Braille Monitor August/September 2008
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by Gary Wunder
From the Editor: At the 2007 convention attendees could pick up copies of a biography of a remarkable physician who had a distinguished if brief career in the early decades of the twentieth century. Totally blind from birth, Dr. Jacob Bolotin distinguished himself as a pulmonary and cardiac specialist during and after World War I. The National Federation of the Blind has been asked to administer substantial awards annually to individuals and organizations that have improved life for blind people. President Maurer appointed Gary Wunder, secretary of the NFB and president of the NFB of Missouri, to chair the committee that chose the 2008 winners of the Bolotin Awards. Friday afternoon, July 4, Gary came to the platform to present the awards. This is what he said:
Today we take thirty minutes to recognize individuals and organizations who have made significant contributions in creating greater opportunities for blind people. We do this because of a pioneer whose name is not as familiar as those we honor in our literature, at our national headquarters building, and in our traditional named awards.
The story of Jacob Bolotin is a testament to much we have hoped, believed, said to ourselves, and said to the general public. Dr. Bolotin's biography is what happens when an unswervingly positive attitude, good training, and hard-won opportunity come together in the heart of a human being who doesn't know the meaning of the word no.
When Jacob came into the world, education for blind youngsters was still a relatively new concept in America, more a matter of academic curiosity than a system to make the blind ready to compete in a receptive world. There were no nationally known blind men or women. Helen Keller was still a spoiled and pitiable child waiting for the magic linkage of signs, letters, words, and ideas that would propel her to national prominence.
Young Jacob was initially refused entrance to the local public school and found a quality education at the Illinois School for the Blind. School for this young man was pretty much what one would expect of a future doctor--good grades, strong leadership, community involvement, many friends, and valedictorian of his class. Had he not been a century too early, or we a century too late, he might well have been in competition for a $12,000 scholarship, don't you think?
While Jacob could garner all the accolades a school for the blind had to offer, the year was 1903, and the blind did not work in the trades and common callings of America. There was no vocational rehabilitation for the blind, so any education beyond high school had to come from his own industry and labor. To save for this and provide what he could for his impoverished family, Jacob traveled independently through Chicago selling matches, brushes, and typewriters. Later he convinced the skeptical owner of the typewriter company to place him in charge of sales for three states, and in just over four years he had what he thought would be enough money to see him through his medical education.
The challenges this young blind man had to surmount in getting admitted to medical school; creating the techniques he would need to learn, graduate, and practice; as well as his struggle to be certified as a doctor, to start his own practice, and then to work in an established medical facility would take far more time to detail than we have here today, but any one of these would be worthy of our recognition, and when they are considered together, certainly Jacob Bolotin is deserving of the program which has been instituted to honor his memory and example.
I'm going to ask Marsha Dyer to describe the awards we'll be presenting today.
Marsha Dyer: The award is mounted on a four-inch square wooden base. The wood itself looks to me like it is cherry. There is a thin bronze plaque that reads, “Presented to (and the name of the recipient), by the National Federation of the Blind and the Santa Barbara Foundation, July 2008.” The base itself is two inches high. Sitting on top of the base is a bronze circle, and it’s hollow inside and it’s very thin. Inside the hollow circle is the award medallion itself, and it is connected to the outside circle by two bronze pins, one on top and one on the bottom. This allows the medallion to turn freely so that you can look at both sides while the base remains stationary. The writing on the medallion is embossed. One side reads “Dr. Jacob Bolotin” on the top. In the center is an embossed bust of Dr. Bolotin. To the right of that it reads, “1888 to 1924.” Underneath the bust are the words, “Celebrating his life. The Alfred and Rosalind Perlman Trust.” If I turn the medallion around, it reads across the top, “The Dr. Jacob Bolotin Award.” On the bottom it says, “Celebrating achievement, creating opportunity.” In the middle of the second side is our NFB logo, the picture of Whozit standing on the letters NFB. Under this are the words “National Federation of the Blind.” It is an extremely beautiful award.
