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Braille Awareness Month--The Starbucks Example of Relevance

Louis Braille's birthday was January 4th, and the month of January each year is Braille Awareness Month. There have been the usual discussions and articles about the relevancy of braille in the digital age. After all, what need is there for braille, when computers and other gadgets talk to us? Would those of us who regularly read print on paper, ask the same question? In the digital age, is print on paper relevant?

A teacher leans over her student to check his work on the braille embosser

Caption: Student Learning to Write Braille

Starbucks is not having this discussion about the relevancy of braille. They recognized several years ago that some of their customers are braille readers and added braille to their gift card line up. I make a point of looking for the braille gift card whenever I'm in a Starbucks. If one is not on display, I ask if one is available. The Starbucks at the Maine Mall in South Portland had one on display the day I walked in with one of my clients. It was a great ice breaker. Please don't tell Starbucks that braille is less relevant, because nothing seems as relevant and useful as identifying the name of a gift card, in braille, for braille readers!

A statistic I heard recently on a Tek Talk podcast, reminded me that this whole discussion of braille relevancy may be interesting academically, but totally absurd. In an interview with Tek Talk, Allison Hilliker, Customer Specialist with Bookshare mentioned that there are over half a million book titles for subscribers to download in electronic braille format. Think about it this way, instead of downloading and opening the electronic book on their Kindle, a braille reader can download the book and open it on their device with an electronic refreshable braille display.

Half a million books is very relevant.

This year, I'm just going to smile when the subject of braille's relevancy comes up and take the Starbuck's approach--there are plenty of braille readers out there, and some of them are our customers. More of them will be our customers if we reach out to them in the reading medium they prefer, braille and if we offer braille training to people who are losing vision and can benefit from learning it. Simple!

I love you in braille

Caption: I Love You in Braille

More About Braille and Braille Relevancy

Stay tuned for our next article on the relevance of braille in a post-Louis Braille era and be sure to read the other parts in this series:

Finding Braille in Everyday Places

Braille Gift Items


Review of National Library Service Graphic Novel "The March Trilogy"

Editor's note: With the observance of Martin Luther King Day on January 21, this post by Empish Thomas is particularly relevant. It is part of VisionAware's ongoing book review series.

Book cover of March Book One, the first book in the graphic novel; copyright held by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell

Caption: Book Cover of March Book One

I don’t typically read graphic novels. As a matter of fact, the book that I am reviewing is my very first. For those who are not familiar with the genre, a graphic novel is a written story presented with cartoon-type drawings in a panel format. These novels are similar to a comic book but much longer and with more text. I have been told they are very popular and many people love to read them. The Library of Congress National Library Service (NLS) recorded their first one entitled "The March Trilogy" by Congressman John Lewis. Although Lewis has published an autobiography in the past, the idea to make his story a graphic novel came from the time he was 15 years old when he first learned about Martin Luther King through reading a comic book on King's life.

Initially Excited to Read the Book

I was excited to read this book because it is about the life of US Congressman John Lewis. He is an icon in the civil rights movement, more popularly known for his beating while trying to cross the Edmund Pettis Bridge during the March to Montgomery in 1965. Moreover, he is an outspoken politician in my hometown of Atlanta. These reasons made me even more interested in reading this book.

The overall story of Lewis’s life was educational and fascinating. Without giving too much away, I learned a great deal about his life that I didn’t know and was inspired by his passion and zeal to create change despite some incredible difficulties. His childhood growing up with parents who were sharecroppers gave him firsthand exposure to racial inequality. He attended college while participating in sit-ins at lunch counters and bus boycotts. He later extended his civil rights activities into a career in politics.

Challenges to Reading the Book

Unfortunately, after I downloaded the book and started to play it on my NLS talking book player, the challenges and some disappointment began.

