by Doug Moore
From the Editor: Sierra Gregg was a winner of a National Federation of the Blind scholarship in 2012. She is an impressive young woman, as the article that appeared in St. Louis Today for January 6 attests:
Sierra Gregg was excited about her internship at the Office of Presidential Libraries in Washington. Her task in the summer of 2011 was to help beef up the office’s social media presence on sites such as Facebook and Twitter. As the twenty-first anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act was approaching, Gregg, a student at Truman State University, began looking for records to feature but found only two, neither of which was a copy of the law that changed the way those with disabilities are treated in the U.S. And neither was in a format that would allow software or reading equipment used by those visually impaired to be of use.
“I was shocked and kind of mad, I guess, because, of all the events I’d been covering and researching, this was the one I was looking forward to the most,” said, Gregg, twenty-one, who grew up in the small St. Louis County community of Oakland, near Kirkwood. “So I mentioned this to my supervisor, that I wanted more ADA records to be digitized. And we came up with the idea to create a webpage to feature these records.” Gregg’s passion for making more documents accessible to those with disabilities is understandable. She was born with a rare birth defect that left her legally blind.
On July 26, the twenty-second anniversary of the signing of the ADA, the National Archives launched Gregg’s new webpage, which contains fifty-six newly digitized documents. The records include letters Helen Keller wrote to President Herbert Hoover and a letter written in Braille by a thirteen-year-old boy to President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, a year before Gregg was born. “I have grown up in a world where my visual impairment is not a hindrance to my success, only a characteristic of who I am,” said Gregg, who went to Ursuline Academy and is now working on a computer science degree at Truman State.
Jeannie Chen, social media coordinator for the Office of Presidential Libraries, a part of the National Archives and Records Administration, said Gregg’s passion brought to light the shortage of documents readily accessible. “We had hoped to find more of those records already scanned and online,” Chen said. “Sierra helped us realize this was an area where we could serve more people.”
Gregg began looking through the websites for the thirteen presidential libraries. Documents already online were not always in a format that could be manipulated to be read more clearly. So the office, with the help of other summer interns, began transcribing them so they could be digitally formatted. Doing so allows the text to be greatly magnified online for the visually impaired.
The records Gregg helped collect for the site, archives.gov, go beyond the ADA. For example, there are documents from the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had polio and started what is now the March of Dimes. President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn elevated awareness of mental health care. And President John F. Kennedy’s sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, was the driving force behind the creation of the Special Olympics.
“This was a great project because it broadened the types of records we have. Sierra worked on making things more accessible in general,” Chen said. The site explains the highlighted documents this way: “From personal letters to historic legislation, these records provide insight into efforts over the past century to establish programs and to protect the rights of people with disabilities.”
Gregg’s efforts were noted on the White House Blog, where she detailed her internships during the summers of 2011 and 2012. Susan K. Donius, director of the Office of Presidential Libraries, introduced Gregg’s blog entry, saying the college student “recognizes the importance of sharing presidential records related to disability history. She has been closely involved in a project to make a selection of these documents accessible to a wide audience.”
In the blog post Gregg said at least one record from every presidential administration since Hoover is included on the site, including her favorite, a letter from a sixth-grade boy to Eisenhower in 1956, offering advice for his re-election campaign. “Dear Ike,” the letter from John Beaulieu, a student at a Massachusetts school for the blind, begins. “I decided to write you a little speech which might help you to win the election.” Little it was. “Vote for me. I will help you out. I will lower the prices and also your tax bill. I also will help the Negroes so that they may go to school.”
Eisenhower, who won re-election, replied to Beaulieu: “Dear John: It was nice of you to send me a little speech to help win the election.… I wish I were able to write back to you in Braille also, but I am sure that one of your teachers will be happy to read this to you.”
In her blog post Gregg also noted that two letters written to President Hoover by Keller are among the documents on the site. Gregg said Keller wrote letters to eight U.S. presidents, starting in 1903 with Theodore Roosevelt, and met with thirteen presidents, from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon B. Johnson. “I must admit to feeling a twinge of envy when I learned that during a visit to the White House, she investigated her historic surroundings with touch. She even identified a bust of George Washington with her fingers,” Gregg said of Keller.
John Thompson, president of Lighthouse for the Blind--St. Louis, which provides various services to the visually impaired, said Gregg’s efforts are impressive, especially given her personality. “I remember when I first met her; timid is putting it mildly,” said Thompson. Gregg went through Lighthouse’s three-week residential program for teens, stressing independence, including communication and social skills. “There is a tendency for so many kids who are visually impaired to not go out to get the experiences that sighted kids get,” Thompson said. “As they go through adolescence, they tend to become an island into themselves.”
Gregg said she recalled getting an email accepting applications for the internship and thought it would fit nicely with her plans to go to graduate school for a library science degree. But she admits Washington was culture shock for her. Her commute to work included crowded buses and trains. Using public transportation is something encouraged in the Lighthouse program Gregg participated in. Had she not gone through the program, “I would never have made it in D.C.,” Gregg said. Lighthouse also provided scholarships to help with her housing costs in Washington.
As Gregg works to complete her studies with an eye on library management, Chen says she is glad the young woman from St. Louis spent two summers in Washington. “She brought such a strong interest,” Chen said. As a result “we were able to create a really wonderful resource at the agency that will end up being valuable to the general public.”If you are interested in reading more blind history, check out the offerings on The Blind Cat at <http://webopac.infovisionsoftware.com/nfb/>.