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‘Pictures’ Bring Books Alive for the Blind

By Rahel Musleah
from the New York Times

She’s no relation to Helen Keller, but Shirley Keller is a champion of the blind in her own right: As a teen-ager in Chicago, she worked in the Braille room of her high school with blind students who were mainstreamed into the school from all over the county. Bothered by the cumbersome slate and noisy cubes her blind classmates used for math problems, she designed a smaller, quieter version. Later, as a student nurse, she created a special method for blind diabetics to measure insulin.

More than 40 years later, Ms. Keller’s need to “level the playing field” between blind and sighted people led her to form a not-for-profit organization that develops illustrated educational material for children and adults who are blind or visually impaired. Creative Adaptations for Learning (CAL), based in Great Neck since 1985, produces flashcards, greeting cards and adaptations of popular children’s books with clear, legible pictures the blind can “see” by feeling raised and textured illustrations.

“I never understood why the world wasn’t willing to make accommodations for those who had the same abilities as everyone else except that they were blind.” said Ms. Keller, who is sighted. “I believe in giving everybody a chance.”

Her most recent project, a 41-page book called “Let’s Learn Shapes with Shapely-CAL,” introduces preschoolers to shapes, sizes, colors, counting and geometry, and enhances pre-Braille readiness. The embossed illustrations were created by CAL’s assistant director, Irma Goldberg, a Jericho resident and craftswoman. The book was published by the National Braille Press in Boston. The first printing of 300 cost $110,00 to research, produce and publish, raised from donations and grants, including a $25,000 grant from the Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation. It is being introduced at three national blindness conventions two In July and one in September and national technology convention for children with disabilities in October.

While sighted children learn to understand the concept of pictures from a young age, blind children do not have the same exposure to translating three-dimensional objects into flat symbols. Until recently, most illustrated books for young children were one of a kind, homemade by parents and teachers who were frustrated by the lack of available material, Ms. Keller said, showing samples she has collected. Though the books exemplify the best of intentions, to a blind person the illustrations usually amount to a “bunch of textures that make no sense because they are ill-defined,” she said.

In a homemade version of Dr. Suess’s “Horton Hatches an Egg,” for instance, a piece of bark represents a tree; a white plastic bead, an egg, and a coiled piece of purple plastic, a nest. The book, which dates back to 1950, is visually attractive, but without explanations from a sighted person, the illustrations are not obvious to the touch. The Braille text is interleaved on plastic sheets, as is common in books for the blind.

“As a child I didn’t understand what things looked line,” said Roxsonne Simms, who has been blind since birth. “If it’s not three-dimensional, how do you put it on a page? It’s not logical to us. If the picture is raised, it’s in a means we can understand. To me that’s amazing because there were no raised pictures of any kind when I was going to school.”

Ms. Simms, a teacher with three sighted children and who has been a CAL board member for 10 years, recalled that the first picture she ever “saw” was that of a dog.

“A blind adult will often be able to remember their first picture,” Ms. Keller said. “That’s how impressive a picture is. Sited people are exposed to so many pictures that they take them for granted.”

Karla Gilbride, 17, of Syosset said: “From the time you’re young, you hear people describing visual sights. While seeing a tactile picture isn’t the same, it gives you an idea of how to translate things into your own terms. It’s good for self-confidence.”

Ms. Keller recalled Ms. Gilbride’s reaction to a tactile picture at the age of 8. “She said, ‘Oh, this is what a picture looks like!’” Ms. Keller said.

“Legible” pictures cannot contain extraneous details, she explained, using a CAL greeting card with an image of a flowerpot as an example. The three flowers do not overlap; no sun shines overhead; the leaves are a precise distance from the stem, with enough space in between that a finger can identify the surfaces. In addition, the picture has an explanatory caption in Braille so interpretation from a sighted person is not necessary.

According to the American Foundation of the Blind, there are 54,800 non-institutionalized blind children aged 16 and under in the United States. The statistic for New York State is 440. Many of those children are mainstreamed into public schools because they do not have multiple handicaps.

Almost no mass-produced “picture books” for blind children existed until CAL’s work and that of a handful of other publishers, because of the expense involved and the assumption that the concept of pictures is too difficult for a blind child to understand, Ms. Keller said. Many blind children encounter illustrations for the first time in the form of maps and graphs in the fourth or fifth grade.

Diane Croft, director of marketing and publishing at the National Braille Press, said that she received frequent queries asking her to publish illustrated books. “Generally people just take regular drawings and raise all the lines up,” she said. “That doesn’t translate to a blind person. Sighted people actually learn to see,” she said, citing the work of Oliver Sacks, whose book, “An Anthropologist on Mars,” included the rare cases of individuals who had been blind since birth, had suddenly regained their sight in adulthood but could not make a coherent whole of what they saw.

“We, born with a full complement of senses, and correlating these, one with the other, create a sight world from the start, a world of visual objects and concepts and meanings,” Mr. Oliver wrote. “When we open our eyes each morning, it is upon a world we have spent a lifetime learning to see.”

Ms. Croft said that when she first met Ms. Keller in 1991, “I brought all my prejudices with me.”

“I was skeptical of raised line illustrations,” Ms. Croft said. “It’s a cute thing sighted people want to do for the blind. But usually it doesn’t work. A picture of Tweety Bird can feel like a melted snowman. Even a raised line drawing of a simple smiley face can be misinterpreted as a sun or a pumpkin.”

