Braille Monitor                          August/September 2019

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American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults: A Century of Innovation, a Century for the Blind

by Marc Maurer

Marc MaurerFrom the Editor: Marc Maurer needs no introduction since many people know he is the immediate past president of the Federation. What some may not know is that he has long worked for the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults to see that its programs continue to expand and thrive. Here are the comments he made following those of President Barbara Loos:

The American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults is one hundred years old—having initiated operations in 1919. Its official name at the time of formation was the American Brotherhood for the Blind, and its official name today is the American Brotherhood for the Blind, but it has adopted a trade name, the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults. At the time the organization came into being, the idea of brotherhood was an important concept in social organizations. Many of the labor unions that had been formed were known as brotherhoods, and the term was widely used for social action organizations. Of course, our president today is Barbara Loos, who may be more inclined to favor sisterhoods, but I have not heard her express an opinion. In 1990 the Action Fund decided that a more dynamic name would identify the purpose of the organization more precisely than the name Brotherhood. Consequently, the Brotherhood adopted its trade name.

The American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults conducts numerous programs to support the blind, but this is not new. At the time the Brotherhood began, its paramount program brought literacy to the blind. It produced Braille. This was before Braille had been adopted as the proper form of writing for the blind in the United States. The Action Fund loves Braille—Braille now, Braille one hundred years ago, Braille all the time.

The person responsible for founding the Action Fund is Florian A. Baker, born in Maine in 1866, who was a theosophist. Theosophists want:

First—To form a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or color. Second—To encourage the study of comparative religion, philosophy, and science. Third—To investigate unexplained laws of Nature and the powers latent in man.
[taken from The American Theosophist, January 1914]

Florian A. Baker, who, among other things, painted portraits of movie stars in California in the second decade of the twentieth century, learned Braille in 1917. Members of the Theosophical Society asked him to manage a small library of Braille theosophical books, and Baker decided to learn Braille so that he could comprehend the material he was managing. Two years later he formed the Brotherhood.

The American Brotherhood published a quarterly periodical entitled Brotherhood Progress Magazine. Very little information about this magazine is contained in the records of the Brotherhood, but it appears that the magazine continued in circulation at least until 1938.

In 1932 the American Brotherhood created one of the most popular magazines for the blind distributed during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. This periodical, entitled the All Story Magazine, reprinted articles that appeared in nationally recognized publications such as Good Housekeeping, Collier’s, and McCall’s.

In 1945 the National Federation of the Blind persuaded the Brotherhood to include a legislative supplement in the All Story Magazine. The legislative supplement was edited by Newel Perry, who had been the most influential teacher of the founder of the National Federation of the Blind, Dr. Jacobus tenBroek. The legislative supplement continued to grow, and by 1957 the name of the magazine was changed to the Braille Monitor, which carried on its front cover the declaration “Voice of the National Federation of the Blind.” The focus of the newly-named magazine became blindness and the rights of the blind. The Brotherhood continued to support publication of the Braille Monitor through 1959. In 1960 the Monitor was not only the voice of the National Federation of the Blind but its property as well. The Braille Monitor has been the flagship publication of the National Federation of the Blind for well over half a century.

When the Federation ran out of money at the end of 1960, the Monitor was suspended. In the spring of 1961 the American Brotherhood for the Blind began the publication of The Blind American, which printed news about activities of the blind. In the summer of 1964 the Braille Monitor resumed publication and The Blind American stopped.

In 1965 the Brotherhood created a biweekly Braille publication entitled Hot-Line to Deaf-Blind. This magazine gathered news stories to be put into Braille for deaf-blind readers. Blind people could hear the news on the radio or television; sighted people could read it in the paper; but the deaf-blind could not get it at all until Hot-Line to Deaf-Blind brought it to them. The publication ceased in 2013. By that year deaf-blind people could get a number of Braille publications featuring the news of the day.

The American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults publishes the magazine for teachers and parents of blind children, Future Reflections, in partnership with the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children, a division of the National Federation of the Blind. Future Reflections promotes educational opportunities for the blind and provides methods for achieving them for parents and educators of blind children. Unlike other magazines produced by the Action Fund, Future Reflections is not published in Braille.

