I read with great interest the articles posted here on the YALSA blog by Liz Burns and Joseph Wilk about accessibility to the blind and physically handicapped. I recently had an opportunity of a lifetime. I attended the National Federation for the Blind (NFB) Convention in July: an annual convention that is the largest gathering of the blind and visually impaired people all over the world. This year’s convention was in Dallas, Texas. I was there to assist a blind couple that set up a table in the exhibit hall to promote their organization, the International Christian Braille mission (ICBM). ICBM is an organization that distributes free Christian reading materials in Braille and other accessible formats through the mail to the blind.
It was an amazing experience being around this group of passionate folks. I wasn’t prepared for how committed they would be, how passionate they were, about learning and education. A couple of things I observed proved this.
One of the events we attended was a Braille Book Fair, which was sponsored by the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children division (NOPBC). At this event, the organization had tables full of books written in Braille. When the doors opened, the kids and parents rushed in, hungrily looking for good books they could ready by themselves. There were books like the Harry Potter series, the Chronicles of Narnia, The War of the Worlds, cookbooks, and more. Only some of the stories that come in one volume print editions translate into 3-5 volume sets for the same story written in Braille. After each family had shopped for the things they wanted, the items were shipped free of charge to any address. No one had to pay for anything (well someone did, but the blind did not). I gladly made a donation to this group.
As a librarian, the sight of all of these kids desperate for reading materials warmed me from my head to my tippy toes. But it also made me sad. For many of them, this may be the one time a year they have this good of a selection to choose from. In her post, Liz Burns mentions that her New Jersey library that services the blind has a collection of 50,000 audiobooks and 10,000 Braille books. These numbers sound good, until you consider a comparison of another library with a similar collection. One of the libraries in Wake County, a small, community-sized branch library, has a collection size of 60,000 books and they are estimated to have a patron base of 13,000 people inside a 2-mile radius. In America alone, there are estimated to be 10 million blind people. Now, I have no idea how many blind live in New Jersey, but if we took an average and divided 10 million by 50 states, you could guess that around 200,000 blind live in New Jersey. If you work with this statistic, what that means is that 200,000 blind people have to share the same collection size that about 13,000 sighted people are sharing in one library in North Carolina. That is a staggering statistic. Although the New Jersey library’s collection for the blind is a good start, it’s not enough. That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate what New Jersey and the rest of the NLS are trying to do, but the blind need and want more materials. And they are out to get it, which brings me to my second story.
During one of the general sessions that everyone attended, the President of the NFB Federation, Dr. Marc Maurer, made an announcement that caused riotous applause. One of the programs that will revolutionize library services to the blind is the new “Talking Book” machine. This has been around for awhile, but most of the books were available on cassette tape. Cassette tapes are becoming obsolete and the machines are not being manufactured anymore. It can be expensive to fix them or find spare parts. A new talking book player was designed that can be used by patrons of all ages, abilities, and physical limitations, and digital flash cartridges have been developed to store the books. NLS determined it would take a little over 76 million dollars over a period of four years to raise the funding needed to start this program for a nationwide distribution. In 2008, however, only a portion of the funds needed to keep on that four-year schedule was given by Congress. There were boos heard in the convention hall. But then came the good news: just that past week, a Subcommittee of Congress met to discuss the Federation’s concerns about the funds being cut. This group voted not only allocate the funds needed to meet the budget previously set, but to up to funds given, allowing the project to take only three years to unveil as opposed to four: a year earlier than originally anticipated. You can read more about this decision here. At this announcement, there was thunderous applause, cheers, hoots, and hollers. It was a cause for celebration. It was, if you will, a battle cry.
These two events showed me that the blind are hungry for information and reading materials. I am somewhat ashamed to say that before this convention, I never took the time to understand the needs of this population. Honestly, I don’t see many blind come into the library. Maybe there’s a reason for that. Maybe we aren’t marketing to them well. Maybe they have trouble getting to the library due to lack of transportation. I am glad that Liz Burns and Joseph Wilk are getting these facts out there and reminding us that, hey, everyone needs access to information. After my week with the NFB, I am going to be a lot more aware of this group and that we need to think of them when designing accessible technologies and programs.
Do any of our YALSA readers have practical suggestions they can make on how to make our libraries and library services more accessible to the blind? Let’s talk beyond theory and into practice.