by Gary Wunder
From the Editor: Two years ago the National Federation of the Blind was asked to administer substantial awards annually to individuals and organizations that have improved life for blind people in celebration of the life and work of Dr. Jacob Bolotin, a remarkable, totally blind pulmonary and cardiac specialist who practiced medicine during the early years of the twentieth century. President Maurer appointed Gary Wunder, secretary of the NFB and president of the NFB of Missouri, to chair the committee that chose the 2009 winners of the Bolotin Awards. Wednesday afternoon, July 8, Gary came to the platform to present them. This is what he said:
Let me start by asking a question: what do you call a medical student who graduates at the bottom of his class? Right, you call him doctor. Now a harder question. What do you call a medical student who finishes near the top of his class, invents all the techniques he will use to learn the theory and physical requirements to be a healer, and after his education finds it almost impossible at the beginning of his career to find patients who will accept his gift? Of course he too is called “Doctor,” but I suggest he has also earned other titles such as pioneer, inventor, and educator. We know about pioneers, inventors, and educators because we are all about blazing new trails, promoting new inventions, and trying to build and repair our educational and rehabilitation system so it helps blind people to live in a world where successful competition is essential.
Dr. Jacob Bolotin, the first blind doctor who was born blind and trained for his profession as a blind person, gave his many talents not only to heal, but to become a true evangelist for the proposition that blind people with training, ambition, and opportunity can compete alongside the sighted. No matter how many times he was told no, he continued to pursue his life's calling with enthusiasm, ingenuity, and perseverance.
All of the winners recognized today are involved in furthering the goals, aspirations, and life's work of Dr. Bolotin, so let's begin now to recognize them. As blind people, what words do we hear most often when we enter a room? I bet "Here's a chair," and "Sit right here," would be high on any list. The assumption seems always to be that, no matter how smart we are, no matter how well we travel, no matter how adventurous we are, people are most comfortable when we, the blind, are stationary.
The first award to be presented this afternoon goes to an organization dedicated to the proposition that blind people don't belong in chairs, that we must experience things for ourselves, that through experience comes self-confidence, and from self-confidence come success and a life filled with challenges and opportunities. The recipient we honor runs a camp where blind people canoe, swim, cook over an open fire, and participate in arts and crafts. This alone would make it a special place, but what elevates the program from special to award-winning is that it is run for and by blind people. This is one of the key ways in which our recipient differentiates itself from other programs for blind youth--a majority of the staff, leaders, and board members are blind. Youth who attend not only learn through hands-on experience, but through observation and interaction see that blind people are more than the recipients of programs; they are an integral part of some very, very good ones at all levels, from support staff to counselors to camp leaders.
Jobs for blind people--role models for younger blind people. What can you say except wow and congratulations? It is our pleasure to award $10,000 to Opportunities Unlimited for the Blind. This organization runs the superior Camp Tuhsmeheta or, as it is lovingly known, Camp T. To receive this award, I invite for some remarks the director of Camp T, Sharon Burton.
Sharon Burton: Thank you. Thank you. I thank you, not for myself, but for my organization, Opportunities Unlimited for the Blind. We run Camp Tuhsmeheta. It’s a Michigan treasure, where kids have fun and learn the skills of blindness. Camp Tuhsmeheta was named for the four senses you have when you are blind: touch, smell, hearing, and taste. We have thousands of campers and former staff; in fact I invite all the people who have attended Camp Tuhsmeheta to stand up right now. There should be lots of kids, lots of former counselors. Thank you. We all thank you for this award. Since 1972, when the Michigan School for the Blind purchased this land and started this camp, many, many thousands of kids have learned to do lots of great things.
It started out with just a log cabin, and money was raised. Two modern dorms, a kitchen and dining hall, a woodworking shop, and arts and craft shop building. We have 297 acres of wilderness and our own lake for swimming and boating and fishing. We even built our own adobe oven, where we bake bread and pizza. We have a Braille schedule. We have menus, and we encourage the use of canes for traveling. Our blind staff serves as mentors for our campers. This year we had twenty-nine staff, and sixteen of them are blind. Our board of directors has eight members, and seven of them are blind. We have a challenge every year like every nonprofit, to raise enough money to have camp. We have fewer sessions this year, but they’re great sessions. We struggle to raise money through tuition. I challenge the parents in this room and the kids in this room because, if we filled every camp session, we wouldn’t have trouble, and your children would gain independence, meet new friends, and do some things that they have never done before, and you would allow them to be independent and learn to be competent members of society.
