Braille Monitor                  August/September 2021

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The Dr. Jacob Bolotin Awards

by Everette Bacon

Everette BaconFrom the Editor: Brave, pioneering, and full of perseverance would begin to draw the picture of Dr. Jacob Bolotin. Decisive, hard-working, and thrilled with their task would describe the committee that selects the winners of the annual awards that recognize Dr. Bolotin. Here is the ceremony that took place to honor the pioneers and innovators of today who are recognized for their work, Dr. Bolotin’s example, the generosity of Dr. Bolotin’s family, and the hopes for blind people that all of this represents:


Everette Bacon: Hello, Madam Chair. What a wonderful speech by President Riccobono, so relevant and needed. Thanks, Mr. President for those outstanding remarks.

I'm here to present the Dr. Jacob Bolotin Awards. Now, for those of you who don't know who Dr. Jacob Bolotin is, you're really missing out. It was an anonymous person that said that those who create or build walls that create obstacles around others in turn create those same obstacles around their own personal freedoms. Jacob Bolotin was a man who faced many, many obstacles from his own family, his friends, religious leaders, supervisors, and from medical professionals and teachers. Yet throughout all of these obstacles, he was able to achieve his dream of becoming the first-ever blind doctor in the great state of Illinois.

There's a wonderful book called The Blind Doctor that you can download on BARD or you can find in many other places where books are available. I urge all of you to read it. If you're a student out there, this is a man who faced so much adversity through accommodations and through so many different levels. Yet he overcame all of those, and it's an inspirational story to everyone out there who has dreams of achieving their goals. I hope you go read it and learn about Dr. Jacob Bolotin. It's an honor to be able to present these awards in his name.

Now we're going to play a video. We have six recipients tonight to whom we are going to be presenting these awards. We had over fifty applications, so if you didn't make it this year, please apply again, because we read through some outstanding applications, and it was a very hard choice. Here is our video:

Narrator: Federationists and guests: The National Federation of the Blind is proud to introduce the 2021 recipients of our Dr. Jacob Bolotin Awards, made possible in part by the generous support of the Alfred and Rosalind Perlman Trust and the Santa Barbara Foundation. These individuals and organizations have broken down barriers faced by blind people in innovative ways, changed negative perceptions of blindness and blind people, and pushed past existing boundaries to inspire blind people to achieve new heights. The first of the three individual winners is Darnell Booker, coach and general manager of the four-time World Champion beep baseball team, the Indianapolis Thunder.

Darnell Booker: Baseball has been very good to me, so I wanted to return the favor and be good to it and also make a difference in my community and make sure blind youth and adults have the experience of playing sports and also the socialization and camaraderie skills. It's about changing lives and making a difference in someone's life. Myself! I am blind, visually impaired in my right eye from an accident as a little kid. I also belong to the National Federation of the Blind state of Indiana, and I also would like to just thank you guys for this prestigious honor and award because I'm all about changing lives and making it better for blind and visually impaired youth and adults in the field of sports and recreation.

Narrator: Dr. Natalie Shaheen, assistant professor of low-vision and blindness, Illinois State University

Dr. Natalie Shaheen: I see my work as an academic, as a professor, as really an extension of work that the Federation has been doing for decades and that I did when I worked for the NFB. My work as an academic Federationist, as I'll call myself, is to reimagine 21st century K-12 education as a place that's equitable and accessible to blind youth and really fosters development of the beliefs in the skills that our blind students need to live the lives that they want. That's really what my work is focused on in all aspects of what I'm doing as a professor.

From the teaching perspective, my ultimate aim is to create another teacher preparation program for teachers of blind students that's rooted in a positive philosophy of blindness and kind of extending the work that the Federation has already done at Louisiana Tech University, for example. On the research side of things, my ultimate aim is to establish a blind-led research center that's focused on digital accessibility in K-12 specifically.

Narrator: Krishna Washburn, founder and artistic director of Dark Room Ballet.

Krishna Washburn: The dance field is ableist, and it was very, very difficult for me to find choreographers and collaborators who were taking me seriously as an artist. In terms of my own professional studies, it was very challenging to find teachers who were willing to really work with me to help me develop because they had stereotypes that were really not true about my learning capacities.

With my own background in education, I knew that a lot of the assumptions my teachers had about me were not true, and it was really almost from the outset of my performance career that I really wanted to start developing a curriculum specifically for blind and visually impaired dancers. It took a very long time to get that class off the ground, mostly because I was fighting against stereotypes of what a teacher was supposed to be and what a dance class for blind and visually impaired people was supposed to be like.

Narrator: The first of our three organizational winners is: Davis Technical College of Kaysville, Utah, for its program to train blind aerospace machinists. Here is college president Darin Brush:

Darin Brush: What we did is we piloted a program with our schools for the deaf and blind with our division of services for the blind and visually impaired and had our first three students, all of whom were blind, complete that initial program, and in the process of doing that, developed aerospace-grade machining skills. But more than that, more than becoming skilled machinists and very employable as a result, they showed their instructors what was possible. They overcame their own predispositions about what someone who is blind can accomplish, and they'll tell you that. They'll go on and on about the personal and professional impact that had on our instructors. But it also inspired this entire college community because what we could point to was, if we can teach students who are blind to become aerospace-grade machinists, this campus, across all of its thirty-five technical education programs, can do just about anything in terms of individuals who are blind and individuals with other disabilities. That's what this award means to us.