  • The first challenge I noticed is that my mind began to wander from the story and I had to rewind my player. I realized this was because I was having a hard time figuring out when the description of the graphic started and stopped, not because the story was not interesting or that I was tired, sleepy or distracted! Terminology and phrasing such as "zoom in," "zoom out," "next panel," "we see," "in the frame," and "the next three panels show" give you an indication that the reader is describing what is in the panel and then going back to the text. However, if you are not listening carefully, you can miss what is going on. The cues are done very seamlessly. This is not necessarily a bad thing but just an observation. For years I have tuned my ears and my brain to read an audio book and thought that I had become quite proficient, but reading this graphic novel challenged my audio reading ability. I had to really pay attention to visualize the scene and pictures to keep them separate from the actual text. There were times when I thought I might be trying too hard and should just let the story flow and not be concerned about it. Perhaps that is the best way to read an audio format of a graphic novel?
  • The second challenge I had with reading this book was the detailed audio description. I love audio description and have written about it many times on the VisionAware site, but I found it to be a little overwhelming in this book. The description of the illustrations were very detailed and lengthy. I shared my thoughts with a sighted friend who had a printed copy of this book. She listened to the NLS version and we reviewed it together. She understood my concerns and thought that in some ways the descriptions could have been shortend. But perhaps that is just personal preference. Some people like a lot of information when it comes to audio description and some like less.

Positive Note

I appreciated the sound effects of the reader that were made within the audio description. That brought the book to life more and made the story even more interesting. For example when John was a child, he had to feed the chickens on the farm. The reader actually makes clucking sounds as John is doing this task. Some other sounds are phones ringing and an alarm clock buzzing. The reader also changed the inflections in his voice which I also enjoyed.

Despite these enhancements, I have to conclude that a graphic novel is probably not my type of book to read. I found the story itself to be a good one but the illustrations to be a distraction. It was just too much for me to digest in an audio format and it took away from the overall story I was trying to read and enjoy. Perhaps you will read this book and have a totally different experience.

About the Book

For more information here is the book title and NLS book number:

Title: "The March Trilogy"

Authors: John Lewis and Andrew Aydin

Art by Nate Powell

Book Number: DB87098

It is also available on Amazon.


Braille Gift Items

Continuing in our series in celebration of Louis Braille's birthday and the use of braille in everyday life, please enjoy this post with recommendations for braille gifts. Remember Valentine's Day is just a few weeks away!

Braille Related Gifts

Although the holiday season has passed, a new year has arrived with twelve months of reasons to purchase gifts for blind friends and family members. VisionAware Peer Advisors Elizabeth Sammons of Ohio and Audrey Demmitt of Georgia suggest giving braille jewelry at any time! Without any monetary compensation, Elizabeth makes this pitch for Jewelry in Braille by Kelly Fehr. "The grace and style of her designs are produced in high-quality braille and ways visually pleasing to others as well." Sighted friends and family might also like braille jewelry for a special occasion.

APH Offers Braille Gift Items

calendar with pictures of flower pots in braille and large print

Caption: APH Insights Calendar

How About a braille calendar? This full-color calendar features the artwork of visually impaired artists. It is suitable for people who are blind or visually impaired or for anyone who enjoys unique artwork.

Another unique and useful gift is BrailleBuzz, an instructional toy for young braille learners ages two to five. It encourages practice with braille characters and phonics, similar to a variety of audio-based toys that teach print writing.

Additional Websites for Purchasing Braille Items

As she so often does in VisionAware posts, Audrey shares some websites where braille jewelry and other items can be found:

  • ‘BRAILLE’iant offers customized jewelry, t-shirts and other gifts in their braille boutique, to increase braille awareness and provide useful and readable items for people who are visually impaired.
  • Braille Design sells custom braille products made by experienced braillists.
  • Jewelry in Braille has unique and custom pieces created by a professional jewelry maker, inspired by a family member who is blind. Even Etsy and Amazon have braille jewelry and other gift items.
chain bracelet with braille charms

Caption: Bracelet with Braille Charms

Braille Gift Cards

Speaking of gift items, Peer Advisor Steve Kelley from Maine, reminds us that several years ago Starbucks recognized that some of their customers are braille readers and added brailled gift cards to their lineup. Steve further comments: "The Starbucks at the Maine Mall in South Portland had one on display the day I walked in with one of my clients."

Wine with Braille Labels

Braille has been present since 1996 on all M.Chapoutier labels. The labels provide the following information in braille: M. Chapoutier, the appellation and the name, vintage, and color of the wine.

