by Elizabeth Neal
Every January 4, we celebrate the birthday of Louis Braille, who developed his famous braille code when he was only a teenager. Learn more about the creation of the braille code by exploring AFB's Louis Braille Online Museum.
The American Foundation for the Blind's recognition of the importance of braille has been a constant throughout the 95 years of our existence.
AFB took the lead to standardize the English braille code, making it cheaper and easier to produce. Our first CEO, Dr. Robert Irwin, was in the forefront of the delegation that successfully brought about the establishment of Standard English braille for all English-speaking countries in 1932. Learn more (including Helen Keller's opinion on the controversy!) by reading our free online edition of The War of the Dots.
For decades, AFB has maintained the Directory of Services for Blind and Visually Impaired Persons in the United States and Canada, where you can find sources of audio, braille, or large print books, braille transcribers, or local agencies and schools where you can learn how to read braille. (Did you know the Directory is now available as a free, accessible app?)
In the 1990s, we successfully rallied educators, parents, professionals, and other national organizations to amend the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to ensure that every student who is blind or visually impaired has a right to learn and read braille.
In 1995, Frances Mary D'Andrea created the DOTS for Braille Literacy newsletter as part of a federal grant called the Braille Literacy Mentors in Training (BLMIT), a three-year project to connect experienced braille instructors with new teachers. The DOTS newsletter was a vehicle for sharing ideas, strategies, and resources about braille reading and writing instruction. Read the DOTS archives here!
In 1996, AFB launched the "brl-help" listserve as another way for teachers of braille reading and writing to connect with one another.
In the Fall of 2000, AFB's Braille Bug® made her debut and by 2002, she had her own website, complete with acccessible games and activities to promote the love of braille. Check out the Braille Trail®: Classroom Activity Packet for use with grade school students, and show off your love of braille with an adorable Braille Bug mug.
Around the same time, the AFB Solutions Forum established braille transcriber workshops to address the critical shortage of braille transcribers. AFB brought together experts in web-based learning and braille transcription to develop a national training program for transcribing electronic files produced by commercial textbook publishers. And AFB was instrumental in further clarifying IDEA to establish, for the first time, the right of all students who are blind or visually impaired or who have print disabilities to receive their textbooks and instructional materials in the format, including braille, most appropriate to the student and on the first day of class.
The AFB National Literacy Center was officially established by 2001, as well as new projects like the Bridging the Gap workshops and national symposium, which created partnerships between adult literacy programs and rehabilitation centers in 16 states.
In October 2002, alongside 43 national organizations throughout the United States, we launched the AFB and Verizon National Campaign for Literacy, Textbooks, Transcribers, and Technology to promote the new career of braille textbook transcriber at the federal and state levels, and to raise awareness of the needs of blind and low-vision schoolchildren for timely access to textbooks and learning materials.
In 2013, the World Blind Union, with AFB's active participation, successfully advocated for the conclusion of an international treaty that will break down needless barriers between countries to allow the cross-border sharing of braille and other books. While the U.S. has yet to formally ratify the so-called Marrakesh Treaty and AFB continues to fight for its prompt ratification, this international accord has the potential to dramatically address a worldwide shortage of books available to people who are blind or visually impaired around the globe.
Also in 2013, we created AccessNote, the first notetaker app for iOS designed particularly for people using both QWERTY and refreshable braille display keyboards.
In 2016, we continued our tradition of promoting braille skills by publishing Beginning with Braille: Firsthand Experiences with a Balanced Approach to Literacy, Second Edition, which has been the go-to resource for educators teaching early braille literacy to students in the United States and abroad for more than 15 years. This highly anticipated second edition has been updated using Unified English Braille (UEB) and includes new teaching materials, record forms, and braille activities.
AFB Press also released the Burns Braille Guide: A Quick Reference to Unified English Braille, Second Edition, the perfect resource to keep in your classroom or in your pocket (revised and updated to reflect the changes introduced in the transition to UEB). This easy-to-use reference guide includes common braille-to-print and print-to-braille conversions, as well as punctuation, new UEB contractions, and general rules and new terminology.
How will you celebrate Louis Braille's birthday? We hope with a great book!
by Helen Selsdon
Image: Helen Keller walks in her garden in Westport, Connecticut, 1950. It is wintertime. Keller is seen smiling, facing the camera. She wears a long coat and woolen hat. She holds a wooden branch railing with her left hand.
As the new year approaches, it’s a good time to review the progress that is being made to digitize the Helen Keller Archive. This is a mammoth task, and we are well on our way to accomplishing the work of preserving and disseminating online the over 80,000 items in the collection. We are simultaneously working on another major objective: to make the materials accessible to hearing, sighted, blind, deaf, and deafblind audiences alike. This is pioneering work and we have no doubt that Helen Keller would be thrilled that her archive is the catalyst for the creation of ground-breaking technology for people with disabilities.