Narrator: Eye Learn, for providing technology and blindness skills training to blind and low-vision people in the Detroit area. Here is founder Sabrina Simmons:

Sabrina Simmons: I've been doing this for about four years now, and I got started because, upon facing blindness myself nine years ago, I tried to integrate myself back into corporate America, and here in Michigan, I kept getting shut out after the first interview or the second interview. I would get that far, and then I would get a face-to-face interview and realize that the tone and the energy of the people that I was interviewing with changed.

So I thought, let me use my degree and let me use my brain and come up with something that can not only help me but help other blind individuals become adjusted so that they can go back to work. Hence, Eye Learn was formed; I became a certified vendor with the state of Michigan and am now in the process of putting together many different programs to supplement what the agency in Michigan is already doing.

Narrator: Independence Science, for innovative products that make the STEM fields accessible to blind students and professionals. Here is spokesman Michael Hingson:

Michael Hingson: Part of the problem with blind people being in the science environment in the STEM world is that we don't get to do experiments along with everyone else because most of the laboratory instruments and the technologies are inaccessible. So some twelve years ago, Cary Supalo, who has a PhD in chemistry, founded Independence Science with the idea of finding ways to make laboratory equipment accessible. He partnered with another company, Vernier Software and Technologies, and made its product, the LabQuest, available in a talking version now called the Talking LabQuest. We're up to version two and looking at where we go from here.

The LabQuest is a box that can have a number of different kinds of probes connect to it to make different kinds of measurements, anything from temperature to current to voltage to wind speed to gas pressure—literally any kind of test that you might imagine you would do in a laboratory. Especially is that true in an educational environment, because Independence Science has mostly been education oriented.

In any case, the Talking LabQuest has been a very popular product and has been the flagship of Independence Science. Other products have been developed: a completely talking periodic table which you can see at But in the COVID era, the question has arisen, how do we deal with taking those same laboratory measurements for students in a remote environment? Using another of Vernier's products with help from Independence Science, the Talking Logger Pro was developed that allows a teacher and students to interact using a LabQuest to take measurements and allows it to be remotely controlled from computers elsewhere. As a result, students are able to participate in laboratory experiments and see the same kinds of things that their sighted colleagues would see and interact in the same way that their sighted colleagues could interact.

Narrator: These winners will each receive a trophy and a monetary prize to advance their work to help blind people live the lives we want. Now, the National Federation of the Blind proudly presents them with their 2021 Dr. Jacob Bolotin awards.

Everette Bacon: Wow! I don't know about all of you, but I am truly excited about all of these winners. Now, before I get to their amounts, and I know all of them are listening and waiting patiently to know them, I do want to thank the members of the Dr. Jacob Bolotin Award Committee. I want to thank Mr. Ron Brown, Mrs. Mary Ellen Jernigan, Mr. James Gashel, and Dr. Marc Maurer. All of these individuals have been outstanding members of this committee, and all of them are outstanding mentors to me. And I am certainly extremely lucky and honored to follow in the footsteps of great chairmen of this committee in Gary Wunder and Jim Gashel. So thank you, and thank you to the members of the committee.

Let's get to the amounts. We are giving away a total of $60,000 this year. Three tiers. Five thousand dollars will be going to Darnell Booker. Congratulations. Five thousand dollars will be going to Miss Washburn of the Darkroom Ballet. Ten thousand dollars will be going to Dr. Natalie Shaheen. Thank you, Natalie. Ten thousand dollars will go to Davis Technical College of Utah. Ten thousand dollars goes to Independence Science. And our top tier award this year of twenty thousand dollars goes to Eye Learn. I believe Sabrina Simmons is with us tonight. Are you out there?

Sabrina Simmons: Yes, I'm here!

Everette Bacon: Congratulations, Sabrina. We are so excited and proud of the innovations you are doing in Detroit, Michigan. One of the things that I wanted to ask you about is during the pandemic I learned you did some outstanding innovations to continue to help blind individuals in Detroit. Can you please talk about that for a minute?

Sabrina Simmons: Yes. We stayed in business and continued to do virtual training and in-person training through the pandemic. There's a nonprofit organization which closed down, and there just weren’t services available here in Detroit. So we committed to staying open and meeting in small groups and continuing the training that is so much needed here in the city.

Everette Bacon: I was really moved to read on your application about how all of your members went out to different homes—all of your employees—and worked with people in their homes during the pandemic. They were able to maintain social distancing; they were able to follow the guidelines of Michigan; and they were still able to create and provide those services.

Sabrina Simmons: Yes. Thank you so much.

Everette Bacon: Well, congratulations, Sabrina, and Eye Learn. We are so proud of you and your staff.

That's it, folks. That's the Dr. Jacob Bolotin Award ceremony for this year. Again, over fifty applicants. We had some really tough times looking through all of these, so please apply again. We will be giving this award out next year. Hopefully you'll get your opportunity. Thank you so much to all of our award winners for the innovations that they are doing to help build the hope, love, and determination of blind individuals across our nation and helping us live the life we want. Thank you, Pam.

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