Braille Tails: Helping the blind to read

Children's author Judy Schachner in her home studio in Swarthmore on Jan. 23, 2015. (Laurence Kesterson / For The Inquirer)

Elijah English's fingers swept over the raised braille dots, imprinted on the clear plastic film pasted over the words in a children's picture book.

"S...L...E...E...P," he sounded out slowly.

"Do you know what you just spelled?" asked Kerry Henry, 26, his teacher at the Royer-Greaves School for the Blind in Paoli.

"Sleep," Elijah, 7, answered with confidence.

For Elijah, learning to read braille has been made more enjoyable, thanks to a volunteer, a Broadway actress, and a Chester County animal rescue service.

Together, they created Braille Tails, a group that has worked to publish braille versions of off-the-shelf children's books about animals - Elijah's favorite subject - and give them to schools for the blind.

"The joy of reading is one of the greatest pleasures of life," said the actress Bernadette Peters, who is also a children's author, animal advocate, and Braille Tails cofounder.

In 2012, Peters, who with the actress Mary Tyler Moore heads Broadway Barks, a 17-year-old animal-adoption event in New York City, met Charlene Sloan of Leesburg, Va. Sloan volunteered to write a story for the Broadway Barks website. Peters suggested a piece about the visits to Royer-Greaves by members of Main Line Animal Rescue.

"Bernadette is always looking to highlight stories about rescue animals," said Sloan, a cofounder, with Peters and Bill Smith, of the rescue group.

While at the school, Sloan thought it would be a nice idea to donate Peters' books as a thank-you gift. But she discovered that Broadway Barks and Stella Is a Star were not in braille, and went about finding out how to translate them.

Smith offered to pay the cost - about $150 per book, she said. The project grew from there.

Braille Tails has translated 23 titles and delivered 2,165 books to about 85 schools and lending libraries across the country.

Nationally, organizations that offer braille books include Libraries for the Blind and American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults, said Natalie L. Shaheen, director of education for the National Federation of the Blind. Her organization has its own Braille Reading Pals Club, which offers a free book a year for children up to 8 years old.

But having another group provide books to schools is incredibly valuable, she said.

"There is more demand than there is supply" of books," Shaheen said.

She said that about 90 percent of blind children cannot read braille, the raised-character reading system invented by Louis Braille, who was blinded in a childhood accident.

One reason is the conception in the educational community that developments in technology can replace braille, Shaheen added.

"Books are a great way for the kids to have braille in their world," she said.

Judy Schachner, author and illustrator of the best-selling Skippyjon Jones series, has donated some of her books.

"So many unsighted children don't have access to picture books because many are not translated," said Schachner, of Swarthmore.

Braille Tails is operated out of Sloan's basement -- "We don't even have office space," she said.

Braille Tails contracts with an Oregon company and print shops at two prisons in Wisconsin and Nebraska, where minimum-security inmates do the labor.

The organization hopes to expand its list as it gets donations to cover the cost of translation.

Henry said it is "like Christmas" when a new book translated by Braille Tails arrives at the school. Before the donations, her students were reading the same volumes over and over. The new influx of age appropriate material gives the students more motivation to learn and not just memorize text.

"It is really life-changing," said Henry. "They want to tell me about what they have read."

For Elijah, having illustrated books in braille to take home also gives him something he can share with his 5-year-old brother, Walter.

"He reads my book," Elijah said, beaming.

 


BY THE NUMBERS

23

titles that Braille Tails has translated into braille.

2,165

books in braille supplied to schools by Braille Tails.

85

schools and lending libraries across the country that have received books by Braille Tails.

90

percentage of blind children who cannot read braille.


For more information visit www.brailletails.com or call Main Line Animal Rescue at 610-933-1164.

mschaefer@phillynews.com

610-313-8111

@MariSchaefer