I have a long speech, but I’m not going to give it all. Today, as I had dinner with my mentor, he got a fortune that said, “He can who thinks he can, and he can’t if he thinks he can’t.” This is an indisputable law. I want to thank people out here: Fred and Mary Wurtzel, Larry and Donna Possant, J.J. Meddaugh, Matt McCubbin, Adrienne Dempsey, Shawn Patterson, and my blind mentor George Wurtzel, who has a gift for you.
Hello. This is George Wurtzel. Our camp builds all kinds of things, and I want to make sure that at the National Center you have a little memento to recognize our camp, so, Dr. Maurer, here is a very nice bluebird house made by the kids at the camp for you to take back to the Center. Thank you very much, NFB, for supporting our cause.
All week we have focused on Braille: the need to receive training in learning to read and write it, the expectation that blind people should become proficient in its use, and the need to have ever more of it available for the fingers and minds of blind Americans. The next program we honor is the oldest and largest of its kind and is probably the most influential nationwide Braille contest conducted in the USA. It was established to stem the tide of Braille illiteracy among our nation’s blind youth. It also aspired to create a demand for more Braille books; improve Braille instruction to students; and raise the expectations of teachers, parents, and students in regard to what blind children can achieve when appropriately challenged. The success of the contest is and continues to be phenomenal. Since 1984 over 6,000 blind children have participated in it, and the names of former participants appear regularly on the scholarship lists of the National Federation of the Blind and other prestigious scholarship programs. Names familiar to all of us include Brooke Sexton, Jason Ewell, Kimberly Aguillard, Ryan Strunk, James Fetter, Jesse Hartle, Angela (Sasser) Wolf, Tai (Tomasi) Blas, and Jessica Bachicha, to name but a few.
The organizations we honor created a contest which provides these young blind leaders and thousands of others an opportunity to develop Braille skills during their formative childhood years. They learned they could compete equally with their sighted peers. Former participants have gone on to careers in science, law, public relations, human services, business, and some have even come to teach Braille.
For all that the Braille Readers Are Leaders Contest is and will become, we present $10,000 to the National Association to Promote the Use of Braille and the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children. To accept, we call on Carol Castellano, president of the NOPBC and Nadine Jacobson, president of NAPUB [National Association to Promote the Use of Braille].
Nadine Jacobson: Thank you so much. I am deeply honored to be here today to receive this honor on the part of all of our NAPUB members, all those people who go out and encourage kids to read more Braille. When I was five years old, I told my mom that I wanted to be a nurse. She said, “No, you can’t do that because you can’t see well enough.” I said, “Well, that’s okay; then I’ll be a doctor.” At that time we didn’t know about Dr. Jacob Bolotin. She didn’t know that she could tell me that, if I just learned Braille and became literate, I could accomplish anything I wanted to.
But life is different now; our kids know something different. They know that they can accomplish what they want to. Jacob Bolotin attended the Illinois School for the Blind in Jacksonville, Illinois. In his practice he went over many of these buildings that Patti Chang, I think, is still working on. They were often very dangerous. One of the things, though, at this school for the blind was its claim that he could read Braille through sixteen layers of a handkerchief. So I challenge all of you to go home and see how many layers you can read through and send your results to the NAPUB listserv. It is truly remarkable what our blind children are accomplishing. It happens because of the work that we all do together, and I encourage you to do everything you can to inspire kids to get in the contest because those readers will be the leaders in the future. Thank you so much.
Carol Castellano: Boy, it has been a good day. It is with profound gratitude that I accept this award on behalf of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children and all the children who have been given the gift of literacy through the Braille Readers Are Leaders Contest. I would like to pass the microphone to someone who was there when it all began, one of the contest founders, my friend and mentor, Barbara Cheadle.
Barbara Cheadle: I really don’t know what to say. Carol kept this as a surprise from me. She knew about it, and I didn’t. She was pumping me before the convention about Braille Readers Are Leaders, and she said she wanted to say some words about the Braille Flea Market, but it turned out that she didn’t. I thought she got busy. That’s all right, so here we are.