Beauty Products and Fragrances

L'Occitane candleSince 1997, L'OCCITANE has included on the labels of all its products explanations in braille to make its cosmetics accessible to all. It is also one of the first brands to have implemented braille labels and through their foundation, they support services to help people who are blind or visually impaired.

Braille Refrigerator Magnets

Peer Advisor Jeannie Johnson made this suggestion for an inexpensive, yet meaningful gift for a friend or family member who is blind. The National Braille Press sells refrigerator magnets in rectangular, square and cube shapes with the quote inscribed in both braille and print. You can find them by putting the word "magnet" in the search bar on their site. They are small enough to be easily slipped inside any special occasion card. Jeannie describes her magnet as rectangular with the words: "Be the person your dog thinks you are," adds, "It is on our fridge right next to the head of a poodle that looks like a miniature poodle I once had named Prince."

More Quotes from the Magnets

  • "Good friends are like stars. You don’t always see them, but you know they’re always there!"
  • "Anyone can be cool, but awesome takes practice."
  • "We do not remember days, we remember moments."
  • "Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over it became a butterfly."
  • "Life isn't about waiting for the storm to pass; it's about learning to dance in the rain."
  • "The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart." by Helen Keller

Wouldn't Louis Braille love that sentiment by Helen Keller!

Color photograph of Helen Keller seated in front of a window. She is reading a book in braille, 1960.

Caption: Helen Keller Reading Braille Book

Other Gifts to Consider

Make Valentines Sensory


Finding Braille in Everyday Places: What Would Louis Braille Say If He Could See Us Now!

The VisionAware peer advisors are celebrating Louis Braille's birthday on January 4 with a compiliation of everyday places where you will be able to find and use braille. In case you don't know, Louis Braille was the creator of the braille code, which revolutionized reading and writing for blind people throughout the world.

I compiled this post with much input from the other peer advisors. If you haven't learned braille already, these examples should give you some great reasons to learn it for use in your everyday life.

engraved image of Louis Braille and his birthplace

Caption: Engraved Image of Louis Braille and His Birthplace

When Louis Braille found Charles Barbier's tactile code in a closet at the school for the blind in Paris, his plan was to modify Barbier's code and create a tactile reading code that would fit easily under the pad of the fingers. Do you suppose he ever dreamed of finding the name of the Champs-Elysées on a pole at an intersecting street corner? Or a braille number on every room in the Ritz? Or a brailled "gift card" at his favorite sidewalk café? Probably not, but, no doubt, he'd certainly be surprised to see all of the places braille appears 200 years later!

Can you remember the first time you found braille on the door of a public restroom? Do you remember the first time you rode an elevator without needing a sighted person to press the button? What was once a pleasant surprise is now a routine expectation.

Today, Louis would find a few cities with street names on poles at major intersections, especially in cities where schools for the blind are located. Still in other cities in the U.S., he would find braille on all of the bus stop poles, giving the blind riders equal access to bus route information.

These days we expect to find braille numbers next to a hotel room door eliminating the need to count the doors or wrap a rubber band around the handle. More recently some hotels are offering amenities like shampoo, body wash, and hand cream with braille labels.

Above and Beyond

Jeannie Johnson, Nashville VisionAware Peer Advisor, takes this expectation to another level with this example. She observes that cruise ships, the ultimate hotels on water, generally post cabin numbers next to the cabin doors--so no worries about trying to get into the wrong cabin returning from the midnight buffet!

I wonder what Louis would say if he went somewhere and found personalized braille signs? Empish Thomas, Atlanta VisionAware Peer Advisor, describes the "above and beyond" experience as follows: "One summer I stayed in a hotel when I went to visit my family in Dallas. Now days I was not surprised to find braille on my room door, but was distressed by how hard it was to read. The dots were somewhat lumped together, embedded in a very rough texture. This made it very difficult to distinguish each number. I shared this with the hotel manager, but resolved to just do my best and count the doors down the hall to my room. To my amazement the hotel manager went above and beyond."

"One day while I was out, she created and posted a special braille sign just for me. When I returned to the hotel, she walked me to my room and showed me her handiwork. On a simple Post-It note, in clear raised braille characters, she had brailled my room number that I could feel with little to no problems. I was in shock! She explained that she went online and learned how to create a braille label just for me."

