by Ryan Strunk
From the Editor: Ryan Strunk is working with Fred Schroeder to implement the 2009 Braille Readers are Leaders (BRL) Braille literacy campaign. In the following report he describes some of the activities that took place across the country on Sunday, January 4, the two hundredth birthday of the man who single-handedly revolutionized the prospects for blind people to become literate. As you will read, in many cases the birthday bashes were only the first act in our ongoing effort to raise the public’s understanding of and respect for the Braille code. In Ohio we have had 10,000 Braille bookmarks made. In them the Braille alphabet is only inkprint, but facts about Braille and a portrait of Louis Braille are included. The cost was about $300. The bookmarks will be handed out to libraries and tucked into bags at bookstores along with purchases in the weeks and months ahead. They include the Websites for the Louis Braille commemorative coin and the Ohio affiliate. If any other affiliates would like to explore having this design modified for their use, we can help them and pass along the name of the printer that gave us the great price. Other affiliates may well be developing similar give-aways. If so, it would be helpful to notify Ryan of what is being done and how the handouts are being used. Contact him at <email@example.com>. Now, here is Ryan’s report:
Thousands—perhaps millions—of Americans listened to NPR on Sunday, January 4, and they heard the interview on the bicentenary of Louis Braille. Millions more read the New York Times, the Kalamazoo Gazette, the Pueblo Chieftain, the Daily Independent, and the numerous other newspapers that wrote about the two hundredth anniversary of his birth. I like to think that as all these people drove to or from church, drank their morning coffee, or sat at bus stops, they read the articles and found them fascinating and perhaps a bit inspiring.
I love that hundreds of newspapers covered this momentous date; in fact, as I write this article on January 8, I can still find 103 news stories on Google about Louis Braille’s two hundredth birthday. Even more, I am delighted that so many of these articles contain quotes from Federationists. It’s heartening to know that for at least one day the public was conscious of the uphill battle we face in getting Braille into the hands of our blind children. For at least twenty-four hours people read their newspapers, saw the statistics, and shook their heads in wonderment. “Only ten percent,” they might have said. “Man, that’s just not right.”
We did that. We made that happen. But we also did much more than get our names in newspapers. We went out into the communities—into the bookstores, libraries, and churches—and we showed people firsthand just how important Braille is to the blind. In dozens of locations we set up tables, handed out literature, answered questions, and made casual conversation—and as a result people will remember. They will remember because of the thousands of hours of time volunteered by Federationists to make January 4 such a resounding success and because of the creativity and enthusiasm we brought to our efforts.
For two days the members of the Greater Seattle Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Washington spent time at Barnes and Noble, educating the public about the Braille literacy crisis, answering questions, and showing the many uses of Braille to interested parents and children.
“One of the things that was really nice was that Barnes and Noble helped us partner with noted authors,” Kris Lawrence, president of the Greater Seattle Chapter, told me. “Barnes and Noble let us set up a table right next to the authors, and, while people were standing in line waiting for autographs, we could talk to them about Braille literacy. It was really great.”
On the other side of the continent, Sherrill O'Brien of the National Federation of the Blind of Florida held an event at her local church in Tampa. Children in her Sunday school had a chance to write their names in Braille using sequins, and at the service Sherrill did a scripture reading from her Braille Bible. “Attendance at the intergenerational Sunday school event exceeded our expectations, and everyone had a great time,” she said. In addition to all the creative arts and crafts, Sherrill also baked a Braille cake, complete with M&M’s arranged in Braille to say “Happy Birthday Louis Braille.”
Several events were held in Ohio, including two by the Miami Valley chapter alone. At two separate Barnes and Noble bookstores, the members of this chapter distributed Braille alphabet cards, wrote names in Braille for kids, demonstrated a number of Braille devices, and passed out cookies with Braille written in M&M’s.
Lora Felty, president of the Ashland Chapter of the NFB of Kentucky, read a Braille book at the Boyd County Public Library on Braille’s birthday. What made this event even more significant is that it was publicized on the front page of the Daily Independent newspaper in Ashland. The article cites Lora and the National Federation of the Blind several times and notes that more than 80 percent of blind people with jobs use Braille.
From Hawaii to Colorado, from New Mexico to Maryland, chapters of the NFB across the country held events to commemorate the birth of Louis Braille. But beyond even this we are continuing to schedule events to reach out to the public. Throughout the rest of January Federationists everywhere will continue to educate the public about the dire need for Braille education and will work to ensure that our message is heard by as many people as possible. I have already been informed that some of the bookstores and venues that participated in the January 4 events plan to hold future events to promote the use of Braille, and more than one chapter has already reserved calendar space either in April to capitalize on the March 26 launch of the Louis Braille bicentennial commemorative coin or in October to celebrate Meet the Blind Month.
For all blind people January 4 was a day of celebration. It was a time to reflect on the life and legacy of Louis Braille and to be thankful for the gift he gave us. His invention gave us the independence we would not otherwise have had and enabled us to rise above common social expectations and misconceptions.
At the same time, however, January 4 marked the beginning of what promises to be an excellent Braille Readers Are Leaders campaign. The dedication Federationists demonstrated on January 4 is strong, and I am confident it will continue to shine as we work to achieve our dream of ensuring that all blind children have the opportunity to learn Braille.
A woman with a blind child came to the table in the Barnes and Noble store where Washington held its event and was so captivated by our message that she is coming to the next chapter meeting. A certified Braillist in Cincinnati, Ohio, saw the newspaper coverage the NFB received there and just had to come to the bookstore to meet our Federation family and talk about Braille. The things we do now will live, not only in our hearts and minds, but also in the hearts and minds of everyone around us. If we continue to work as diligently as we have in the past, our future is certain.