Gary Wunder: Let me now present to you the modern-day soldiers in the fight so dear to Dr. Jacob Bolotin and the National Federation of the Blind. What does it mean to have a fully usable textbook? Many of us in this audience have settled for a tape recording and have considered ourselves lucky to get it, but there is much more to the successful use of an educational text than listening to it page by page, front to back. Our first recipient has long understood and dedicated a major part of his life's work to delivering one message--access to information is a fundamental human right. We need more than the ability to hear the words--we need spelling, punctuation, and the ability to navigate.
When the book says, "More information can be found on page 632," blind people need to be able to jump to that page. When a sentence contains a footnote, the reader needs to be able to jump to or ignore that footnote. Through this winner's work in developing and presenting the implementation of the Daisy standard, we now have the structure for making this navigation possible, and with it comes the ability to match what the sighted already have with hardcopy print and their own electronic book readers. For this life-changing work, we proudly present an award in the amount of $30,000 to Mr. George Kerscher.
George Kerscher: I’m deeply honored and humbled to be given this award. Indeed, access to information is a fundamental human right. I said that at the United Nations in Bangkok in 2002. We heard William Rowland say that this year the United Nations passed the convention on rights of persons with disabilities. The basic consortium was involved with the World Blind Union and other disability groups to help get that passed. So now it’s ratified, and nations will need to enact laws that require compliance to that United Nations convention. We have technology that is really terrific. We have some laws that require publishers to provide information. I think we also need financial incentives for publishers.
We heard that three hundred thousand books are published each year in the United States alone, and I calculate still that that 5 percent is about where we’re at, getting access to 5 percent of published books. But we can solve that problem, and I am here to tell you that I will tirelessly work until we can solve that problem. In Ray Kurzweil’s book, Age of Spiritual Machines, he said that it was sometime around this period or the next five years when he predicted that information and all published books would be converted into a digital form that people who are blind can read. We’re going to do it. Thank you. [applause]
Gary Wunder: What is the formula for success if one is blind? While there will be minor differences from person to person, all of us must develop two things--a positive, can-do attitude that places blindness in proper perspective and also the skills necessary to function in the world without vision. Blindness as tragedy or blindness as nuisance--it all depends on training, and there is no better training in the country than that which is provided by the Centers of the National Federation of the Blind. In recognition of the vital role they play, not only in the lives of those they serve directly, but in the tangible example they bring to the field, we proudly award the training centers of the National Federation of the Blind $30,000, and to accept, we call upon the directors of the three for their remarks. Please welcome Pam Allen, Julie Deden, and Shawn Mayo.
The three speaking in unison: We would like to take this opportunity to honor and recognize our founders, Joanne Wilson, Louisiana Center for the Blind; Diane McGeorge, Colorado Center for the Blind; and Joyce Scanlan, BLIND, Inc. We would also like to thank our staff and students. As we said two years ago, the secret of our success is you—the National Federation of the Blind. Thank you.
Gary Wunder: When the recipient of our next award stumbled on a new threat to the independence of the blind, she had enough life experience and common sense to sound the alarm and call us to action. The problem was cars too quiet to hear. What was at stake was nothing less than the right of the blind to travel safely and independently, but admitting the problem brought a whole host of others. First was the need for our recipient to reconcile herself to the changing reality that training, while of prime importance, would not eliminate the need to ask others for change. If our recipient and the National Federation of the Blind found this premise sound, then we would, of necessity, have to educate the auto industry of America and the world to the problems caused by silent vehicles and eventually take this message to regulators and lawmakers concerned with public safety. Consider, if you will, the public relations challenge in offering anything but praise for technologies which have been designed to save fuel, reduce pollution, and generate less noise.
Knowing full well the immensity of this challenge, our recipient did not run from but embraced one of the most monumental challenges the Federation has undertaken in this century. She has accepted the chairmanship of the committee on automobile and pedestrian safety, started a campaign of research and education both within and outside the Federation, made contacts nationally and internationally, and spearheaded a public relations campaign which has resulted in spectacularly good coverage of a tremendously complicated public issue. It is with immense respect and tremendous pleasure that we present an award in the amount of $10,000 to Debbie Kent Stein.
