Here in the U.S., we take private, independent voting for granted. But did you know that prior to 2002, when The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) became law, blind or visually impaired voters had to have a sighted person come into the booth with them and mark their ballot for them?
Today, polling places are required to have at least one accessible voting machine for visually impaired voters. Using these machines, blind or visually impaired voters can access an audio version or a touch screen version with adapted print.
Here’s a short NFB video about the blind voting experience, which explains why HAVA is so important.
You may have already seen, on my Facebook page, this video clip of music legend Stevie Wonder, announcing the Song of the Year winner at the 2016 Grammys:
Louis Braille himself would have LOVED that moment—and the one that followed, as Stevie invited support for universal accessibility to knowledge and information. What Stevie was referring to, more specifically, is something known as “The Marrakesh Treaty,” a piece of international legislation that has been ratified by twenty other countries, including Brazil and Canada. President Obama sent it to Congress in February of 2016. But so far … nothing.
So what exactly isThe Marrakesh Treaty? Here is Francis Gurry, Director General of WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization), to explain:
So—this treaty seeks “to cure book famine” and to “create a universal exception to copyright” so that libraries, schools, and other educational and social organizations can print and provide braille versions of books, pamphlets, sheet music, and other kinds of texts to blind and print-challenged children and adults around the world—without fear of copyright infringement.
I can’t think of a good reason why that isn’t a great idea. I’d love for kids in India, Brazil, or Canada to be able to read any and all of my published books and poems in braille—without any legal or financial barriers. Ratification of The Marrakesh Treaty by the U.S. would make this possible.
The creative team at Knopf, illustrator Boris Kulikov, and I, are delighted that the book has thus far received excellent reviews and three stars (from Publisher’s Weekly, the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, and School Library Journal). You can read what the reviewers say about it.
Also, in the week preceding publication, I did two very enjoyable interviews: one with author/ blogger/ reviewer Julie Danielson, which you can read here, and another with blogger/ reviewer/ bookseller Clara Martin, which you can read here. Both Julie and Clara asked interesting questions that made me reflect on the joys and challenges of creating this first-person narrative of a child-inventor, who revolutionized learning for the blind and visually challenged.
Note: With the publication of Six Dotsjust a few days away, I’m receiving some interesting questions from book people across the country! In the next several posts, I’ll choose one of these questions and share my answer here on Insights.
Q: Can you share a story about how braille is combining with modern technology?
Over the course of his lifetime, 95-year-old Mr. Washington has experienced many changes in the use of braille technologies. As a teen, he read books in braille and later co-founded the first African American braille magazine.
This recently recorded StoryCorps interview was done with the help of a Telebraille machine, a device that—when used in face to face communication—allows the sighted person to type on a keyboard and the visually impaired person to read what is being typed in Braille. In reverse, the visually impaired person can type her/ his reply on a braille keyboard, and that message is received by the sighted person on a visual display.
Note: With the publication of Six Dotsjust a month away, I’m receiving some interesting questions from book people across the country! In the next several posts, I’ll choose one of these questions and share my answer here on Insights.
Q: Why did you choose Helen Keller’s quote for your book?
A: In a televised interview on Larry King LIVE in 1999, the eminent physicist Stephen Hawking was asked to name his choice for the most important invention of the past thousand years. He answered: “I think the invention of printing was a breakthrough for the human race. It meant that information and discoveries could be disseminated widely and not just on a one to one basis by word of mouth or handwritten manuscript. It led to an ever increasing rate of scientific and technological development….”
In other words, for the sighted community at least, Gutenberg’s printing press (not gunpowder, the light bulb, or the combustible engine) was the single most important invention of the millennium, because it allowed for the sharing and spreading of knowledge.
But the visually impaired were still cut off from this knowledge, until a blind teenager named Louis Braille took a complicated battlefield code and spent 3 years—alone and with no financial or emotional support—creating a sleek, refined, six-dot code for the blind that was read by touch.
And that’s why I felt it was important to include Helen Keller’s quote as the opening for the back matter of Six Dots: “We, theblind, are as indebted to Louis Braille as mankind is to Gutenberg.” Today, we are surrounded by words and printed (or digital) messages. It only takes a minute for a sighted reader to close his/ her eyes and imagine what it would be like to be shut off from all of that. But because of Braille’s code, there is a pathway to the same knowledge and information that sighted people access through print.
left, print version of 1994 biography; right, braille version
Here in the U.S., the Braille language is all around us—in our schools, churches, public libraries, office buildings and restaurants. But how much do we notice it? And how much do we, the sighted, stop to think about those with visual impairment? Take the following brief quiz and see how much you know (all statistics courtesy of the World Health Organization):
How many people in the world live with a disabling visual impairment?
Of those who live with a visual impairment, how many of those are blind?
printed braille books at the Talking Braille and Book Center in New Jersey
Although the statistics are daunting (answers to the above are c and c), there is reason to hope for widespread improvement in the everyday lives of the blind and visually impaired. Innovations in digital and print technology–as well as access to specialized health care—have increased social, economic, and intellectual opportunities for those with visual disabilities. Here is a sampling of the organizations in the U.S., some national and others local/state-based, that are leading the way:
audio books at the New Jersey State Library and Talking Braille and Book Center
Visual impairment does not equal intellectual impairment. The Braille family knew this, the students at the Royal School for the Blind knew this, and Louis Braille—most of all—knew this. But even in our supposedly more enlightened 21st century, we need to be reminded that those who are differently-abled share the same human spirit, intellectual capacity, and potential as the rest of us.