"Later I responded to a customer satisfaction email with a complimentary message to upper level management. I shared how the hotel manager had gone above and beyond all expectation to make my stay very enjoyable."

Braille in a Hospital

Recently, a friend of mine was recuperating in a rehabilitation hospital. I was pleased to find braille numbers posted by the room door and braille on the remote for the bed. This reminded me of the first time I had an endoscopy. I tried distracting myself by exploring the remote on the bed while waiting to be rolled into the operating room. To my delight there were braille letters marking the bed controls. Since that experience, I've found at least minimal amounts of braille on all hospital bed remotes.

Braille in the Banking Industry

The banking industry began adding braille instructions to ATM machines at least twenty years ago. A blind person training to use a dog guide in Morristown, NJ, could stop at the ATM in front of the bank, get some cash, and continue on with his or her training. But one place people are frequently surprised to see braille is on the ATM machines at the bank's drive-through lane. If you have wondered this yourself, remember some blind people use cabs or Uber for transportation. Braille on the ATM gives the blind person the option of getting cash at the drive-through.

Braille Labels

For many years, organizations like the American Printing house for the Blind and the American Foundation for the Blind as well as a few companies that specialize in products for people with visual impairments were the only ones that offered braille labels on products such as braille calendars, overlays for appliances, and popular card and board games like Uno, Scrabble, and Monopoly. To my great surprise, however, a friend got a braille deck of cards for me through a Las Vegas casino!

Medication Labels

You can obtain braille pill organizers through online catalogs and some pharmacies. There are numerous talking medication identification devices, but now obtaining braille labels on medications is getting somewhat easier since several chain pharmacies now provide braille labels on bottles in compliance with Access Board guidelines for making prescription labels accessible.

Braille in the Business World

More and more businesses offer materials in braille to their blind customers. These include financial statements, utility bills, bus schedules, brochures and business cards. Many of these documents are brailled by organizations or agencies specializing in the transcription and production of braille, but some businesses produce their own. Some will even transcribe personal items, such as greeting cards or invitations. Recently, I received the surprise card of my life. A friend of many years remarried. She and her new husband had the thank you card for my gift custom brailled". The National Library Service offers a comprehensive list of locations offering these services.

Braille Menus

Perhaps the most frequently found braille items across the U.S. are braille menus. Like braille signage on bathroom doors and elevators, what was once a pleasant surprise is now a routine expectation at most chain restaurants. Sometimes they're not as up-to-date as the printed menus, but isn't it nice to read the entire menu if you want instead of asking a sighted companion or the server to read selected portions? But do you expect your bill or receipt to be brailled? Every Wednesday I join a couple of friends to eat breakfast at a local restaurant. On the third week we showed up, George, our server, left me a bill with braille he had created with a pen after looking up the code on his phone!

In the early years of her career in Fort Wayne, Indiana, peer advisor Lenore Dillon from Alabama, worked with a consumer who prepared a Chinese meal for a family participation dinner. The menu included fortune cookies--all the fortunes were in braille. (Braille Fortune Cookies can be special ordered from some companies.) Lenore also recalls a bakery in Fort Wayne, where you could order cakes with braille messages.

As we celebrate Louis Braille's 210th birthday and the utmost relevancy of braille in today's world, do you think he ever imagined blowing out candles on a birthday cake with "Happy Birthday" in braille?

happy birthday in braille

Caption: Happy Birthday in Braille

P.S. Stay tuned for the next post in this series with braille-related gift items.

Other Articles on Braille

Four Misconceptions to Learning and Reading Braille

Why Braille Is So Important to Me

Six Dots and Four Perspectives on Braille


Part 3 in Our Holiday Gift Series: Special Gift Ideas for People with Low Vision

Cooking with Low Vision Gift Ideas by Audrey Demmitt

Do you have someone on your gift list who loves to cook but is finding it difficult with low vision? I was having a lot of mishaps in the kitchen as my vision got worse. Here is a list of my favorite kitchen tools to help make cooking safer and more efficient. One suggestion is to give these items in a gift basket.



photo of a white cutting board surface and a black cutting board surface to demonstrate contrast

Caption: Black and White Cutting Board

Older man taking item from oven using long oven mitts

Caption: Older Man Using Long Oven Mitts

Reading with Low Vision--the New Kindle Paperwhite: Large Print on Steroids? by Steve Kelley

Not all low vision readers are the same. Some readers peacefully migrate to narrated books or text-to-speech relatively easily; others want print and fill in as needed with narrated books or text-to-speech. These are the folks who hesitate when, as a professional vision rehabilitation therapist (my day job), I suggest Talking Books, I understand because I am one of them.

