The city of Louisville is known far and wide for many reasons, each one more noteworthy than the last. The Belle of Louisville â€“ the cityâ€™s own namesake steamboat â€“ is currently the oldest operating Mississippi-style sternwheeler in the world. Itâ€™s the hometown of celebrities such as the indomitable Muhammad Ali, gumshoe-mystery writer Sue Grafton and superstar Jennifer Lawrence. Perhaps most famously, itâ€™s host to the Kentucky Derby every year, and itâ€™s the largest city in a state that produces 95 percent of the worldâ€™s bourbon. And did you know that 90 percent of the countryâ€™s disco balls are made in Louisville too? As jaw-dropping and groovy as that last statistic is, thereâ€™s another infinitely more compelling reason to put Louisville on the map: Itâ€™s the home of the American Printing House for the Blind, an institution that has created and supplied products for the blind and visually impaired all over the world for over 150 years.
Thatâ€™s right. One of the worldâ€™s premier blindness-affiliated organizations predates the American Civil War and even the standardization of the braille system, and itâ€™s just off Frankfort Avenue in Clifton. Conceived in 1858 and officially opened in 1860 in the basement of the Kentucky School for the Blind â€“ an organization with which they still partner but are no longer directly affiliated â€“ the American Printing House for the Blind began as the vision of Dempsey B. Sherrod, a blind man from Mississippi who wished to respond to the growing need for educational tools for blind children. Since that nascent period, the American Printing House for the Blind, or APH as it is affectionately called by the blind community, has transformed into a national powerhouse for vision-related advocacy.
When the first official schools for the blind began in the United States in the 1800s, it was expected that they would obtain the funding and materials to provide their own students with books and other educational tools. This model proved intractable, however, and there was a call for aid and assistance from the federal government. The response was the 1879 â€œAct to Promote the Education of the Blind,â€ now called the Federal Quota Program. In a nutshell, this program provides, free of charge, educational materials to any schools with blind students who qualify, and APH is responsible for the overall administration of this law.
â€œAPH is the worldâ€™s largest nonprofit company providing educational, workplace and independent living products for people who are blind and visually impaired. Weâ€™re also the only agency whose sole purpose is to promote products, services, advocacy and research for blind people,â€ says Craig Meador, APHâ€™s president. â€œ62,000 students who are legally blind or legally visually impaired fell under the purview of the Quota system last year nationally, and over 70 percent of our funding comes through this program.â€ Meador certainly knows his stuff, but as he and Public Relations Manager Roberta Williams lead me to the presses, I begin to see that Meador contains a buoyant passion that transcends the cold albeit informative nature of facts and figures. â€œI started as a teacher in Washington and became the principal of the Washington State School for the Blind and, eventually, a state vision consultant. People come here from all over the country and the world because theyâ€™ve always wanted to visit. People donâ€™t get it, and they donâ€™t know what we do here, but working here is one of the things Iâ€™ve always wanted to do.â€
At this time, Roberta Williams takes over, beginning by giving me an overview of APHâ€™s first claim to fame: their printing presses. As the origins of APH took place pre-braille, the standard at the time was raised letters, a printing style that involved, like it sounds, printing in a fashion that enables blind or visually disabled people to feel traditional letters with their fingers. â€œThis method was eventually replaced by New York Point, brailleâ€™s biggest competitor. Even long after braille became popular, we didnâ€™t phase out raised letters and New York Point until the â€™20s. Also, many of our old clamshell presses are tools that were made for regular printing that were modified for braille,â€ informs Williams. Now, APH is state of the art, incorporating printing technologies such as laser and 3D printing along with some of the older, more antiquated methods. The printing process is involved, one of the final steps going so far as to utilize blind editors who check the braille for mistakes and inconsistencies.
From the outside, APH appears deceptively tiny, but the inside is a whole other matter. Despite itâ€™s humble origins, APH now produces so much more than books and even houses a cavernous warehouse full of resources and other construction materials. Today, APHâ€™s products run the gamut from books in braille and in large print, braille writing devices, audiobooks, science teaching kits, talking computer software, low-vision assessment kits, early childhood development materials, digital recording equipment and videos on topics related to blindness. APH even produces maps for blind people with indentations and raised portions to indicate geography. â€œBlind people love maps,â€ says Steve Mullens, head of APHâ€™s recording studio. â€œThe world for sighted people is three-dimensional, but itâ€™s not for blind people. Maps are one of the few things where blind and sighted people are on an even playing field because they force even sighted people to think of three-dimensional concepts in two dimensions.â€ I try to cogitate on the profoundness of this statement, but Iâ€™m too busy geeking out over the map Mullens used as an example: the one to be included in a braille version of the books that â€œGame of Thronesâ€ is based on.
Next, Mullens and Williams lead the way to the recording studio, where Iâ€™m introduced to Chelsey Beeson. APH records its audiobooks in house, using local actors and radio personalities to lend their golden voices to the task. They record all kinds of publications in a multitude of languages to make this service accessible to as many people as possible. Today, Beeson is busy administering a recording session with Jill Fox, one of the hosts for WFPL. â€œAt the beginning of the day, we basically go through the book, underline any troublesome or problematic words, then we go and look them up,â€ says Beeson. â€œWeâ€™ve got the diacriticals here, so we can tell her where the stress and stuff like that is. Then we go into the recording session. We record 90-minute sessions, and we read fiction, nonfiction, Readerâ€™s Digest, Newsweek, Dolly Partonâ€™s Imagination Library,â€ she adds with a laugh. â€œI only stop her if she has a question or mispronounces something. Jill goes through about a book a week.â€
The whirlwind tour continues, and I next meet Larry Skutchan, director of technology and product research, in order to learn about what APH has in store for the future. One such product acts as a sort of GPS for the inside of buildings so that blind people can locate points of interest such as restrooms or event seating on their smartphone with an app that acts as a hot-or-cold interface based on vibration. This project is in the earliest of stages. There is another project, however, that I can tell excited him: â€œHere is probably one of the most significant advances in braille technology since Louis Braille.â€ What heâ€™s talking about is called refreshable braille, a technology where the braille dots pop up interactively and refresh line by line based on what youâ€™re reading. â€œThese have been around for about 30 years, but theyâ€™ve been very expensive. To the tune of two, three, four thousand dollars. This fall, weâ€™re going to release this one for around $500,â€ says Skutchan proudly. â€œItâ€™s pretty interesting because you can use it standalone to take notes or read books, but you can also connect via Bluetooth to your iPhone and actually read everything on your iPhone screen in braille and control and type. Itâ€™s like having a Bluetooth keyboard. And not just for your iPhone, but for your Android, computer, Mac, anything.â€
As unbelievable as it may seem, this is only the tip of the iceberg at APH. Also in the structure is a hall of fame and a museum that covers the history of blind people in America. The latter contains breathtaking drawings and photographs submitted by blind artists from around the world, one of Stevie Wonderâ€™s pianos and one of two original copies in the United States of â€œMethod for Writing Words, Music and Plainsong in Dots,â€ the work that introduced the world to Louis Braille and his paradigm-shifting reading system. Tours of these areas and parts of the rest of the facility are open to the public. Take one, and one thing will be abundantly clear. The American Printing House for the Blind will be printing the vision of Dempsey A. Sherrod for generations to come. VT