S. states, along the way receiving wide acclaim and awards for their tactile contributions to the blind community.

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Nancy passed in the fall of 2016, and her family continued to fill orders while searching for a new home for the entire collection. Jim and D’Maris toured NBP in February 2017. By May, three National Braille Press team members were in a 15-foot truck bound for Princeton, NJ, charged with the careful transfer of Nancy’s work.

National Braille Press was honored to accept the generous gift of The Princeton Braillists’ celebrated tactiles, and has embraced the opportunity to continue Nancy’s legacy. Our hope is to maintain and reproduce the current catalogue while investigating ways to update geographical information, recode for Unified English Braille, and create new volumes of additional countries and states. We also aim to showcase the extensive collection of math and science diagrams from Nancy’s early years, sharing the delightful breadth of her images from beginning to end.

Learn more about The Princeton Braillists at NBP’s Annual Meeting, June 20th.

Next Stop, Fenway Park! Using Braille to Travel Independently

As I accepted the National Disability Awareness Recognition Award, which NBP received from the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA), I couldn’t help but think back to thirty years earlier when the MBTA, better known as the “T,” came into my life because of braille. As a little boy, I had no interest in anything that was related to blindness, particularly the cane and braille.

However, my mobility instructor, Paul McDade, was undeterred in getting me to learn how to use the cane and travel on the T independently. One day, he presented two very interesting things. "Go Sox!" spelled out in print and braille letters on large window at NBPFirst, he suggested that I learn how to get to Fenway Park, something every young Red Sox fan should know. How else can a Red Sox fan cheer on his favorite players?

Second, he gave me an MBTA tactile map in braille. He presented it as the tool I would need to map out my route, but it was much more than that. Playing with the map and tracing each T Line gave me an understanding of the different routes.  Feeling the contours of the lines and knowing which stop was which, not only helped me figure out how to get to Fenway, but it also got me interested in riding the T. I had every stop on the MBTA memorized in no time at all from studying the braille subway map.

At 7 1/2, I was getting to Fenway Park by myself. I used my cane, got on the Red Line in Central Square, rode to Park Street, and then boarded the Green Line for Kenmore Square. The braille map promised adventure. There were other places I wanted to go, so I began to look forward to mobility class and riding the T!

It’s funny how sometimes life is circular. Thirty years after my exploration of the tactile and braille map, I was celebrating NBP’s partnership with the MBTA to continue to make information accessible for blind and visually impaired travelers. We will be working on other tactile map projects in the next few months and I can’t wait to get one in my hands and hit the road!