Shortly after the organization came together, the Brotherhood commenced printing Braille copies of books for distribution to state libraries for the blind and to the Library of Congress. Many of the early books were theosophical writings, but others were also produced. One book from the 1930s is a play by John Galsworthy with a copyright date of 1926 entitled Old English. A copy of this book resides on the shelves of the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute. Another book is the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, one of the most famous autobiographies ever written. This autobiography is ascribed to the years 1558 to 1563. It details experiences of Benvenuto Cellini in the Renaissance era in Italy.

In 1960 Jean Dyon Norris, a leader in the Brotherhood, started work on small Twin Vision® volumes that contained print with pictures along with the same text in Braille. The method used to create such books is to remove the binding, interleave Braille between the pages with print, and rebind the whole. The first of these was produced upon the table in Mrs. Norris’s kitchen. Golden Books for children contained all of the print and all of the pictures that had been in them at the beginning, but they also had Braille. Blind children and sighted parents or sighted children and blind parents could read together.

The Action Fund decided that tactile reading with Braille enhanced the little books, but the organization wanted tactile pictures as well. Later efforts occurred to create raised illustrations of the pictures in the books. Then, the Brotherhood began to publish books of its own. Nickels, dimes, quarters, and half dollars are fairly easy to get, but what did the coins of the colonial era look like? What is meant by pieces of eight? What is a pine tree shilling? The American Brotherhood for the Blind created books on the theme the Shapes of Things and included within them raised illustrations of those shapes. Birds of the United States, dinosaurs, and colonial era coins were publications in the Shapes of Things from the Brotherhood.

At about the same time, the Brotherhood published Braille versions of great American documents including the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. When I walked into law school in 1974, I had my Braille copy of the United States Constitution in hand from the Brotherhood. I could find the Constitution in Braille only from the American Brotherhood for the Blind. Enclosed within the copy of the Constitution is a raised illustration of the Liberty Bell showing both the inscription on the bell and the crack. The Freedom Foundation at Valley Forge presented the George Washington Honor Medal to the American Brotherhood for its work in bringing the great documents of American history to the blind. A confession: I still have that copy of the Constitution. Don’t tell anybody at the Action Fund because I am not sending it back.

A Christmas book produced by the Brotherhood contained raised images of Christmas decorations. Actual candy canes were attached to the pages of the book. When I first observed this book, I wondered how many of the candy canes were returned to the library with no toothmarks.

Braille is important but not the only thing. The Action Fund supports travel by the blind as well. The Brotherhood published an original book entitled the White Cane Story in 1969. Some people view the white cane as evidence of failure, but a proper understanding of this tool is that it offers independence. The White Cane Story illustrates the truth of independence for the blind through travel. About a decade ago the Action Fund started giving away this tool for free—tens of thousands of them. The program continues to operate as a cooperative effort between the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults and the National Federation of the Blind. The canes are small ones for toddlers, medium-sized ones for most other people, and enormous ones for those who possess the longest legs.

Although the Brotherhood began by creating books to be given to libraries for the blind, when it began producing Twin Vision books, it built a library of its own. For almost sixty years the books would come to the blind of the United States. Often the children and their moms and dads would read the stories together viewing the words on the page or touching them.

Borrowing a book is a good thing, but having a book of your own to keep and to read over and over is even better. How many times have parents read about Peter Rabbit? The children know Peter Rabbit, and they can’t stand Mr. McGregor. In 1997 the Action Fund began to print Braille books for blind children to keep: the Hardy Boys mysteries, the Nancy Drew stories, Little House books, National Geographic Kids, and many others. I, who believe that small miracles come in most lives, have always wanted to have a Christmas book to give away each year to blind children, and often we have made it. Sometimes we have Brailled an entire extensive series of books, such as The 39 Clues. Today we are printing in Braille the Here’s Hank books created by Henry Winkler, also known as “the Fonz.” Forty-three hundred books go out to the blind children of America each month.

In 2018 the books collected in the library of the Action Fund were moved from California to Baltimore. Distributing them through a lending library has been effective in the past. Today we are using the internet to let readers get their fingers on them. ShareBraille is the distribution system. Our volunteers place books on the ShareBraille website. Those who want them can request that the books be sent to them. Whenever the readers have finished with them, they may once again place the books on the ShareBraille site. Other readers can request them from those who are currently in possession. In the first few months of the program, more than a thousand books have been placed on https://sharebraille.org/.

