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.

Ierardi postcard

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.

nbp building - old (002)

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.

Celebrating Over Half a Century at NBP: A Tribute to Helen

Today marks the retirement of Helen Fahey, whose career at NBP spans more than 50 years.

During my first few months at NBP, I was told there was going to be an 80th  birthday celebration for a fellow staff member.  ‘Did you say 80?!  How long has she worked here?’ I asked.

I learned that her career at NBP started in 1946 as a summer job.  Upon graduating from Perkins School for the Blind, Helen approached NBP founder Francis Ierardi for a full-time job.  He said no.  Although she had proven herself, Ierardi felt she needed to explore life outside the blindness community.  As a result, Helen got a job inspecting safety catches of M1 rifles during the Korean War and returned to NBP in 1960.   During her time here, Helen has worked on hundreds of publications from The Weekly News (NBP’s founding publication) to Harry Potter, walked countless miles up and down the collating table, and, at one time, managed half the employees in the building as the collating supervisor.

Helen and her guide dog Fletch on her last day of work at NBP

Helen and her guide dog Fletch

After hearing her history, I imagined meeting an imposing, institutional figure; I grew up in parochial school where women that well-respected and with such career longevity were intimidating at best.  And then I met Helen – a warm, inviting woman whose guide dog, a German Shepherd named Fletch, is the most imposing thing about her.

Fellow employees describe Helen as cheerful and loyal.  I add the words strong and spunky.  Age hasn’t slowed her down as evidenced in an interview from 2008 in which Helen remarked, “I got here at 9:30 and I’ve already stapled 300 books, and I took time to get coffee and a bagel.”  (It was only 11:30)

National Braille Press has thrived for 86 years because of the people who work here.  There is a real sense of camaraderie among the employees and a pride in their work.  Helen has been an integral part of the fabric of NBP for many years.

Helen, we wish you much enjoyment in your retirement as you spend time with your family.  Thank you for everything.