Today, over 40,000 images are up on the site, many items are transcribed, and the collection can be searched as a result of the thousands of pieces of information (metadata) that have been created to describe each item. Enjoy some of the newly digitized photos, or a film clip of Helen flying in 1918, or try a simple search in the online collection and see what you find!
Helen Keller’s involvement in the key cultural, social, and political events of the 19th and 20th centuries is unparalleled, and few archival collections have the potential of providing historians with so rich a source of information on this nation’s history and direction. Above all, the collection powerfully illustrates Keller’s lifelong work to make the world a better place, and as we reflect on the past year and consider how we can do better in 2017, her life story and words are more relevant than ever. As she said:
Happy New Year from the American Foundation for the Blind!
How You Can Help
- Raise awareness of AFB’s work by sending a beautiful, free Helen Keller ecard with archival photos and quotations.
- Support the Helen Keller Digitization Project—your donation helps us continue transcribing and describing all of Helen’s beautiful photos, letters, and artifacts.
- Share this post on social media!
by Kirk Adams
Kirk Adams is president and CEO of the American Foundation for the Blind.
"Expanding possibilities" is both our promise and our challenge.
The promise: "When we expand possibilities, we will improve people's lives."
The challenge: "Can we achieve the future we believe is possible?"
The American Foundation for the Blind has put forward a vision of possibilities for people with visual impairments and works to make that vision a reality. We champion the needs and dreams of millions of people with vision loss by challenging the limits of education, technology, and policy. And though we have a long way to go to achieve what is possible, we are already breaking down barriers. That’s what I love about the AFB family—how we tangibly enhance lives, every day.
In the past year alone:
- More than two million people found help, hope, information, and community through our websites.
- We built on groundbreaking collaborations with innovative manufacturers to bring accessible devices to market and developed amazing apps for students, workers, and seniors.
- We published an important new guide for professionals who work with seniors losing their vision.
- Hundreds of supporters urged their members of Congress to sponsor the Cogswell-Macy Act, and dozens of legislators and organizations joined us in endorsing the most comprehensive special education legislation ever for students with sensory disabilities.
Looking Forward Together
We're proud of these triumphs—you should be, too—but we must protect the progress we've made.
As we look forward, we see a rapidly changing world that threatens to slow our pace and possibly even take our work backward.
We cannot let that happen.
AFB is working harder than ever to build on our progress, leading on issues such as employment, education, and access to new technology so that people with vision loss are welcomed as equals, leaders, and contributors at every level of their lives.
That's what people expect from AFB. They rely on us to enhance the past year's accomplishments—to bring people together, continue our progress, go even further, and help even more people.
That's why we're turning to you this holiday season, when we're most aware of our AFB family and how truly powerful our community and connections are.
Helen Keller said, "Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much." And I believe that together we can continue our progress and improve the lives of millions who are blind or visually impaired.
Let's aim higher next year. Let's do more for one another. Let's do it together.
You can help right now by giving to AFB and supporting our crucial work. Share this message with your friends and neighbors, and encourage them to do the same.
Please consider making your gift a monthly donation. Monthly gifts help ensure a steady, reliable source of income that we need to continue our award-winning programs for men, women, and children who are blind or visually impaired.
Thank you for everything you do to help us expand possibilities for people with vision loss!
by AFB Staff
Hollywood is waist deep into its annual awards season.
There was a time when there would be little reason for blind or visually impaired people to take note of Tinseltown’s award-caliber offerings, as most visual media would have been largely inaccessible. This is less so today, thanks to emerging technologies that bring visual media to life for visually impaired audiences in theaters and at home, as well as to hard-fought legislation that is slowly making these technologies more widely available.
Unfortunately, not everyone can fully enjoy Moonlight at the local multiplex or independently cue up a binge-watch of Westworld's first season on their DVRs. Not just yet. Politics, business, and technology are an unpredictable mix. Recent developments on the accessibility front highlight both the impressive gains and persistent obstacles involved in achieving universal access to the best in entertainment.
Let's take a look at recent developments in:
Comcast XFINITY X1 Takes the Lead on Cable TV Accessibility
Cable giant Comcast has announced the new built-in accessibility features of its XFINITY X1 set-top box. To date, Comcast is the first — and at press time, only — home entertainment distribution company to meet the December 20 deadline for compliance with federal regulations requiring cable and satellite companies to incorporate upgrades for viewers with disabilities into their cable set-top boxes.
X1 features include a "talking box" viewers' guide for easy channel surfing and a remote that takes voice commands. X1 is further enhanced by a new accessibility support center with trained staff to help customers with disabilities take full advantage of closed captioning, video description and other features.
"Comcast has earned high marks for its ingenuity and its commitment to reaching all of its customers," said AFB AccessWorld Magazine editor Lee Huffman. "It is clear that Comcast is listening to the vision loss community. We applaud their leadership."