Debbie Kent Stein: It’s hard to know what to say. I am astonished and very, very honored and proud. I grew up in a time when blind children were not taught to travel independently, and blind teens were not taught to travel independently. I did not get a cane in my hand until the summer before I was ready to go off to college. So all through those formative years, when I should have been stretching my wings and exploring how to be on my own, I was getting led around by my friends and family even though I was a teenager eager to discover the world. When I got a cane in my hands, I discovered the joy and liberation of independent travel. The fact that I could cross the street and go where I wanted to go at will was something that I learned to treasure and cherish and something that I think is the birthright of all of us. I think that when I discovered the threat that these new silent cars could become to our independence, I felt that something had to be done, and I couldn’t let go until we found a way to deal with that. So it’s with all of you and for all of you that I pledge to continue the work until we find a solution to this new threat to our independence. Thank you. [applause]
Gary Wunder: As many of us are painfully aware, leading a well-rounded life means not only expanding one’s mind but also exercising one’s body. Swimming is likely the best exercise a human can do. For blind people this is one sport in which we can be very athletically competitive. Still there are many distractions for the blind swimmer focused on putting all of his or her energy into the competition. How does one stay in the lane, steer clear of other swimmers, and, most critically, avoid hitting the concrete wall at the end of the pool?
To solve these problems, a team from Notre Dame composed of engineers in industrial design, swimming coaches, students, and blind athletes have set their minds to the task of inventing a solution--a device that can be moved from pool to pool, involves no need for continuous monitoring by sighted tappers at the pool walls, and is affordable for individuals and institutions alike. This award is to applaud and support these efforts, and it is with pride that we grant the AdaptTap Team $10,000 for their innovative work and call on Dr. Paul Down and his team to accept this award.
Dr. Paul Down: President Maurer, Chairperson Wunder, hosts, planners, constituents, and attendees of the conference here at Dallas/Ft. Worth, Texas, this is my first time here. I extend warm greetings and deep gratitude from the students, faculty, alumni, and friends of the University of Notre Dame. There are two ironies that I’ve observed while attending this convention. One is that vision is not limited to those with sight; here vision enables and creates possibilities. Belief and pursuit of human vision extends opportunities and expands possibilities for each of us while collectively encouraging and enabling all who watch our successes. The second irony is that Independence Day has a new meaning for me, a meaning that transcends this national holiday. Today Independence Day might also be commemorating the human spirit and drive toward leveling the opportunities for all people. Through the perseverance and allocation of available resources, all can achieve personal independence and contribute value in a society that collectively recognizes, supports, and embraces the potential of all people. I am proud to be a small part of the NFB’s march to independence.
These spirits of vision and independence are both reflected and understood in a record of a man that is respectfully remembered by this award, Dr. Jacob Bolotin, the blind doctor. I encourage all to listen and learn of the perseverance and contributions of this great American. His example has deeply inspired me, and it is appropriate that we remember him on this day.
Now please allow me to recognize my team members that were instrumental in developing AdaptTap, a unique system that was born of vision and a system that affords greater independence to the deserving community that’s presented here before us today. The collaborative venture that has resulted in our being here originated in the midst of cross-disciplinary research at the University of Notre Dame. Not all could be here today; however, the ones that are here are representative of that group: Irish aquatics coach Annie Sawicki. Annie has been a strong spirit for moving us forward and keeping us connected with the needs of the blind community. Industrial Design graduates in Notre Dame’s Department of Art, Art History, and Design have been critical in developing concepts and applying models and test vehicles for identifying solutions that would be truly valuable to the blind community. Those two graduate students are Fernando Carvalho and Kyle Walters. Very importantly, NFB members of our Notre Dame and surrounding community that have tested and evaluated and proven the AdaptTap system include James Fetter, Ashley Nashlenis, Lori Miller, and Cain Brolen. AdaptTap is a system that empowers the sight-impaired swimmer to enjoy the water independently, more efficiently, and without fear of poolside collisions. And NFB member James Fetter has already demonstrated that AdaptTap can allow an athletic blind swimmer to competitively outperform sighted swimmers without any poolside assistance. We believe the confidence that is inspired by using AdaptTap in a pool setting will improve training effectiveness of sighted swimmers and enable sight-impaired swimmers at all ages and skill levels, allowing them to freely enjoy the recreational and health benefits of swimming. Within the past two months Kiefer and Associates, an international swimwear and swim accessory supplier, has added AdaptTap to their production line. We look forward to the continued development and broad economic availability of this product through Kiefer. Again, thank you for this opportunity and this great honor. I am humbled by all that I have experienced here in Dallas. My colleagues and associates look forward to a long and productive future that places industrial design and product development in the service of blind people in the NFB. Now good afternoon. Go Irish!
