Braille Monitor               December 2023

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Pit Stop Party at Kirkwood Library: NHL Referee Dan O’Rourke Bikes Route 66 for Braille Literacy Fundraising

by Julie Brown Patton

Originally published in Webster Kirkwood Times on September 11, 2023, and used with their kind permission.

Kirkwood Public Library staffers co-hosted a cycling pit-stop party with National Federation of the Blind representatives and guest speaker National Hockey League referee Dan O’Rourke on August 31.

Roughly forty pit-stop attendees met O’Rourke to hear about his current forty-five-day bicycle ride from Santa Monica, California, to Chicago, Illinois, along the iconic Route 66 to raise awareness for Braille literacy.

“There’s only about 20 percent literacy in the blind community. Kids don’t have chances to be successful if they can’t read. The earlier you start, the easier it is to learn and use Braille,” explained O’Rourke, who witnessed his own blind father defeat many obstacles in his path. “It floored me that so many people who have blindness in their families don’t know about the National Federation of the Blind as a community that can help them thrive.”

“I wanted to give back to the National Federation of the Blind because the group empowers blind people to live the lives they want,” he added.

Kirkwood was O’Rourke’s only stop in the St. Louis region. On August 27, he paused in Springfield, Missouri, the declared birthplace of Route 66. He is scheduled to arrive in Chicago by Friday, September 8.

O’Rourke, fifty-one, who’s worked as an NHL on-ice official since 1999 and is a self-described CrossFit junkie, will have pedaled 2,700 miles when his ride is complete.

He is raising funds specifically for the National Federation of the Blind’s Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning® Academy (BELL), a summer program of Braille and nonvisual skills that helps low-vision children with the abilities and confidence to live independent lives.

Those at the Kirkwood pit-stop party had an opportunity to have their names typed in Braille, enter to win an official autographed NHL game puck, and meet members of the St. Louis Blues Blind Hockey Club.

“This was our first-ever pit-stop party. I love that everyone got to come by the library as an awesome, supportive community,” said Mel Lambert, manager of reference and adult services for the Kirkwood Public Library.

Also present, and in partnership with the Kirkwood Public Library on an ongoing basis, was Jami Livingston, adult services librarian for the Wolfner Talking Books and Braille Library in Jefferson City, Missouri. That library loans free materials through an application and certification program to those who are navigating blindness, print disabilities, reading disabilities, and physical or hearing impairments.

Jenny Carmack, National Federation of the Blind first vice president and president of the Lewis and Clark National Federation of the Blind Chapter for St. Louis, is an Affton resident who said she learned Braille as an adult.

“I use Braille daily for activities such as my microwave and washer. I wish I would’ve learned it when I was younger, due to how important it is to anyone who has limited or no sight,” she said.

Carmack said the National Federation of the Blind chapter has twenty-five members who meet from 2 to 5 p.m. on the second Saturday of each month at the St. Louis Society for the Blind and Visually Impaired, 8770 Manchester Road.

“We also have STEM events and Braille enrichment camps for youths to places such as the Missouri Transportation Museum,” she explained, sharing that the state has seven other chapters of the National Federation of the Blind.

At the meet-and-greet in Kirkwood, Gary Wunder, National Federation of the Blind president emeritus of Columbia, Missouri, dispelled myths about Braille.

“Braille isn’t slow, especially if learned early in life and used daily. I believe there’s a bit of Braille denial in public schools because teachers don’t have the training or materials,” he said.

Wunder added that Braille isn’t that hard to learn.

“With 187 contractions, we see words with our fingers, several words at a time. Going fast becomes second nature,” he said.

While some people think Braille is bulky, Wunder said there are optical programs for Word documents and refreshable Braille displays.

“It’s also not true that there aren’t enough uses for Braille. Anyone who can type can send each other messages. Braille is well worth the investment, and audio cannot supplant Braille,” Wunder said.

A handful of athletes representing the St. Louis Blues Blind Hockey Club described how they play with an adapted 5.5-inch metal puck so they can hear it moving. Blind hockey is the same fast-paced sport as ice hockey, except all of the players are legally blind.

Players must be classified as eligible in one of the three International Blind Sports Federation classifications. Established in 2017, this St. Louis club is one of seventeen U.S. blind hockey teams.

O’Rourke, whose grandfather also was blind, left attendees with inspiring sentiments about his seventy-five-year-old father, who he said never utters words about “not being able to do something.” He said the ride is also meant to honor his father, who was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a rare eye disease that breaks down the retina over time and causes blindness.

“My dad just never accepted that he was legally blind. The belief is that my grandfather had the same condition,” he said.

O’Rourke said his cycling journey along Route 66 has been an “unbelievable experience.”

“Everybody tries to thank me, but the pride I feel is that I owe it to you guys,” he said. “I appreciate everyone who’s come out and donated. Every dollar counts, and we can help more kids get started with Braille and get in the right frame of mind with this tool that will help them their entire lives.”

For more details about O’Rourke’s journey, visit NFB.org/Route66. Donations can be made at NFB.org/Contribute/Ride4Literacy, by calling (410) 659-9314, ext. 2430, or sending a check to National Federation of the Blind, Attention: Outreach, 200 E. Wells St., Baltimore, MD 21230. Write “Ride for Literacy” in the memo.

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