Nadine may or may not remember this conversation, but, when we got together to think up this idea and to establish the contest, we had to decide when to begin the contest, at what grade level. What months would we use? What would be the rules? And I remember a very lengthy discussion about whether we really could start the contest with kindergarteners. The issue was this: it wasn’t that we thought blind kids in kindergarten couldn’t read, or couldn’t learn to read. If we scheduled the contest a little later in the year, they would have been up to speed. The problem was this: there weren’t enough Braille books for kids at that level. In the end I said, “You know, if we don’t do it at kindergarten, parents and teachers and others will assume that it’s all right that we don’t have Braille books for kindergarteners to read, and that’s not right. If we decide to start the contest with kindergarteners, it sends a message to the world that our kids deserve books and deserve lots of books at the same time that all the other kids have books. We will develop a groundswell of demand for Braille books. I think that we have succeeded.
Our next Bolotin winner came to her job from corporate America, where she held a position in healthcare. She knew nothing about the field of blindness, and her only contact with blind people came through service in Delta Gamma while in college. Bill Rader, the former director of the National Braille Press, lured her away when, after several unsuccessful attempts, he called on Valentine's Day to say, "This is my last call. What I'm offering you is creative license--you can do whatever you want." When placed alongside the job she had where she could do little without layers of corporate approval, our recipient took the plunge.
Her promised freedom was real--just how real she didn't realize until she arrived at work to find that she had no job description, no specific assignment, and an office with nothing more than a stapler, a tape holder, a telephone, and a typewriter. Her initial reaction: "I thought I had just made the biggest mistake of my life."
Starting with what she refers to as a clean slate, our recipient was the driving force behind the creation of the Children's Braille Book Club, offering books with print and Braille. She created the first program where blind people could buy titles in Braille for the same price as the print edition. Because of her work at the Press, there has come to be a Braille magazine of syndicated columns which lets blind readers enjoy the opinion section of major publications in the country. It is with tremendous appreciation for the drive, energy, and creativity she has used to enrich our lives that we present an award in the amount of $10,000 to Ms. Diane Croft.
Diane Croft: Thank you, Mrs. Jernigan and the committee, for this extraordinary award. Earlier today President Maurer suggested we be more joyful. I want to tell Dr. Maurer, I feel very joyful. Of course I’ve done none of these things myself. I want to recognize forty-seven other people, the employees at National Braille Press, who work so hard every day to keep Braille alive. A special thanks to the past president of the National Federation of the Blind of Massachusetts, Dr. David Ticchi, for nominating me and for being one of the finest individuals I have ever known.
People build communities, and communities build people, and no community has done more to build my character than this one. You set the bar very high, but by your example I have become more resilient, more responsible--just get the job done, more joyful, and more caring. Without caring there can be no community. I ask you, is there any other place in the world today where 2,800 people are vying for twelve elevators? And yet when a door opens and the cabin is packed, a voice says, “There’s always room for one more; come on in.” This is the community you have created, and this is the gift you have given to me. Thank you.
In 1959 Mrs. Jean Dyon Norris was talking with a blind friend who said: "My children can't understand why I can't read to them. If only someone would Braille me a little book." Mrs. Norris went home, took one of her own children's picture books apart, Brailled the text, inserted the Braille pages into the book along with the printed pages, and gave the book to her friend. Mrs. Norris continued to produce these little books at her kitchen table, but word of her project spread.
In 1962 the organization we honor today gave Mrs. Norris a grant to rent an office and purchase the equipment needed to mass-produce her works. Twin Vision® books they came to be called. Fifty years later this organization has a library of Twin Vision and other Braille books, the Kenneth Jernigan Library for Blind Children, and its collection now numbers more than thirty-five thousand volumes. Mrs. Norris, at age ninety-one, still manages the operation and reports to her Tarzana, California, office every day.
In addition to Twin Vision books, on a monthly basis this organization distributes to all blind children who request it a free Braille book. The books given include the Little House series, the Juni B. Jones story books, The Nancy Drew Mysteries, and other reading treasures beloved by young children.
It is with tremendous pride that we honor with a $5,000 award, the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults, and we call on its second vice president, Sandy Halverson, to accept this award.
Sandy Halverson: Thank you very much, Gary, and members of the Jacob Bolotin Award committee. The American Action Fund for Blind Children sponsors the Kenneth Jernigan Library that Gary talked to you about. For those of you who aren’t familiar with how books were produced a long time ago, each page, each raised-line drawing (that today might be called tactile graphics) was done one page, one picture at a time. The calendars that many of you, I’m sure, received or picked up were distributed by the National Federation of the Blind and were a gift to you from the American Action Fund.
Several years ago, decades now, when the International Braille and Technology Center was established by the National Federation of the Blind, the American Action Fund made a substantial financial contribution to that endeavor because it was our belief that at least one piece of any kind of technology that was at all related to Braille should be available in one central location so that blind people would look at those production devices--Braille displays, Braille embossers--get their hands on them and make informed choices about what they were going to purchase.
Anil Lewis this morning mentioned the Kenneth Jernigan $12,000 scholarship, and we don’t know who the recipient will be, but it’s clear that we have high expectations of that winner and know that he or she will go on to accomplish great things. Gary talked to you about the Juni B. Jones series. The American Action Fund is now giving blind children an opportunity to request Braille cookbooks free. Think about it. How many of us in this room were expected to cook along with our siblings. Maybe some were, but I bet most of us were not. I can tell you I was not. I would like to get my hands on one of those cookbooks.
We very much appreciate and thank the committee for its generosity, and I assure you this award will be put to good use. Thank you very much.
All of us who read Braille know how frustrating it can be not to get what you want to read when you want to read it. No group of Braille readers knows this frustration more than blind musicians. Although gifted blind musicians who learn and perform everything by ear is a time-worn stereotype, in reality it is nearly impossible for blind musicians to learn complex musical compositions with complete accuracy unless they have access to the written score.
The individual we honor today has had a lifelong interest in music and developed an interest in Braille music when he met a gifted young student named Jessica Bachicha. So complicated were some of the pieces she needed to learn that to transcribe them accurately required collaboration between an expert in reading Braille music and someone expert in the software used for its transcription. Our winner tells the story of a deadline so pressing that it found him and Jessica working by phone from 1 to 5 a.m. to make a composition available to her that very day.
The man we proudly honor has decided his calling is to do the work of making Braille music available to the blind. It is our pleasure to present an award in the amount of $5,000 to Mr. John Andrew English.
Because of some confusion, though Andy English attended the convention, he was not present to receive his award.
If you are blind, how do you learn about the world? Well you can read about its people and its cultures, but how do you learn about the physical layout so you understand the shape of Michigan, where it is in relation to Texas, and get some concept of the distance which separates the two? Blind children and adults learn geography by using tactile maps to explore the world. Unfortunately, the creation of tactile maps is tedious and time-consuming, and as a result there are few for blind students and adults to use. The ones which are available are often quite expensive.
Today we recognize a very special organization, created and staffed by two dedicated senior citizen volunteers who work tirelessly to solve the dual problems of cost and availability. Since its creation this organization has produced twenty-seven Braille atlases and each year fills about one hundred orders, sending approximately 350 books to schools, organizations, and individuals.
The magic of the organization we recognize is not just in its work and the numbers of volumes it distributes, but in the two women who founded and staff it. I think two short biographies will leave you as spellbound as it did the committee. Ruth Bogia was raised during the Great Depression, and, when the time came to decide which sibling would go to college, it was her brother who got the nod. After Ruth sent her own son to college, she decided her turn had finally come, and at age seventy she got her bachelor’s degree in English, some twenty-one years ago. While working at Recording for the Blind, first affixing Braille labels to boxes and later acting as unit director, Ruth learned and began to transcribe Braille in 1967, and she's been at it on an almost daily basis for the last forty-two years.
Nancy Amick has a master’s degree in physics and moved to Princeton to take a job in 1959. When she married a colleague with a PhD in chemistry, the company would not employ a husband and wife team, so she was forced to leave her job. Turning lemons into lemonade, Nancy became a volunteer for Recording for the Blind, and it is there she met Ruth. When RFB decided to try producing raised-line drawings and Nancy thought she could do the job, she began to learn, not only how to make tactile drawings, but more important, how to make drawings blind people could understand.
When Ruth retired and RFB discontinued its raised-line drawing program, the two decided to form an organization which we proudly recognize today with an award of $5,000. The organization these two women created is called the Princeton Braillists, and I invite Nancy Amick and Ruth Bogia to receive this most deserved award.