Gary Wunder: Not so long ago new books available to the blind numbered fewer than four hundred a year. The thought that we might have a book to read and discuss at the same time as it was a hot topic in the lunchroom was only a dream. Our next recipient has been a pioneer both in technology and in the provision of service. He helped bring an affordable scanning and reading system to the blind and then figured out a way we could share the fruits of our scans with other blind people. No one in this audience has any doubt that the recipient of our next award in the amount of $5,000 is the pioneer who founded and headed Arkenstone, Benetech, and the program many of us love and use extensively--Bookshare. For all he has done to open so many books for our education and reading pleasure, we are proud to present a Dr. Jacob Bolotin Award to our friend, Jim Fruchterman.
Jim Fruchterman: I want to thank the NFB for acknowledging Bookshare with a Jacob Bolotin Award. The goal of Benetech and Bookshare is to see that blind people receive the full benefits of the technology that the technology community is inventing. The measure of success of a toolmaker is not the tool itself, it’s what people do with our tools. Bookshare is a great example of that; it’s the first library for the blind that is by the blind and enables blind people to make the choices of what books get added to the library. More than 95 percent of our books are there because someone in this community decided it was worth sharing with somebody else. The majority of our volunteers are blind people, so now we have more than thirty-nine thousand books thanks to, not us at Bookshare, but the entire community of people who are scanning books and believing that literacy is that important. Thank you. Of course many of you know that Bookshare is now free to every blind student in the United States of America. We are very proud to see that literacy option. Just imagine 150 daily newspapers thanks to our partnership with NFB-NEWSLINE available in Braille to Braille-display users and over thirty thousand books available for Braille literacy. Over the next five years we are going to add more than a hundred thousand books to our collection. So just imagine, if you are a Braille display user, that we are going to make it possible that you are going to have more books available to you than you will ever be able to read in your entire lifetime! [applause]
We think that’s a great start, and we will not rest until we see every blind person in the world with access to every newspaper, every book, and assistive technology that is either free or affordable cost, and we call that raising the floor for blind people around the world with technology and content. Thank you, National Federation of the Blind for working with us in realizing that vision.
Gary Wunder: Our next winner spent a summer as an intern working at a planetarium. One day, as a group of blind people exited after their tour, she asked how they had liked the experience. The uncomfortable but honest response was, “Yuck!” Now she might have left the matter there with the old saw that "You can't please all of the people all of the time," might have rationalized that those blind people just weren't grateful for anything, but instead she took a trip to the Perkins School for the Blind to see what tools were available for blind people interested in astronomy. What she found was a few books in print and Braille, but none of them had pictures to express tactilely the true majesty of our universe. Almost immediately she started etching plastic pages by hand and now, after twenty years, has to her credit five accessible astronomy books with tactile drawings as well as Braille and print text. Our winner has presented workshops for children and adults at state and national conventions, and it is for her work and for her belief in the ability of blind people to learn and indeed touch the stars that we present Noreen Grice with an award in the amount of $5,000.
Noreen Grice: As many of you know, I am a sighted member of the National Federation of the Blind, and I am an active member of the NFB Central Connecticut Chapter. I became associated with NFB when I first walked through the doors of the national headquarters in January 2002 as part of a meeting to discuss the publication of my first NASA book, Touch the Universe, a NASA Braille book of astronomy. Touch the Universe was unveiled later that year at NFB headquarters, and I attended my first national convention in Louisville in 2003. This year is my sixth national convention. I am an astronomy educator who believes that accessibility should be as common as a leaf on a tree or a breeze on a summer day. I work very hard to make my educational materials and programs accessible and interesting for all people, regardless of their visual ability. The funds from the award will help me create new universally designed educational materials. Thank you for your confidence in my work. I won’t let you down.
