How a Blind Doctor’s Legacy Helps Today’s Innovators
By Cricket Bidleman
The National Federation of the Blind gives the Dr. Jacob Bolotin Awards each year (in collaboration with the Santa Barbara Foundation) to people and organizations who do great work related to the blindness community and our advocacy efforts. It was named for Dr. Jacob W. Bolotin (1888-1924), who was a blind Chicago doctor in the 1910’s and 1920’s. His life and legacy show that blind people have been capable of defying expectations and living the lives we want, even long before the birth of the Federation. With the power of collective action, our organization turns dreams into reality on a large scale, but we continue to recognize Dr. Bolotin’s and others’ achievements.
However, I digress. The deadline for Bolotin award applications is April 15 of each year. Anyone may nominate someone or an organization to receive an award. Last year’s winners include Sharon Maneki, Neil Soiffer, and Accessible Pharmacy Services. Sharon was the previous president of our Maryland affiliate; she also directed Maryland’s legislative advocacy efforts for two decades. Neil Soiffer created Math CAT, an open-source tool allowing software developers to make math content accessible to screen-readers. Accessible Pharmacy Services offers solutions that provide blind people with private, independent access to healthcare.
Today, I’d like to highlight Caroline Karbowski, who actually won a Bolotin Award in 2022. Her company, See3D, is a nonprofit organization that prints and sends three-dimensional models, complete with Braille labels, to blind people. They had, at the time we interviewed her, sent models to people in twenty-seven of the United States and seventeen countries.
I was impressed by Karbowski because, although she is sighted, she decided to learn Braille when she was in sixth grade anyway. She uses a slate and stylus, a Perkins Brailler, and the other tools that blind students typically learn to use. “I used to take a pencil, push really hard in a notebook, and read the Braille on the other side of the page,” she said. “My mom had a friend who was a TVI. She gave me a slate and stylus. … Eventually I had some friends who gave me a [Perkins] Brailler, which really encouraged my learning of Braille.”
Karbowski took the Hadley Braille course in college, and is now a certified transcriber. She uses her Braille skills both occupationally and recreationally—occupationally when adding Braille labels to her nonprofit’s three-dimensional models, and recreationally to read in the dark and on the road, and to write down sign language as she interprets it. “I can keep my eyes on the signer the whole time and not miss any words,” she said.
Some think that Braille is irrelevant with the proliferation of screen-reading and audio-based technology. I, an avid Braille reader, love Braille. The Federation also believes that Braille is still useful for reading, writing, and self-empowerment among other things. Karbowski, a Braille reader herself, uses Braille in her three-dimensional designs as well. “My high school had 3D printers. My friends and I weren't sure what to make.… I thought, ‘why don't we make models for blind people? And I can add some Braille labels to them.’”
Throughout high school, Karbowski distributed three-dimensional models to blind students in Cincinnati through some of her mom’s friends, who were teachers of the visually impaired (TVI’s). Then she met blind people in the community, who introduced her to the Federation. “I met some blind people in Cincinnati just by chance,” she said. “They connected me with the NFB and some people who wrote articles about See3D that really helped us gain publicity.”
See3D began as a Google form where people could request models. Karbowski and her friends would print and deliver them, soliciting feedback to figure out what blind people found helpful. At the time of our interview, Karbowski was studying at Ohio state University, but her effort became a startup even with the transition from high school to college. “We got funding to become a nonprofit, to really develop our program,” she said. “Now we ship models all over the world and have a community of people who 3D print and distribute models.”
Initially, Karbowski printed STEM-related models, but she now finds that people are requesting other things including various kinds of maps, small replicas of historical monuments, tactile versions of insects, hazardous animals like jellyfish… “What's been really nice about 3D printing is that you can touch things that you can't touch in real life,” she said. “Even sighted people can't often touch some of these or see them in real life, especially things like molecules.”
There’s a perception that the National Federation of the Blind is only for blind people, but in my experience, we also embrace allies. Karbowski found the Federation warm and welcoming too. “I've been really welcomed, especially by the Ohio affiliate,” she said. “People have been so welcoming, teaching me blindness skills, teaching me about the NFB philosophy. It means a lot to have this award from blind people because it really shows the community what I have learned to be able to get See3D where it is today.”
One of the challenges Dr. Bolotin faced as a medical student was learning the systems of the body from the diagrams in his medical textbooks. His mother, a seamstress, helped him solve the problem by using yarn to make models of those systems. Not all Bolotin Awards have such a direct connection to their namesake, but they all recognize efforts and innovations that help blind people push past existing boundaries to achieve new heights.