A blind reader uses Braille, a system of dots that is read with fingertips.
From the National Federations of the Blind: Braille is the only system through which children with profound or total loss of sight can learn to read and write; there is a significant relationship between Braille literacy and academic success, higher income, and employment; Braille literacy = independence, confidence, and success.
Braille books are not available in Pennsylvania’s community libraries.
HOW A BLIND READER GETS A BOOK IN THE CURRENT PENNSYLVANIA SYSTEM
In the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, blind readers access braille books through the mail by way of the Philadelphia Regional Library (PRL). The blind reader chooses a book or books from the PRL system (either over the phone or online) and it is delivered via the mail within a few days.
For many blind children (as well as adults) blindness can be a huge barrier to socialization and community involvement. Blind children need as much social interaction as sighted youth. Blind and sighted children need to learn how communities work and have opportunities to be involved in those communities. With the only option of receiving braille library books via the mail, blind children miss a crucial socialization opportunity by not going to the local library. And even if they do go to the library for story time or activities, they are denied the opportunity to walk amongst the thousands of books to select a story or two to read.
THE EPIC FAIL
A few years ago I was invited to be a part of a special committee for the Library for the Blind of Philadelphia. The goal of that committee was to advise the library staff and administration on running the library in a way that made sense for blind patrons. What I thought was going to be a few meetings checking in with staff and advising on best practices, etc turned into a battle of government, political parties, and geographical locations. Instead of meeting in Philly and discussing volunteer hours, book procedures, and what to consider for blind patrons, I was traveling to Harrisburg to argue with sighted people about resources for blind citizens, most importantly my blind sons. In the end, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania scaled library services for the blind of PA back… way back… so much so that for a while I was embarrassed to admit I was ever on that committee. One of my first experiences with “big” advocacy for my boys failed miserably.
FROM GREAT FAILURE COMES GREAT, NECESSARY CHANGE
After the dust settled of that failed venture to save the minimal services my boys were getting from the library system, I started to consider what the real problem was. The real problem was not that Pennsylvania leaders had their priorities all messed up nor was the problem that they wanted my guys to wait a few more days to receive lending materials. Annoying and ridiculous yes, but, the real problem was that my guys could not walk into our own local library and enjoy a good book. I had fought and lost a battle that wasn’t right in the first place! It was time to make it right from beginning to end.
HOW WE DID IT
Have you ever tried to change… or add on to… or “enhance”… a system that has been in existence for a loooooong time? Going about it alone is exhausting. If I have learned one thing in my quests for rights for my boys and my mission to fund research, I have learned that it is a heck of a lot easier to collaborate with others to bring about a movement of change. This was a small project that looked really good on paper, but in order to “simply” get Braille books in a local library you need to work within a huge system with lots of moving parts.
My good friend Silvia and I used to work together for a large non- profit many, many years ago… an experience that I had no idea would come in handy now. I was now looking to get the library system here to change. At the same time, Silvia called me and said she was looking to give our children and their 6th grade class a meaningful service project for their final year at elementary school. The CONNECTING THE DOTS project was born.
We met with the library staff to find out how – not “if”, HOW – to get a collection of braille books in the library. One of the children’s librarians, Christy Lazzarino, didn’t just accept and like the idea, she took it one step further: she wanted to make the books available to the readers at our branch, as well as all the branches in our county system. Christy worked out the details of the system. Silvia and I worked on getting books for the collection.
The children from the 6th grade class at our school enthusiastically signed up to help create Braille/print books and to create the Braille labels for the entire collection. We reached out to the Bucks County Intermediate Unit (aka where the teachers of the blind “are from”) and asked them to spread the word about the project. Turns out they had hundreds of braille books (mostly advanced juvenile readers) sitting on shelves not being used and wanted to donate them to the collection! In addition to those books, my family has a large collection of braille books, mostly early literacy ones, which we donated to the library collection.
My son’s 6th grade class at Maureen M Welch Elementary School, the Free Library of Northampton Township, the Bucks County Free Library and the Bucks County Intermediate Unit all collaborated to make braille children’s books available to blind readers in Bucks County… in ALL of Bucks County. This collaboration has placed hundreds of braille titles in the Northampton library children’s section. These titles, like all print titles, are available through inter library loan to ALL patrons of the Bucks County Free Library system.
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. Margaret Mead.
As a mom of not one but two special needs children, I used to wonder what their place would be in our community. Would the community have a place for them with their different style and needs? I have had many opportunities to let that old fear pass, and CONNECTING THE DOTS is no exception: The Council Rock School District Board of Directors is excited about this project. Congressman Mike Fitzpatrick is not only interested in what is happening, he joined the 6th graders on Martin Luther King Day of Service to create Braille labels for the collection. Representative Scott Petri will be joining us at the Grand Opening of the collection of February 7th to congratulate the community on this project. The media wants to cover this story that is important to their followers. Several other community organizations and leaders are joining in the excitement as well. But most importantly to me, the 11 and 12 year olds at our elementary school have been the catalysts of excitement and dedication to see this project through, not because it makes sense, or because it is “politically correct”…. they just want to see a dream of Mitchell’s and our family come true.
GRAND OPENING OF THE JUVENILE BRAILLE COLLECTION
SATURDAY FEB 7, 2015 3-5PM
THE FREE LIBRARY OF NORTHAMPTON TOWNSHIP
25 UPPER HOLLAND ROAD, RICHBORO PA