For blind people Braille calendars have often been very hard to get. Beginning in 1964 the Brotherhood printed these calendars and distributed them to the blind of the United States. At the height of the program more than thirty thousand calendars were given to the blind free of charge annually. Even today some twelve thousand calendars are sent to the blind each year.

Promoting the use of Braille is as important as creating it. The Action Fund has recently become a sponsor of the Braille Readers Are Leaders Contest. This is a regional effort being promoted by the National Federation of the Blind of Illinois. Most blind people who achieve positions of employment in the workforce possess the ability to read Braille. Braille readers are indeed leaders. Braille does not ensure leadership, but many people who read it rise to positions of leadership. Consequently, the Action Fund will promote this skill. The Braille Readers Are Leaders Contest offers recognition to blind children who read significant amounts of Braille within a specified period of time. What is true for Braille is also true for print. At the beginning of using the skill of reading, most effort goes toward learning how to read. However, soon reading becomes a method of learning. Reading can be a chore, but it can also become a joy. The Braille Readers Are Leaders Contest shows blind children the wonder of unexplored arenas of science, poetry, and adventure.

The Action Fund supports educational opportunities as well. Any blind person in the United States who wants one can have a slate and stylus for writing Braille at no charge. The organization gives scholarships to blind people to offer educational opportunity. Probably the best known of these is the Kenneth Jernigan Scholarship funded by the Action Fund and presented each year at the convention of the National Federation of the Blind. Sometimes we promote blind scholars who wish to enter fields that are uncommon for the blind. A brilliant student seeking to enter the study of bioethics received a scholarship from the Action Fund, became a professor of bioethics, and challenged those in the bioethics field to welcome all who have the drive and talent to enter this demanding profession.

The Action Fund also promotes research into areas of knowledge not yet fully developed. The organization is pursuing a program to make a practical guide for creating an automated translation program for Braille mathematics. When this project is successful, we will expand it to other scientific disciplines.

In recent years the Action Fund has undertaken programs to help blind children know that they too can participate in art. Sighted children get crayons and coloring books at an early age. Blind children should also have such products. The Action Fund distributed art boxes to blind children containing the supplies for tactile drawing that could be used at home. Posted on the website of the Action Fund are videos describing how these products can be used. Following the initial distribution of art boxes, the Action Fund presented interested blind children with more complex tactile drawing kits. Art is as much available to blind people as it is to the sighted although the methods for achieving it may not be the same. This is the message the Action Fund conveyed to the blind children participating in the project.

The Action Fund is also seeking mechanisms to produce raised images that are tactilely informative and visually interesting. Raised images in the past have been informative to the touch. Print images have been informative to the eye. But the new method for producing these tactile visual images makes them interesting to both. A book, commissioned by the Action Fund, is being released at this convention. This book, Pedro and the Octopus, has a number of images of a creature that is difficult for a blind person to handle. We will be seeking methods for automating the production of raised images that also present visual understanding.

Created as a theosophical organization to help the blind, the American Brotherhood for the Blind (now the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults) has become one of the strongest supporters of educational efforts for the blind in the United States. A quiet group, the Action Fund has steadfast leadership. It has had nine presidents in its hundred-year history. Some of these presidents will be well known to the blind. These presidents took office in the following years: Florian A. Baker (1919), Maitland L. Bishop (1939), Newel Perry (1939), Jacobus tenBroek (1945), Kenneth Jernigan (1968), Marc Maurer (1978), Ralph Sanders (1978), Joanne Becker (1981), and Barbara Loos (1990). Our current president, Barbara Loos, has served for twenty-nine years, the longest time that any person has been president of the Action Fund. She is a quiet person and introspective. However, she is also unflappable, toughminded, demanding, and gentle.

For nineteen years Dr. Kenneth Jernigan served as executive director of the Action Fund. I served in that office for twenty-one years. At the beginning of 2019 Mark Riccobono accepted that responsibility.

What will the future of the Action Fund be in the next hundred years? I suspect that it will remain the same quiet, steadfast, supportive organization it has always been. I suspect that it will continue to seek research projects to expand knowledge and educational learning for the blind. I suspect it will continue to seek partners to give greater opportunity to individual blind people throughout the nation—especially to blind children and to individuals who are deaf-blind. I suspect that it will remain the stalwart friend to the blind that has given it the position it now occupies. Its role is to support blind children and blind adults with greater opportunity than might have been available without it. I know that it will offer a full measure to the blind of hope and of faith.

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