Nancy Amick: We’d like to thank Debbie Stein, Gary Wunder, and the award committee for recognizing our work. We’ve never had so much attention, and we truly appreciate it. When we started making maps in about 1992, people would say, “Maps for the blind, why would they want maps?” Well, there is a young lady in Pittsburgh who uses our maps, and she got through her history of Western Europe, or the college professor in Utah who buys all of our maps, or the deaf-blind man in Massachusetts who called on a Saturday afternoon to find out if the Wilkins Ice Shelf was on his Antarctic map. It was. The many people who travel enjoy our maps. And then there’s Adrian, our blind man in Frankfurt, Germany, who collects maps. I can email him at midnight, and within an hour he is getting up to go to his job at the post office, and he emails me back. They all love maps, and we enjoy making maps. It gives us great pleasure to provide this service.
We are currently working on maps of the fifty-three countries in Africa, which will be our next offering. Any of you who have used our maps, we’d love to talk with you. Thanks for all your support and appreciation.
Ruth Bogia: Gary told you all about my life history, but he didn’t tell you that working with Nancy, who is a perfectionist, has been a real challenge to me. I am the Braillist. She is the designer. And between us we make the maps. It’s a great pleasure to work with her and also to do Braille, and I shall continue as long as I am able.
Gary Wunder: May we all do as well at age seventy-eight and ninety-one.
Our last award this afternoon goes to a man whose name will be recognized by almost everyone in this hall. If you read Braille, he has played a tremendous role in your education. What you may not know is that our honoree was almost diverted from his destiny when, some seventy years ago, he was sold a bill of goods which said that science and math weren't fields in which the blind could compete. Instead of pursuing his life's desire, our winner was trained as a psychologist, and only his inability to find a job in that field led him to throw caution to the wind and follow his real passion. One element in his decision was a most loving but pointed question from his wife, which was, "Would you rather be an unemployed psychologist or an unemployed mathematician?"
To help him with the concepts that would have to be mastered in his field, our winner began to improvise a new Braille system that would be consistent and make it possible for him to write down all the notations used by sighted readers. There is much much more I'd like to say about our final recipient, but, if I go on much longer, all of you will yell out his name before I can say that it is our honor to award $5,000 to Dr. Abraham Nemeth.
Dr. Nemeth: Wow, I didn’t recognize who I am. First I’d like to thank the Bolotin committee for considering me worthy to receive such a prestigious prize. I grew up in an environment of pure love. I had wonderful parents, wonderful grandparents whom I knew intimately. I had four of them. I had uncles and aunts who supported me and loved me. I had cousins and other relatives. I had wonderful teachers all through my life. I had wonderful friends. I had two wives who supported and indulged me. And most of the credit for all I did belongs to all of those people.
I have friends all over, including people from the National Federation of the Blind, and now I have developed a system called NUBS. NUBS stands for Nemeth Uniform Braille System, and just like print, which has no math code, no literary code, and no computer code, no other kind of a code, NUBS is just like that. If you feel the spectrum of Braille, you know that you have to deal with two sets of numbers and three sets of punctuation marks. In NUBS you deal with one set of numbers and one set of punctuation marks. NUBS is not finished. It is being reviewed by the Braille Authority of North America. I am ever so grateful to all the people who kept helping me along in my endeavors. The Lord has overwhelmed me with this kindness. Thank you.
All right, ladies and gentlemen, I have taken more than my time. On behalf of the committee I’d like to thank all of you who made this possible.
The following remarks were not delivered because of time constraints. In this presentation I've given only a brief synopsis of the organizations and individuals we honor today. So that you and many others can learn more about them, we've created a book that provides some very exciting details we just could not cover in the time allowed. I remind you about the biography entitled The Blind Doctor: The Jacob Bolotin Story, available from the National Federation of the Blind, proceeds from which go to fund these awards.
Mr. President, I close by thanking the Alfred and Rosalind Perlman Trust, which funds these awards, and Rosalind Perlman, who selected the National Federation of the Blind to administer them. Thank you to the members of the National Federation of the Blind, who, even in this time of financial difficulty, decided to fund this program for 2009. Thank you to Ronald Brown and Mary Ellen Jernigan for reading several hundred pages of nominations and deciding on the very best to bring here today.
Congratulations to our recipients, to those who nominated and wrote in support of them, and congratulations to every member of the NFB, who allowed us to honor the memory of Dr. Bolotin and to support the individuals and organizations who share his passion and carry on his work.