Gary Wunder: Our next recipient has devoted much of her life helping in her calm, quiet way to build and strengthen what we share together in the National Federation of the Blind. She has been active in the states of Ohio and New Mexico for more than forty years, has been a state president and a longtime leader in New Mexico, and has helped to recruit, nurture, and bring to leadership the likes of Joe Cordova, Art Schreiber, Adelmo Vigil, Greg Trapp, and Fred Schroeder, just to mention a few. Everything we do depends on grassroots support, and our recipient is a master at building and sustaining it. With pleasure we present a Bolotin Award in the amount of $5,000 to Linda Miller of New Mexico.
Linda Miller: I am so proud of all of you. I am so grateful. Because of all the confidence and tools that I have obtained from the National Federation of the Blind, I was able to make a difference not only in all the people’s lives, but for myself, my family (Nina Miller is right in the audience. She just came in ten minutes ago from Frederick, Maryland). I thank Mary Ellen Reihing [Gabias] and Robert Eschbach from Ohio, who first introduced me to the National Federation of the Blind. I’d like to mention Dr. Jernigan and Mrs. Jernigan for always being there, ready to help us. I called up and asked for help, and he sent Marc Maurer and Diane McGeorge, and we worked together, all of us, over there. They were all able to put me to work right away, and I appreciate the confidence and the opportunity to do what I did. Fred Schroeder and Joe Cordova were always there right by me, working hard, probably harder than I did. Thank you very much.
Gary Wunder: Our final recipient, like many recognized this afternoon, is in the business of disseminating information. Through his creativity, his knowledge of human nature, and his keen understanding of blindness, our honoree forces blind and sighted people alike to take on and answer the hard questions blindness can bring. Can the blind work competitively alongside the sighted? Can we function comfortably in social situations? Can we shovel snow, mow our lawns, and take on house repairs? When we go to a doctor and talk about stress in our lives, can we get him to understand anything beyond the fact that we are blind? The simple answer to these questions is yes; the more thought-provoking answer says yes and explains how. With tremendous gratitude for all he does, we proudly present our final award in the amount of $5,000 to Robert Leslie Newman in support of Thought Provoker and its role in bettering the lives of the blind.
Robert Leslie Newman: I’ve just got to take in a reading. I have always wondered what it would sound like and feel like from up here. It feels good! So you have heard of Thought Provokers, is that right? Because so many of you out there have [responded], many of you have helped me make it a success. There is just so much we have to face being blind in today’s society, and this organization does an awful lot to help us as individuals to deal with those issues that come up. That’s what Thought Provoker is. A creative little way-- in a hundred to seven hundred words--I encapsulate a little issue of blindness, and I put it out there on the Internet, and I send it out to the mailing list. It’s on my Website, and people respond. I collect the responses for people to read and to learn from. It’s been fun. It’s been very rewarding to find that Thought Provoker is being used around the country and in various settings in some of our own NFB training centers for group discussion and counseling. I know there are rehab agencies around the country that use them for counseling and/or to train. I know that there are some college programs that use Thought Provokers as an assigned writing. But I am not doing anything more, you guys, (I really feel humbled when I say this) than so many of the rest of you, because, if there’s one thing we do in this organization, it’s that we always give back. This is just how I’ve been able to give back and to change what it means to be blind. So you guys keep doing what you are doing, and I will keep doing what I am doing. [applause]
Gary Wunder: What you have heard here about our most deserving winners has necessarily been abbreviated and brief, but, so you and the world can know more about them, we have created a small book dedicated to their lives and work.
Mr. President, I want to close by thanking the Santa Barbara Foundation for selecting the National Federation of the Blind to administer the Dr. Jacob Bolotin Award program established by the Alfred and Rosalind Perlman Trust. I urge that anyone who hasn't already read the book The Blind Doctor do so, and I note that sales of the book further the endowment of this award. Biographies of blind people can sometimes be an uncomfortable experience for those of us who know something about blindness, but I promise that you will find this a first-class read, and you will recognize in the character of Dr. Jacob Bolotin a kindred spirit whose life was all about changing what it means to be blind.
Last, sir, please let me recognize and thank Mr. Ronald Brown and Mrs. Mary Ellen Jernigan for their work in creating standards for the work of the Bolotin Award Committee; for reading the many, many applications we received; and for selecting our winners for 2008. Good day, sir, and congratulations to the Dr. Jacob Bolotin Award winners for 2008.