Braille Monitor               August/September 2023

(back) (contents) (next)

Presentation of the Dr. Jacob Bolotin Awards

Presented by Everette Bacon

After his introduction, Everette was welcomed to the stage with a song.

EVERETTE BACON: Man, I get Tina Turner. Is that not the coolest? Hello, my Federation family. How are you all? We have an outstanding presentation for you that I'm really excited to give. This is the sixteenth year. We have now given away seventy-five Jacob Bolotin Awards. Can you believe that? After today, we will be up to eighty-one; so we are inching closer to giving away one hundred Dr. Jacob Bolotin Awards, which is pretty fabulous. Awesome, right?

How many people have read the book The Blind Doctor: The Jacob Bolotin Story? Good, excellent. If you haven't read it yet, you can go download it after you download the Amish romances our NLS director told us about. You can read an outstanding story of a man who persevered through so many trials and tribulations to get to where he wanted to go. We like to refer to Dr. Bolotin as a Federationist before there was a Federation. You can read how he grew up as a blind person and the different trials he went through as a young man. There's a little romance in there; you get to read about his wife and his family—everything that he went through.

One of the things that I always like to point out is that, when he was in college, this was back in the early 1900s, he faced the same types of adversities that we faced going to college. He didn't have accessible textbooks. He had teachers doubting him. I think it is a real inspiration to college students today to understand that we have been traveling this pathway—all of us have—and people like Dr. Bolotin started it. We have been doing it for years and years, and we are going to continue to travel this pathway and break the barriers and beat down those doors.

I want to thank the previous chairpersons, Gary Wunder and Jim Gashel, who have come before me. I also want to thank our current committee members in no particular order: Dr. Natalie Shaheen, who couldn't be here with us today; Ms. Mary Ellen Jernigan; Donald Porterfield; Steve Jacobson; and board-elect member Jessica Beecham.

Okay, let's get to the presentation. We have an eight and a half minute video we are going to play for you now, so let's go ahead and queue that up.

The 2023 Jacob Bolotin Award Winners with members of the Bolotin Committee: Neil Soiffer, Andy Burstein, Everette Bacon, Norma Crosby, Mary Ellen Jernigan, Peggy Chong, Donald Porterfield, Danielle Montour, Jessica Beecham, and Lindsey Yazzolino.]

SPEAKER: Federationists and guests: the National Federation of the Blind is proud to introduce the 2023 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 three individual winners are Peggy Chong, The Blind History Lady, who is receiving her second Bolotin Award to fund a new and ambitious research project.

PEGGY: I think it is extremely important for counselors, rehabilitation professionals, and social workers to know the history of the disabled: not just our eye disease, not just when laws were passed, but the successful people who made it in the world. We all need to know that there have been blind people who have been US Senators, bankers, crooks—you know, murderers. People must know that we are a cross section of society and that we aren't the first to try something—so that we don't always feel like we need to reinvent the wheel every time we turn around.

SPEAKER: Sharon Maneki of the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland, for over thirty-five years of advancing legislation to benefit blind people in Maryland and beyond.

SHARON: I just want to say that there's this quotation that I like, and I think it really symbolizes Dr. Bolotin: "Service is the rent we pay for living. It is not something to do in your spare time; it is the very purpose of life." That's the very purpose of life. I think that's what he represents.

SPEAKER: Neil Soiffer, developer of Math Capable Assistive Technology. MathCAT: A free open-source tool that allows software development to make digital math content accessible to screen readers.

NEIL: The whole goal of MathCAT is for vendors to easily be able to incorporate math accessibility into their products. It is open source, it is free, and it has a nice, simple interface. So I am hoping that the excuse that I heard a lot of when I did MathPlayer about math accessibility is hard and we will eventually get to it, that it is no longer an excuse at all. It is not hard, because the software does it. It's free, so it doesn't cost much, and it is simple to integrate into products.

SPEAKER: Our three organizational winners are: Accessible Pharmacy Services, for solutions that allow blind people independent control of their healthcare. Here’s co-founder Alex Cohen:

ALEX: So Accessible Pharmacy Services is a full-service healthcare company specializing in medication management and diabetes management for the blind, low-vision, and deafblind community. We find solutions to alleviate and remove any challenges or barriers related to loss of sight or hearing impairments and identify each one of our particular patients as an individual and unique patient, finding solutions to meet that patient's unique needs and medication profiles. This community is our primary focus. At Accessible Pharmacy Services, accessibility, working with patients of various abilities and levels of sight, is not an afterthought; it's our primary focus. To be one of this year's award winners for the Jacob Bolotin Award is validation that we are headed in the right direction and that we are doing good things in the community, but we also understand that we're not done; this is not the end of the road. Accessibility and inclusion is a moving target that takes continual effort. We could not be more honored to receive this award at Accessible Pharmacy Services. Again, it shows we are on the right track, but we are just getting started.

SPEAKER: AstroAccess, for its work to create opportunities for people with disabilities to participate in space travel: Here's Dr. Sheri Wells-Jensen.

SHERI: Humanity is going into space; that is kind of a given. We know what is happening. Blind people are going to be there; we're not going to be left behind. AstroAccess is all about doing the research that we need to do to figure out the things we need to change in the space vessels; in the space habitat; in training; in procedures to make it possible for a blind person to serve as an equal, trusted partner of a crew; or just to go up on a weekend to the space hotel in however many years it takes for that to happen. We are all about figuring out what we need to change, both in the space program, the governmental space program, and the increasing number of private space programs. What do we need to do to get blind people in line to go like everybody else?

SPEAKER: The National Federation of the Blind of Texas receiving its second Bolotin Award for project BOLD. Here's affiliate president, Norma Crosby.

