DIALOGUE Interviews Nancy Niebrugge

of the

Braille Institute of America

Recently we asked Nancy Niebrugge, assistant vice president of programs and services at the Braille Institute of America, to tell us about her organization and its mission. Here is what she shared with us.

Braille Institute of America, headquartered in Los Angeles, California, provides an environment of hope and encouragement for people who are blind and visually impaired through integrated educational, social and recreational programs and services. The Institute's mission is to eliminate blindness and severe sight loss as a barrier to a fulfilling life.

The Braille Institute provides assistance through five regional centers in Southern California and 140 community outreach programs and served more than 64,000 individuals last year.

The Institute was founded in 1919 by J. Robert Atkinson, a cowboy from Montana who was blinded in a gunshot accident. He taught himself to read braille and built a personal library of braille books to lend to others in the area. Atkinson attracted the attention of a local philanthropist who provided him with the seed money to establish the Braille Institute as the first braille press on the West Coast. In 1929 Atkinson's lobbying efforts resulted in federal legislation to fund the printing and national distribution of raised-print materials through the Library of Congress Services for the Blind, known currently as the National Library Service (NLS).

The Institute has steadily served a growing population, both in Southern California and nationally. New services are added as the needs of the population change. Recent program and service additions in the last few years include a fleet of vans equipped to provide information and low vision assessments to people who live too far to come to one of the program sites; a professionally produced audiocassette series that presents practical information, resources and encouragement for people experiencing sight loss; and the Braille Challenge, an annual braille reading and writing contest for school-age children in the U.S. and Canada.

In Southern California, Braille Institute focuses on direct vision rehabilitation services to all ages, from infants to seniors, including independent living skills, career services and social support. Nationally, the Institute provides a wide range of braille and audio media production services, including K-12 textbooks, magazines and children's literature. Thirdly, the Braille Institute Library is one of the largest in the nation, serving 36,000 blind and visually impaired patrons. It was the first-ever recipient of the NLS Library of the Year Award.

For the annual Braille Challenge reading and writing contest, Braille Institute coordinates with state schools for the blind and other regional blind service organizations across the country to assist them in hosting their own regional preliminary Challenge events. The top-scoring contestants from those events are then invited to the final Challenge held at the Institute each June. Local agencies receive a handbook of contest instructions, all contest materials, marketing materials and assistance with funding and publicity. The Challenge Advisory Committee is made up of top professionals in the field.

Braille Institute also partners with consumer groups and agencies such as the American Foundation for the Blind, National Federation of the Blind and American Printing House for the Blind to host educational seminars and professional conferences.

The Institute is operated and funded almost entirely through private individual and foundation sources. Generous donors and dedicated efforts by more than 5,200 volunteers enable staff to provide training, programs and services without charge. Library services are supported in part by state and federal funding. Braille Institute is unique in its breadth of services.

As the Southern California region grows more diverse, the Institute is now offering more services for people whose native language is Spanish. The Institute is growing the telephone reader program in Spanish so people can get local and national news read to them by phone, and is building a larger collection of Spanish-language braille and audio recreational reading materials. The Braille Institute is planning to provide more independent living skills classes in Spanish to make services more accessible to the Hispanic population. On the publishing side, the Institute is working on ways to improve tactile graphics. The newest addition to the children's books collection is Tac-Tales, a storybook with print and braille that builds tactile images shape by shape to help young children understand how three-dimensional objects are represented in books by raised outlines.

To learn more, visit The Braille Institute of America on the Web at or call 800-BRAILLE (272-4553).

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