The Latest Generation Paperwhite

When Amazon began promoting their new Kindle Paperwhite, featuring a non glare screen, sharper image and text detail, water proof, etc. I started dreaming of those days at Fortune’s Rocks Beach with a paperback book or the local paper in hand, reading beneath the beach umbrella, or just sitting in an easy chair at home, by the fire, reading from a book next to the table lamp with nothing more than my glasses—no magnifier, no electronic magnifier, no weighty iPad—just a book.

The new Kindle Paperwhite held the promise of a lightweight electronic reader that offered crisp text in a variety of lighting conditions, with the benefit of being able to adjust the font size, magnify the screen if needed, and speak the text on those occasions when I preferred the device to read to me.

First Impressions of Accessibility Features

The first week of November I received the Paperwhite, with a 6 inch screen, which I preordered several weeks before, for $129, and I eagerly began setting it up to read fellow peer advisor Elizabeth Sammons's first book, "The Lyra and the Cross" (by the way, another good gift suggestion!).

Like the Kindle Fire tablets, the Paperwhite has an "Accessibility" menu item under the broader "Settings" menu. The Paperwhite, like the Kindle Fire uses the VoiceView screen reader for text-to-speech, and the display can invert the color scheme for light text on a black background. It does not have is "Screen Magnification," (allows the user to enlarge text and graphical information displayed on the screen. ) and this may be for many low vision users, who use both, a significant omission.

Practically, what this means, is that the font size on the Paperwhite may be increased significantly when reading a book or magazine, but when using the menus, or making a purchase, have a magnifier handy because there is no way to magnify the screen electronically, the way you can on the Kindle Fire.

screen shot of large print screen and settings

Caption: Kindle Paperwhite Large Print and Screen Settings

With earbuds in hand, the Accessibility menu open and Voice View clicked on, a dialog box opens—"Searching for Bluetooth audio devices…" meaning of course, that there is no longer any standard audio out jack for earbuds. This seems to be, after all the new standard, right? With an external Bluetooth speaker paired to the Kindle, VoiceView reads menu items on the screen and the text of the book open, with gestures similar, but more limited than those found with the Kindle Fire VoiceView settings.

If you are a regular VoiceView text-to-speech reader, it would almost make more sense to go for the 7 inch Kindle Fire tablet that retails for $49. It too has VoiceView at less than half the price! In addition, it has the screen magnification accessibility option, and might still have the headphone jack!

Lightweight and Waterproof

What really got me excited about this new Paperwhite was the possibility of a lightweight tablet, with crisp looking text, on a screen with less glare from a light or when outdoors.

The Paperwhite does meet these specifications. When reading on the tablet either inside under a light, or outside in the sun light, there is almost no glare and the font size can be made much larger and bolder than standard large print from a book. In addition, the tablet weighs less than many paperbacks do, so it is comfortable to hold. The newest Kindle Paperwhite weighs in at a slender 4.7 ounces, which is lighter than the previous version at 7.2 ounces. Also this latest generation could accidentally be left out on the deck in a rain shower because it is waterproof.

For many low vision users, the crisp, glare-free text on the new Paperwhite, coupled with greater storage, and a waterproof design, will be sufficient. Like me, they may need to keep a magnifier handy to work with the settings or to buy a new book or magazine.

On the other hand, I may return the new generation Paperwhite and instead purchasing a previous generation for a significant savings—$79 for a previous generation Paperwhite instead of $129 for the new generation. Amazon may hook me back in to a newer version when they add screen magnification to the accessibility settings. Who knows. I might even be able to use my wired earbuds on the previous generation Paperwhite!

Other Articles in Holiday Gifts Series

Part 1 Holiday Series

Part 2 Holiday Gift Series

Getting Ready for the Holidays Gift Ideas


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