At the National Federation of the Blind in New Orleans, a convention attended by 3,200 blind people and the first venue at which “Let’s Learn Shapes” was introduced, Ms. Croft said, she was “taken aback” by the adult response to the book. “I sold more copies to blind adults that to families with blind children,” she said. “Blind people know about shapes and images, but usually because someone has described it to them verbally. Blind people know what a football looks like, feels like, throws like, is shaped like. The book doesn’t help them understand a football. It helps them understand what an image is.”

She said the response to the book was partly triggered by the fact that braille readers take in information through their fingers, so they appreciate tactile images.

The estimated number of Braille readers In the United States is between 15,000 and 20,000, Ms. Croft said. Her own data base includes 12,000 names. The press also runs a children’s book club, but has not previously published an illustrated book.

Ms. Keller, a nurse-educator, graduated from Mt. Sinai Hospital School of Nursing in Chicago. She moved to New York in 1954 with her husband, Marvin, a physician, and settled in Great Neck in 1962. Her interest in the blind far preceded her own ambulatory disability — she uses a wheelchair or crutches to get from place to place When she retired after 20 years as an active charter member and past president of the Long Island Science Museum, she planned to develop Jewish resources for blind children by adapting secular material. In fact, turned upside down, the three letters of the organization's name, CAL, look like the three Hebrew letters that spell “kosher.”

“When I found that nothing had changed in 40 years, I was shocked,” Ms. Keller said. She decided to pour her energies into filling that vacuum. To do that, Ms. Keller gathered research published by neuropsychologists that determined the parameters for legibly tactile pictures. She investigated plastics to find a durable type that would best hold the images. She convinced a factory owner who manufactured industrial equipment to make her a “desk model” bf a vacuum forming machine that transfers an image from an aluminum master to a plastic plate by a process of heating and freezing. She transformed a mom in her home into an office, now crammed with a copier, fax, binding machine, the second generation of a vacuum forming machine, rolls of aluminum and plastic and boxes of flashcards stacked almost to the ceiling.

To execute her ideas, she found a group of artists — members of the Jewelers Media Group of the Long Island Craft Guild — who volunteered their time to work on one of her first projects: adapting a poplar children’s picture book. Ms. Goldberg was among the volunteers and stayed on full-time. Extensive consumer testing was the next step. Ms. Keller contacted the Andrew Heiskell Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped in New York City to find parents, children and teachers who would be willing to provide feedback.

Ana Badillo, a sighted parent who lives in Queens, recalled meeting Ms. Keller at a special story hour and the Great Neck Library seven years ago, when her daughter, Sarah, was 4. “Sarah was surprised that there was a book with shapes she could feel,” Ms. Badillo said. “She was just used to Braille dots. It did wonders for the children.” Now, Ms. Badillo said, Sarah “devours” books, but Braille versions of popular titles like R.L. Stine’s “Goosebumps” are a luxury, costing up to $40.

Ms. Keller still conducts story hours at libraries and camps that enhance sensitivity between sighted and blind children. “If kids see that you’re reading the same thing as everyone else, then they realize that you can do the same things as everyone else, and they treat you the same as everyone else,” Ms. Simms said. “They will not be off-balance when they meet another blind child. Maybe when they grow up they will become employers who will hire a blind person.”

CAL’s products have impacted the sighted community in other ways as well. Its flashcards not only help blind children and adults improve perceptual development, texture discrimination, spatial relationships and pattern sequencing, but are also used to teach stroke patients at North Shore Hospital and children with language delays and other disabilities. The products are sold through specialty catalogues.

One of CAL’s goals is to enrich interaction between sighted parents and blind children, or blind parents and sighted children so the illustrations in “Let’s Learn Shapes” are in deep primary colors. That also helps the visually impaired who have some sight.

Producing and publishing the book was an unexpectedly tedious process. Ms. Keller and Ms. Goldberg had completed the rhyming text and illustrations as far back as 1991. Ms. Croft agreed to take care of interleaving the Braille text, publishing and distributing the book if CAL would shoulder the responsibility for reproducing the illustrations. “We didn’t realize we couldn’t use our plates for mass production,” Ms. Keller said. “The whole project had to be computerized.”

With the cooperation of the Computer Center for Visually Impaired People at Baruch College, which usually makes maps, and the grant from Mitsubishi, every line and detail had to be painstakingly redrawn on a computer grid. The process took up to eight hours for each picture. To make a negative, the computer then sent the information to a router, which drilled the picture onto a sheet of acrylic — another lengthy procedure. If the texture was too shallow or too deep, the picture had to be revised and the process repeated. The master plate was then made from liquid latex that was poured over the acrylic and hardened. It took two years to do 20 pictures, Ms. Keller said. The images were later silkscreened on PVC plastic to avoid distortion. Each book cost $100 to produce but sells for $36.

“We thought we could duplicate a handcrafted job,” Ms. Keller said. “Every line had to be discussed. Every millimeter was compromised. We visited glue factories to learn about adhesives. We explored different types of plastics to find one that would expand equally in all directions so the Braille wouldn’t be blurred. Seeing the final product was a great relief.”

CAL’s next project, a set of illustrated nursery rhymes, will be done in-house, Ms. Goldberg said. “Working with CAL has changed my perspective on how to see the world,” she noted. “The best moments are when we show new materials to the children and adults who test them. I see their faces and I know I’m creating something with meaning.”

Creative Adaptations for Learning
Creating tactile graphics for children and adults who are blind, visually impaired, or have dyslexia, autism, cognitive learning disability, or other special needs.

38 Beverly Road, Great Neck, NY 11021-1330
Phone: (516) 466-9143
Web site:

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