by Laura Deck
From the Editor: This is not a traditional Braille Monitor offering. Its author is not a Federationist; its subject is not a Federationist though he makes substantial yearly donations because he believes the Federation has made significant contributions to his life. He believes NFB-NEWSLINE® has been nothing less than a Godsend and wishes he had the benefits of it much earlier in his life. “Many times I wanted to discuss current events with my colleagues but could do so at only the most superficial level. I had the news but not the depth. Now what I have is timely and in full, and I couldn’t be more delighted. I love information, and NFB-NEWSLINE is a very big part of that.
Laura Deck works for Bookshare, and it gets its fair share of credit here; but since we support it, that’s fine with me. Enjoy this well-written article about a real pioneer in breaking down barriers for blind people and showing some very influential sighted folks that we can cut it on terms of equality:
Despite losing his sight at age seven, Bernie Perella’s journey took him from a small town in Pennsylvania to Villanova University, a career at the National Security Agency, and a rewarding, active life without limits.
On the surface, Bernie Perella’s life is not that different from others who came of age after WWII: son of Italian immigrants; idyllic, small-town childhood; college graduate; professional career; and satisfying retirement. But dig a little deeper and a fascinating story emerges. Bernie credits his fortunate life to “the village” that nurtured him growing up, a heavy dose of resourcefulness that helped him navigate daily life, and four momentous occasions “when the stars aligned.” When I spoke to Bernie, he was sitting by his pool in Cape Coral, Florida, waiting for his turn to get the COVID vaccine.
Downingtown is a borough about thirty miles west of Philadelphia. Bernie grew up there with his extended Italian family starting in the 1940s. As a young boy, he had problems with his vision. Unfortunately, none of the attempts to save it were successful, and he lost his sight at age seven.
Bernie’s parents were the first members of his village. Although they had only minimal formal education, they found the strength and courage needed to raise a blind child so he could have the best chance to succeed in the sighted world. “My parents provided a wonderful blend of parenting. My mother was protective, but not overly protective. My father encouraged me to try things that I might not otherwise try to do,” says Bernie. “I think they could be an inspiration to parents of other visually impaired children.”
The next member of the village was Bernie’s one-year-older brother, Frank. During their childhood and teenage years, the two were virtually inseparable. They could often be seen running through the open fields, playing and fishing along the banks of Brandywine Creek, and in the evenings playing games with other kids in the neighborhood. “Because of Frank and through his eyes, I felt like any other kid in the neighborhood, and I always felt that I was accepted by them,” says Bernie.
The village grew larger because of the extended family and the many neighbors who lived close by. “Neighbors watched out for me. They would call out in Italian to warn me when they saw me trying to cross the street,” Bernie recalled. “Since there weren’t many cars in the neighborhood, I could ride my bike without falling off or hitting anything. I had extremely good hearing and relied on echolocation to navigate. Frank and I would run around the track at the local high school, and I could guide myself by hearing where the gravel track ended and the curb began.”
When the time came for Bernie to begin school, his parents realized that the only option was to send him to a residential school for the blind. He enrolled at the Overbrook School for the Blind in Philadelphia, which was thirty miles away. Bernie says, “It was difficult for my parents to leave their son in the care of strangers, and it was frightening for me because my parents were not there to provide comfort and reassurance.” As a result, the staff and teachers at that school became members of the village. There he learned Braille and life skills as well as traditional subjects. “When I got to high school age, however, I was worried that the world I was about to enter was not a blind world, so in 1956 I left the school,” he says.
At that time, mainstreaming did not exist. The only option was the Catholic high school, and the priest said Bernie could enroll if he could do the same work as everyone else. That September, he sat in class with all the other students who could see and he couldn’t. “That was an interesting and exciting time for me. The students thought I was a curiosity.” However, as the year progressed, a few of the students offered to read materials for Bernie, and he became lifelong friends with several of them.
Bernie had a few textbooks in Braille and relied on the Volunteer Services for the Blind (VSB), a group in Philadelphia that transcribed books into Braille or recorded them on tape. Bernie says, “Everyone at VSB, members of my village, were willing to jump through any hoops in order to get the materials I needed in Braille or on tape.” He continues, “My mother, who never graduated from high school, would record my chemistry textbook while I was at school, even though she didn’t understand a word.” He took notes in class using a Braille slate. After three years, he graduated. It was a very proud day for his parents when Bernie gave the valedictory speech.
Bernie’s knack for inventiveness accelerated when he entered Villanova. At that time there were no ADA requirements, and most if not all universities had no programs in place to support students with disabilities. Villanova was no exception, and the teachers had no clue how to deal with the four blind students who enrolled that year.
Bernie was on his own in the classroom, but he received some much-needed help from his brother and a few friends who were students at Villanova. Bernie says, “Without their help, getting through the initial enrollment and learning how to navigate the campus would have been much more difficult.” Recording lectures was only partially useful when professors didn’t explain what they were writing or pointing to on the chalkboard. As a math major, equations were especially difficult since Nemeth Braille code for mathematics and science wasn’t widely available.
With the help of a volunteer, Bernie invented his own math notation. His academic accomplishments were impressive, but they didn’t negate the frustrations of sitting alone at 2:30 a.m. trying to do homework without the books. “I didn’t know what the future would hold. All I could do was keep moving forward in spite of setbacks,” says Bernie. Before Bernie finished at Villanova, his brother Frank went off to join the Air Force. Bernie says, “I found it ironic that I was visually impaired, and my brother could fly jet planes for the Air Force.”
