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Kid Reporter Danielle Azzolina, Rocco Fiorentino, Nitish Thakor Rocco Fiorentino (left) and Kid Reporter Danielle Azzolina hold vibrating canes for the blind at a brainstorming workshop lead by Professor Nitish V. Thakor, Ph.D., from Johns Hopkins University. (Photo Courtesy Danielle Azzolina)

Ambassadors for the Blind

Kid Reporter explores life for the blind from her best friend to Helen Keller

By Danielle Azzolina | October 29 , 2009
Statues for the blind are reachable and textured so the blind can “see” the art work through their fingertips. This sculpture can be seen—and touched—at the New Jersey State Library Talking Book and Braille Center. Photo Courtesy Danielle Azzolina.
Statues for the blind are reachable and textured so the blind can “see” the art work through their fingertips. This sculpture can be seen—and touched—at the New Jersey State Library Talking Book and Braille Center. Photo Courtesy Danielle Azzolina.

Ever since I was 7 years old and read my first book about Helen Keller I was fascinated with her story. Helen could not hear or see. I was amazed that someone who lived in the dark and quiet world Helen did could learn to communicate so well.

Recently I had an opportunity to interview Helen Keller’s great-grand niece, Keller Johnson-Thompson, and ask her questions I have pondered ever since I learned about Helen Keller. Johnson-Thompson is head of the Helen Keller Foundation.

I also learned a lot from my friend Rocco Fiorentino, who is blind. He took me to the Fall Festival at the New Jersey State Library Talking Book and Braille Center (TBBC) in Trenton, New Jersey, recently.

I learned so much that I have written two stories that have been collected for you here.

  • Helen Keller’s Legacy: Keller Johnson-Thompson discusses the life and contributions of her Great Grand Aunt Helen Keller.
  • In Helen Keller’s Footsteps: Rocco Fiorentino talks about how Keller inspires him to continue her legacy of education and assistance for the blind.

Library for the Blind

Visiting a library for the blind is an incredible and unique experience for a sighted person. For instance, I noticed some very unusual sculptures. The first one I observed was low to the ground so every part of it was reachable. Different parts of the sculpture were textured so the blind people who visit the library can “see” the sculpture through their fingertips.

T-Shirts were available for sale with the alphabet in Braille and sayings like, "Here Comes Trouble." Braille uses a series of raised dots to represent letters and numbers. It was invented in the mid-1800s by Louis Braille, a French educator who lost his sight when he was 3 years old.

The library has printed books, Braille books, and audio books. The audio books now on cassette will soon be converted to a digital system. I walked through aisles and aisles lined with green boxes. Each one held several audiocassettes. I was overwhelmed by the number of tapes available.

I also saw the radio center where blind people can tune in and hear numerous newspapers read aloud.

Rocco and I attended a workshop lead by Professor Nitish V. Thakor, Ph.D., from the Biomedical Engineering Dept. of Johns Hopkins University. The professor invited a few people to come and brainstorm ideas to improve products or maybe inspire new products to assist the blind.

It was really interesting to hear the problems the visually impaired have—things I never would even know to consider.

One person mentioned—and all agreed—that one big problem with using a cane to guide you is that it only feels what is on the ground. It can lead to being hit in the chest or head by protruding objects. A suggestion was made to develop a device that could beep or warn of an obstacle close ahead at a level higher than the cane's tip.

I asked about two canes that the professor had on a table in front of him. These canes vibrate if an object is close by.

I had never been involved in a brainstorming session before. These people were really trying to solve big problems. I enjoyed being part of it.

Although events like this festival are helping people, I learned that it is still difficult for families with blind members to get the support and help they need. The most difficult is often educating blind kids to read Braille. They need many hours of training to learn to read and to learn mobility—all important aspects to helping them lead self-sufficient lives.

The amount of training children need and the amount of training available are not evenly matched. Many kids wait long periods between training and that delays their progress.

I hope someone is brainstorming ideas to help solve that problem!

About the Author

Danielle Azzolina is a member of the Scholastic Kids Press Corps.

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