Braille Monitor                                              July 2014

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Jean Dyon Norris Dies

by Gary Wunder

Jean Dyon Norris stands next to the Kenneth Jernigan Library for Blind Children sign in the front window of the American Action Fund office.How would the person most responsible for conceiving of, creating, and overseeing the production of the Twin Vision book describe her introduction to the blind people she would give so much of her life's energy to helping? There is no need to guess. Here is what she said about her reaction when seeing a notice in the newspaper about a rummage sale sponsored by the blind: "I had never known any blind people, but I decided to gather up some rummage and go help. I discovered a group of normal folks whose only problem was that they could not see."

Jean Dyon Norris says herself that she had no experience with blindness, no reason to become interested in learning Braille. But from that first rummage sale she made friends, and when she heard a friend saying how hard it was not to be able to read her children a bedtime story, she took on her friend's problem, and she found a solution.

The LA Times obituary of Jean Norris quotes Laurie Rubin, an acclaimed mezzo-soprano and author, who received her first Twin Vision book in the 1980s at the age of five. "It was so nice that I could read along with my parents or brother. It made it a very normal experience. It didn't make me feel isolated." That was all Norris had set out to do, to give blind parents with sighted children and blind children with sighted parents the opportunity to do what any other family could—read together.

It's no wonder that framed newspaper articles about her accomplishments hung on almost every wall in her house. She had goals and the determination to see them through. Norris says, "The woman at the publisher of the Charlie Brown books told us that she liked the idea but could not give us any books. We kept going back. On the third contact we got six thousand books."

Jean doesn't embellish the tale of getting permission to create Twin Vision versions of several Charlie Brown books, but took pride in what she had been able to accomplish. Last year, when she sent in her article, "My Historic Recollections of the NFB" (printed in the May 2013 edition of the Monitor), she enclosed a stack of photocopies which included pictures, awards, and articles about herself, the Twin Vision project, and NFB members she had known. In the two large envelopes she sent was a copy of a letter she received from Charles Schultz, thanking her for the sample book she had sent him and pointing her to Determined Productions, the publisher who owned the rights for the Charlie Brown books. The first letter she received from that publisher gave her permission to make the Twin Vision books but said they could not give her copies. The second letter accompanied an invoice documenting the first donation of five hundred copies of Happiness is a Warm Puppy.

The project director at Determined Productions was not the last to meet the kind but unstoppable force that was Jean Norris on a mission. Norris okayed transcribing Sea Shells, by R. Tucker Abbott, an authority on shells. Someone saw the book and notified the author, who wrote to Norris. He was very upset and wanted to know for how much they sold their version of his book. She responded, explaining that the book was loaned free of charge and that it was being used to teach blind children about sea shells. She received a second letter in which the author displayed a much different attitude: "How wonderful! How many copies of the book do you want? Could I please have one for my library?" After she sent him a copy he wrote again, praising the Twin Vision version.

Of course that determination was sometimes tested when Jean Norris decided to make things happen. It took a visit to the federal building in Los Angeles to consult with the FBI and letters to the Treasury Department in Washington DC to get an answer other than "no" in response to the request to produce The Shape of Things—Coins, a book representing, not surprisingly,  the shapes of coins. Government agencies, always reluctant to take the lead on things never done before, ducked responsibility and jointly told her, "We won't say yes, but we aren't saying no." That was all the answer she needed, and The Shape of Things—Coins was soon to be found under the fingers of blind readers. But the payoff from that effort was greater than the trooper for Braille and Twin Vision could have anticipated. The appeal of the Twin Vision book wasn't limited to blind children. A review of The Shape of Things—Coins appeared in a 1970 issue of Coin World, a magazine for numismatists (coin collectors.) William Pettit, president of the Chicago Coin Club, governor of the Central States Numismatic Society, and member of the education committee of the American Numismatic Association, wrote to Norris with a request for a copy of the book. "Because I am a frequent speaker in this area on coins, their history and uses, it would be of great interest to have a book showing the efforts made to acquaint the blind with coins and the apparent pitfalls to be encountered."

Of course, sometimes getting permission and donations of books was much easier. Golden Books were in high demand, and when Norris found out that the publisher had an office in Beverly Hills, she took a Twin Vision book and paid them a visit. She talked to a man named Robert E. Callender and began by pointing to the Braille and asking him if he knew what it was. Not only did he know, but he told Norris that his wife was a transcriber. He donated fifty books immediately and later donated over one thousand more. He and his wife personally donated a check for $1,000 to support Norris's work.

But it wasn't just creating Twin Vision books that gained her the respect of blind and sighted people alike. Norris had a long-time friendship with William Goetze, who repaired Braillers. When he decided to clear out his collection of Braillers—some very old, some from other countries—he called Norris first. She sent volunteers to pick them up and established the Goetze Museum. After William Goetze died, his son asked Norris if she would like to have his father's memorabilia: awards, pictures, letters, and other things he had treasured. She accepted and added them to the Goetze Museum, the contents of which she eventually donated to Dr. Maurer, who had them moved to the tenBroek Library.

With the determination she had used in her work with Twin Vision books and many of the programs of the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults, Jean Norris lived a long and fruitful life. She died on April 30, 2014, several hours after turning ninety-six. She died at her home in Reseda, her son David by her side. She had served as the head of Twin Vision until her retirement in 2013, and her passing has been felt around the world. Not only has she had tributes from her home state of California and from the National Federation of the Blind, but her passing has been mentioned from as far away as Britain, where her many contributions made the news on the website of the Royal London Society for Blind. Jean Dyon Norris's legacy lives on in the thousands of Twin Vision books that currently exist and the thousands more that have yet to be published, all because she sat down at her kitchen table with a slate, a stylus, an encyclopedia to show her the shapes of Braille letters, and a few of her sons' old picture books. She started out to help one blind woman and ended her life with tens of thousands of blind and sighted people in her debt. Her work made it possible for families to share in the beauty of literature, whether perceived by the fingers or the eyes, and she helped countless men and women experience the joy of being read to and being able to read to others. One life does make a difference, and what a blessing God gave to the world when Jean Dyon Norris came into it nearly a century ago.

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