NORMA: Project BOLD is an outdoor learning opportunity for blind children and their families, including their sighted siblings. It is a project that we took on as a result of receiving a grant from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. We asked children and their families to apply to be part of the program. As I said earlier, we not only invited the blind children, but their families. We wanted to teach their sighted siblings how to be better allies for their blind siblings. So, as the name says, Blindness Outdoor Learning and Development is what BOLD stands for, and we take children outside and do things like kayaking, fire theory, tent building, and philosophy about blindness. We teach our children and their siblings as a pod, and all of the instructors in the program are blind adults.

SPEAKER: These winners will 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 2023 Dr. Jacob Bolotin Awards.

EVERETTE BACON: Now those are some exciting winners aren't they? When I call your name and talk about your particular program, I want you to come up and we will hand you an award. So our first one—I thought I would do this one first because I kind of wanted the loud applause right away—so let's just go with the NFB of Texas, $5,000. This program is called BOLD, Blindness Outdoor Learning and Development. It is basically to help blind families—blind adults, blind children—get an opportunity to experience the great state wildlife services and the great state parks in the great state of Texas. Norma Crosby is here to accept the award. Thank you, Norma.

NORMA: Thank you.

EVERETTE BACON: Okay. Our next award winner, Accessible Pharmacy Services. This program provides a fully accessible home delivery pharmaceutical services. Lynn Heitz from Pennsylvania nominated them, and Lynn Heitz said simply that, "Before this service, blind people were left out by pharmaceutical services. They didn't understand the needs that blind people had. And this service has now broken down those barriers for us to get our accessible pharmacy services." Thank you, Andy Burnstein.

ANDY: Thank you.

EVERETTE BACON: Now to our next award: I'm really excited about this one. This is really fun to learn about—AstroAccess. I just want to read their motto to you. "If we can make space accessible, we can make any space accessible." Don't you love that? I was reading about this program and some of the great things they do, and we have two blind astronauts up on stage right now. Danielle Montour and Lindsay Yazzolino. They are honorary blind astronauts, but they are more than just that because they have experienced zero gravity. I have not experienced zero gravity. Danielle was telling me she had an opportunity to go into the rocket and be able to create an accessible tactile map for the sighted people when the lights go out so that they can find their way. I thought that was really awesome. So I'm really proud of AstroAccess. Danielle Montour and Lindsay Yazzolino are here to accept the awards. $5,000 to them as well. Here you go.

Now to the individual awards. The award for $5,000 goes to a person—I like to refer to her as "OUR blind history lady," Peggy Chong. Peggy Chong has previously won the Dr. Jacob Bolotin Award for her work in the Blind History Lady Program that she directs. But this is a special project that she is doing. She will be going to Washington, DC, to go into the Library of Congress to review documents related to the Harmon Foundation. The Harmon Foundation gave awards back in the 1920s and 1930s to Black workers who were in the shops making broomsticks and all kinds of things. They gave out awards, and then the program stopped. So she is going to be able to look into that and figure out why they stopped and who won these awards. I have a sneaky suspicion that after she does her research, this will have a space in the Museum of the Blind People's Movement. Thank you, Peggy Chong, and congratulations.

Our next winner is not here today for me to give her this trophy, but I know she's listening on Zoom. Sharon Maneki. (Cheers and Applause, and chanting for Sharon). I love it. Sharon Maneki was the longtime president of the NFB of Maryland for many, many years. Ronza Othman nominated her for this award. I like to think of Sharon as a policy wonk before there was such a thing as a policy wonk. Of Sharon, Ronza said that no other leader in any state has done more to advance the rights of legislation in a particular state like Sharon Maneki has. I will name three, but I counted up fifteen listed on Ronza's application. Three stand out to me: One of the very first states to get a Parental Bill of Rights for the Blind; One of the very first states to require Braille certification for teachers of blind students; and one of the very first states to require accessible textbooks, not only K-12, but PhD, K-PhD. She did it for both. We will make sure that Sharon gets her award. She's also a $5,000 winner.

Our last and final award winner, Dr. Neil Soiffer, is going to win $25,000. Dr. Neil Soiffer has created something I wish I would have had when I was in school—an open-source math accessibility tool. This allows blind individuals to be able to access math using software and tools for their screen reader. There's nothing else like it. And guess what? It is free. It is free to you. You can use it right now. This is an awesome service. We feel like this is exactly what the Dr. Jacob Bolotin Award recognizes and stimulates. I'm going to let him speak.

NEIL SOIFFER: Thank you very much. It's a great honor to receive this award. As I say, I'm a math nerd, so I'm not used to speaking before a really large crowd. It's not my forte, so please bear with me. I will make this as brief as I can.

Before hearing about this award, I didn't know about Dr. Bolotin. I read about him, and I read the book and his incredible achievements. I'll never match his determination or his accomplishments, but I found we do share one thing in common: We have the same birthday. So I'll have that; thankfully, not the same birth year; I am not that old.

I want to thank Dr. John Gardner who, twenty years ago, asked me to help him make some software accessible so that he could continue his research after becoming blind. That ask has given me purpose in my life. It might surprise some people, but there are people who think that math is fun. I'm one of them. For those who don't like math, it's likely because you weren't taught about what math really is. I could go on and on about that for many hours, but I don't think that's what you want to hear about today.

I just want to say that I want to make the joy of math accessible to everyone, which is why I have been working on making math accessible and will continue to do so as long as I can. Again, thank you so much for the recognition. Perhaps this gives hope to other math nerds that they too someday will be appreciated.

EVERETTE BACON: That's it. That's our six winners. They are pretty awesome, aren't they?

Thank you, again, to the Perlman Trust. Mr. President, that is my report.

(back) (contents) (next)