Written by Hannah Ozmun, AmeriCorps VISTA at the American Printing House for the Blind
As we walk down the hall toward the production floor, the hum of the presses grows louder. I turn on my microphone and remind the group to stay behind the yellow tape so that no one gets too close to the machines. Behind me, massive rolls of paper are feeding into the presses where mechanical teeth emboss dots on both sides of the paper and cut it to size for binding. Sometimes a humidifier spits steam next to the paper rolls, ensuring that the paper is not too dry and will not tear when it is embossed. “Braille is high maintenance,” I say as we watch the presses fill up trays of embossed paper. Sometimes I will talk about the grant we just received for a digital scanner to check for embossing errors; sometimes, if I hear the distinctive metallic clink-clink coming from the back, I will walk the group over to the Heidelberg presses, where metal plates emboss single sheets of paper with a flourish of burnished knobs and wheels. The Heidelberg presses rarely run, as they can only produce one page at a time. But when they do, the elegance of old-fashioned printing is captivating.
Every day at 10 AM and 2 PM, the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) offers free drop-in tours of our braille production floor, product display room, Talking Books recording studio, and museum. APH sees thousands of visitors each year, and every week our team of tour guides educates visitors on the history of braille, the raised-dot code read by touch that allows people who are visually impaired to read and gain independence. We walk people through the process of making a braille book on the production floor, including stops at transcription, proofreading, tactile graphics, embossing, and binding. In the display room, we demonstrate products like tactile maps and electronic braille displays, inviting visitors to imagine what it would be like to use these products in the classroom and in their daily lives. In the recording studio, we explain our contract with the National Library Service and listen to a live Talking Books recording session with one of our narrators. And in the museum, we see objects and artifacts that tell the story of the education and achievements of the blind throughout time—a book written by Louis Braille, a piano played by Stevie Wonder, a book owned by Helen Keller—and allow visitors to write their names in braille using a braillewriter.
While we host many field trips for school children and general tours for people passing through Louisville, we also have visitors who come to APH for a specific purpose. Some visitors may be interested in manufacturing; others may know someone who is blind; some are students in a university program to become teachers of the visually impaired. Occasionally, we will give tours to individuals who are blind who have used APH products and listened to Talking Books. These are my favorite kind of tours, when I can step back and listen to a first-hand account of how a particular product is used or an opinion on which Talking Books narrator has the best voice. Once, in the museum, I referred to our “braille typewriters,” and a woman who was a braille reader gently corrected me. “They’re called braillewriters. You gotta remember that for your next tour.” When we rounded the corner, she reached out to feel the stacks of the 145-volume braille World Book Encyclopedia, the largest braille project APH has ever undertaken. “When I was a kid, we owned this set,” she said, running her fingers up the towering spines. “We had a spare bedroom filled with shelves of braille books, and a ladder to reach the top shelf. I used to read the encyclopedia cover-to-cover because I was so hungry for books.” These are the moments I will remember most vividly from my time here at APH, when I have been reminded to cherish the gift of literacy and the labor of those who work to make books accessible to all.
In my final weeks as a VISTA, I will give many more tours to families enjoying their last days of summer vacation. My favorite part of the tour is the museum, when visitors stoop over the braillewriters, hunting for the letters of their name on the alphabet chart while cautiously mashing the key combinations. I love seeing their satisfaction when they unroll the paper and feel the dots they just embossed. I have met many passionate people on my tours, like the employment specialist who came to APH to research resources available to his deaf-blind client, and the mom of a blind autistic boy who treasures the Talking Books she receives in the mail. Giving tours has allowed me to become intimately acquainted with the mission of APH as I have met many people who rely on our products to live fully and independently. Before working at APH, I didn’t know much about braille or the education of the blind. I began to learn braille after a group of precocious third graders on a field trip asked me to read a sign hanging in the museum. At APH, I learned history I never knew existed and met people who challenged me to think more deeply about inclusion and accessibility for all. While tours are only a small part of my VISTA responsibilities, I look forward to the calls I get from our receptionist telling me that the lobby is crowded with visitors. I secure my microphone around my waist, rest the headset around my neck, and head downstairs to see who they are, where they are from, and what has brought them to APH.
If you are interested in a tour at APH, drop in Monday-Friday at 10 AM or 2 PM. Our museum is open for self-guided exploration Monday-Friday 8:30 AM to 4:30 PM and Saturday 10 AM to 3 PM. If you have a party of ten or more, please call Rob Guillen at 502-899-2242 to schedule a group tour. All tours and museum visits are free.