After four years of trials and tribulations on campus, he started interviewing with different companies. Interviews were often frustrating. The interviewer would say, “I don’t know if this job will work out because I don’t understand how you can even dial a telephone.” Bernie would respond, “I can dial faster with my left hand than you can with your right.” Even though he was right, it didn’t get him the job.
Bernie really wanted to interview with NASA, but the sign-up sheet was full, so he put his name on another sheet. It turned out he was interviewing for the National Security Agency (NSA). The discussion went very well. The interviewer said, “If we proceed, you have to come to Washington, DC, for further interviews.” “Name the time and place,” said Bernie.
The stars aligned and Bernie embarked on a rewarding career at the NSA as a mathematician, programmer, and systems analyst. “It was a wonderful job, and I learned a lot. I earned the respect of my colleagues, and they didn’t view me as blind.”
“In the early days of my work, there was no easy way to read anything let alone mathematical equations.” Much of the material was classified, so Bernie couldn’t send it out to be recorded. A colleague recorded several programming manuals for Bernie, and another NSA employee, a mechanical engineer, designed and built a device that allowed Bernie to read computer punch cards. Together with a blind friend at IBM, they figured out how to adapt a computer printer to print Braille. “It was primitive, but better than nothing,” recalls Bernie.
In 1972, Bernie learned about the Optacon, a handheld device with a camera that translates print into a tactile facsimile of the letters. He secured funding to research the device and attended training in Palo Alto, California. “It was like learning to read all over again, but this time with printed letters. Printed alphabet letters were not part of my mental cognizance,” explains Bernie. The Optacon was the start of a new chapter in Bernie’s saga. Finally, after much practice, he was able to read computer manuals and many other printed documents.
The stars aligned once again when on a chilly fall day, Bernie and his friends went to the horse races. One young woman in the group offered to walk with him. “I didn’t know it then, but I was starting a walk for life. Susanne became my wife and eyes. I thought I was getting a new set of eyes with the Optacon, but I didn’t know that I was getting a new set of eyes for real.” Susanne was a librarian and served as the head of the library at the Federal Trade Commission and the US Treasury Department—a career woman as Bernie describes her.
“Susanne introduced me to the great outdoors, and we embarked on a wonderful journey filled with experiences of camping, hiking many trails in state and national parks, and overseas travel,” Bernie recalls. They joined bird watching groups, took birding courses, and found themselves racing across fields in the dark of night, creeping through swamps on the eastern shore of Maryland, and slogging through the jungles of Costa Rica, all in search of interesting birds. “America the beautiful, purple mountains majesties, spacious skies—many haven’t seen those things, but I have.”
Susanne was a good researcher and a great reader. She would often read articles from the newspapers to Bernie. “She often lamented that she wished I could somehow read the paper myself,” recalls Bernie. They undertook an effort to discover their ancestral roots which involved many trips to the National Archives and to different places in search of old records.
Unfortunately, Susanne later died from breast cancer, and Bernie grieved for a time. Eventually, he met a woman who works with the autism community who took him to the Closing the Gap conference. There he learned about Bookshare, the world’s largest library of accessible ebooks for people with reading barriers, and he signed up in 2008. Growing up, he was frustrated that he couldn’t read the books and newspapers that everyone else was reading. “With Bookshare, I have access to all the New York Times bestsellers, other popular books, and even newspapers through the NFB-NEWSLINE.” Bernie enjoys reading the New York Times and listening to books using his Victor Reader Stream. “Susanne’s dream of me becoming an independent reader is now a reality,” says Bernie.
Following retirement and the subsequent passing of his wife, Bernie’s hoped-for life in the golden years was turned into chaos. “We had many plans for doing things and going places,” says Bernie. “For several years I seemed to be moving aimlessly through life hoping that some new opportunity would present itself,” Bernie recalls. Then, in an unexpected surprise, the stars aligned once again and Bernie met a new friend, Sara, on an internet-dating site. Sara is a retired elementary school teacher who spent many years helping students with learning disabilities learn to read. When the two met, they connected almost immediately. Sara is now the latest member of Bernie’s village, and life became fun again. After spending a couple of winters in Puerto Rico, they decided to build a new home in Cape Coral, Florida, where they now live. Bernie says, “We had lots of fun working on the new house project; Sara picked out all the colors, and I enjoyed working with a kitchen planner to design the kitchen I always wanted.”
“A few years ago I was at a Villanova reunion, and my friends and I talked about the importance of giving back,” says Bernie. “My life has been blessed, so I decided to make donations to the NFB and to Bookshare. I really value the NFB-NEWSLINE service provided by the NFB and the books and software for social good mission that Benetech stands for and the communities it serves. I hope that my contribution pays for Bookshare memberships for adults who can’t pay, and the money will go wherever it’s needed to advance the goals of Bookshare.”
As our conversation comes to a close, Bernie says, “I want neighbors to say, ‘That’s Bernie’s house over there;’ not, ‘a blind man lives in that house.’” Given the fascinating chapters in his life’s saga, I guarantee the neighbors say, “That’s Bernie’s house.”