Huffman also noted that although Comcast appears to be the only cable or satellite company that will be in compliance on December 20, there are signs that other companies are working diligently to catch up. "We believe that Comcast's success, and active collaborative partnership efforts will encourage companies to meet the challenge and act swiftly to close the accessibility gap with all future generations of products and services."
Movie Description: Coming to a Theater Near You ...in 2018
Enjoying first-run movies on the big screen: Innovative technology has put this goal within reach for visually impaired audiences. As with the cable industry, the vision loss community's diligent work in Washington, D.C. has helped to bring the force of law to bear on ensuring equal access.
Earlier this month, the Department of Justice issued its final rule on Movie Theaters and Movie Captioning and Audio Description. The rule further implements Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in public accommodations.
Under the directive, movie theaters must provide audio description and closed captions to patrons in auditoriums showing digital movies that are produced or distributed with those features. The rule does not apply to movies shown on analog projection systems.
"The requirement sounds like an obvious thing, but in fact, theater exhibitors have not always made existing accessibility features available to ticket buyers," said AFB Tech Project Associate Matthew Janusauskas. "Enforcement of the final rule means movie lovers with disabilities can attend screenings confident that the experience will be accessible and rewarding."
Theaters must comply with the regulation by June 2, 2018. If a theater converts from analog to digital projection systems after December 2, 2016, the theater has an additional six months to implement these provisions.
Postponement of FCC Vote on Expanded TV Description Worries Advocates
The much-anticipated expansion of the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act will have to wait. Hopefully, not indefinitely.
After two decades of lobbying and negotiation, the FCC appeared ready to act on upgraded regulations that would have doubled the number of hours of major network programming featuring video description and applied the requirement to all top ten non-broadcast cable channels. The FCC was expected to vote on the measure at its November 17 meeting, but the matter was tabled — along with a slate of other FCC business — until after President-elect Donald Trump assumes office in January.
Congressional Republicans asked that the FCC postpone moving on anything "complex, partisan, or otherwise controversial" until after the inauguration. While such requests are hardly unprecedented in the wake of a presidential election, the hope is that strong bipartisan support for the expanded video description requirement will carry over to the next administration and that the FCC will move swiftly. "What we don't want, after the investment of so much hope and hard work, is for this delay to go from temporary to indefinite," said AFB Policy Director Mark Richert. "It's essential that the vision loss community remains vigilant and continue to work with our Washington partners to see this measure passed and implemented."
Want to help AFB work to expand accessibility in entertainment and workplace technology? Subscribe to the AFB DirectConnect newsletter for updates on these and other access issues or support our advocacy work with your donation.
by Mark Richert
Mark Richert, AFB's Director of Public Policy
This week, 60 Minutes aired a piece on lawsuits relating to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that is creating a lot of discussion in the disability community. [Editor’s note: the 60 Minutes video is transcribed, though not described.] The concern over the segment—which focuses on so-called "Drive-by Lawsuits"—is that it puts a negative spin on the ADA, one of our country's most comprehensive and celebrated pieces of civil rights legislation. The worry, of course, is that in today's fragile political environment, media stories like this one could ultimately contribute to the chipping away of rights for millions of Americans with disabilities. It was disappointing to see that the 60 Minutes story failed to include any commentary from the many disability rights experts, employees, and business owners who have experienced the benefits of the ADA firsthand, despite the fact several of them were interviewed in advance of the segment.
In light of this, we believe it's important to revisit what the ADA is and why it's critical to ensuring millions of people with disabilities have equal access and opportunities to fully participate in society.
The American Foundation for the Blind was one of the early champions of the ADA, which was signed into law by President George H. W. Bush on July 26, 1990. The landmark law extended civil rights protections to a broad spectrum of Americans, from individuals with vision loss to injured veterans. It also established accessibility requirements for public transportation, businesses that cater to the public, and even websites. As a result, we have more braille and large-print signage and better-designed websites, which give us improved access to the basic opportunities that all Americans should enjoy, to work and shop and get around independently.
For a deeper dive into proposed bills that could weaken the ADA, we recommend reading this letter from the current and past chairs of the National Council on Disability. We stand with this bipartisan commission in viewing such "ADA notification" bills as a solution in search of a problem, given that:
- The ADA has been the law of the land for the past 26 years, and its requirements are publicly available.
- Only certain states, such as Florida and California, have civil rights statutes that provide for damages. A national amendment to the ADA would not change the state laws that allow for these occasional abuses, but it would make the ADA less effective for the rest of the country. This makes it a dangerous national policy “solution” to a state-level issue.
- The ADA specifically encourages the use of alternative means of dispute resolution, including mediation, to resolve disputes, and the Department of Justice already has a program in place to refer cases to mediation.
The ADA is a critical piece of civil rights legislation that has always had strong bipartisan support. AFB has been there from the beginning and with your help, will continue to fight for sensible, effective implementation of its protections.
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