Meet 8-year old Amare. Last summer, he won his school’s reading contest (he logged 153 hours) and for that, he got to be the principal for an hour. Later this week, he’ll travel to Los Angeles as one of only 50 finalists from the U.S. and Canada. Amare, who is blind and can read 150 words a minute, is looking forward to competing in the Braille Institute’s Annual Challenge.
“To remember where you come from is part of where you’re going.”
It is fortunate indeed that Louis Braille was born in Coupvray, a small village about 25 miles east of Paris. Had he been born at a much greater distance from the capital city, who knows if his teachers would have heard about, or if he would have attended, the Royal School for the Blind in Paris. But he did … and the rest, as they say, is history.
Here and here are some links to photographs of Coupvray and to the Braille family home for use in your classroom … and here you can visit the official website of the town of Coupvray (just 20 miles from Disney Europe, in fact) and read about its Braille museum and list of events in both French and English.
If you know anything about France and its geography, you may recall that the country is divided into more than 80 “departments,” (think large counties). Coupvray lies in the department known as “Seine et Marne”—named after the two rivers which flow through the region (the Seine is the one we usually see flowing under the bridges in Paris-based movies) known historically as Ile-de France.
In Louis’s time, the village was rural and depended on agriculture (the Brailles had a small vineyard, a large garden, a cow, and chickens) and a few trades (such as Simon Braille’s harness-making-and repair shop) for its survival. Coupvray remained relatively rural until the second half of the 20th century, when development in the region between Paris and the smaller villages to the east and north began to transform the pastoral nature of Braille’s hometown.
Yes I know, I know … and I’m sorry that I’ve been a very delinquent blogger!! But I’m going to try and redeem myself. … Starting today and continuing through Spring and into the Summer—I’ll be blogging about the themes and issues in my forthcoming book: Six Dots: A Story of Young Louis Braille. These blog posts will be called “Insights” and I invite you to read, comment, and share them with colleagues, family and friends.
Insight #1, May 13, 2016:
“I don’t care if we’re blind or sighted, I think in a way we’re all reaching into darkness. We’re hoping, we’re predicting, we’re praying, we’re calculating. All our metrics, all our measurements, all our algorithms, the data leads us to believe that we’re going to find what we’re looking for, but we understand there’s no guarantee.”—Eric Weihenmayer
On May 22, 2011, I sat in the shade of a giant maple on the academic quad, overlooking the campus of Bucknell University. I wasn’t alone, however. A few thousand of us were gathered in that space to witness our sons and daughters as they graduated and began their post-college lives. After the senior class had proceeded down the center aisle and taken their seats, the President rose and introduced the commencement speaker, a man whose global travels, humanitarianism, and multiple film and book awards were indeed impressive.
As the speaker, Eric Weihenmayer, stepped up to the podium, the crowd hushed. A former teacher, wrestling coach, mountain climber and author, Eric had realized his dream of ascending the highest peaks on all seven continents, including Mount Everest. And he was blind.
You can just imagine the effect his words had on us. Most of us had taken small risks in our lives, but no one around me could fathom attempting half the things Eric had attempted with our two good eyes, let alone in the darkness of visual impairment. I’ve never forgotten that speech. Eric was bright, insightful, and—my, he was FUNNY! I doubt there was a single person in the crowd that day who didn’t laugh and cry during his speech.
Later, as I wrote Six Dots, I thought about the immense impact that Louis Braille’s invention has had for people like Eric—and for all of us, even now, every single day. Louis never scaled Mount Everest, but he struggled up its emotional and intellectual equivalent in order to bring his life-changing invention to millions.
You can read Eric Weihenmayer’s full commencement speech here.
This week marks the 89th anniversary of the Scopes “Monkey” Trial, held in Dayton, Tennessee. Today, we remain fascinated with this and other high-profile trials, perhaps because—despite much evidence to the contrary—we need to believe that sometimes justice prevails, truth wins, the bad guys get their due. I’ve written novels about two of these famous trials, and although they took place just ten years apart, generated a great deal of media attention, and are still used as examples in our best laws schools, they differed in significant ways.
Lindbergh baby poster
Whereas the Lindbergh baby kidnapping trial lasted six long weeks the winter of 1935, included a murder victim (Charles Lindbergh’s 20-month-old son, “little Charlie”), an accused man (Bruno Richard Hauptmann), and a laundry list of circumstantial evidence, the Scopes Evolution trial was almost purely a tactical, intellectual, and often emotional debate between William Jennings Bryan (a fiery orator and three-time presidential candidate), and Clarence Darrow, the most successful trial lawyer in the country.
Inherit the Wind–film version of the Scopes trial.
The “defendant,” John T. Scopes, was a young, first-year H.S. teacher and a football coach, who agreed to be arrested (a formality, he was never actually detained) so that the Butler Act, a Tennessee law which forbade the teaching of “any theory that denies the story of divine creation as taught by the Bible and to teach instead that man was descended from a lower order of animals” could be challenged in a courtroom.
The job of a novelist is as much about making decisions (Who will tell the story? Will there be more than one narrator? How much back story will I provide? What are the ages, genders and occupations of my fictional characters? Will the real/ historical characters speak and/or interact with the fictional ones? etc.) as it is about crafting language.
Even though Ringside 1925: Views from the Scopes Trial was published in 2008, I often find myself riffling through my research notes and files, still fascinated by the “crime” of teaching science, the media frenzy that surrounded that hot, smoky courtroom, and the consistently inconsistent nature of the word “justice.”
Are you fascinated by famous cases, too? Which ones and why? Leave a comment below–and in the meantime, enjoy these links: