On January 3, 1900, the day the Xavier Society for the Blind (XSB) was born in the basement of Xavier College on 16th Street in New York, educational resources for blind people were at a premium. Braille had reached these shores only 40 years earlier and had not yet become the lingua franca of the blind. If you were a Catholic, there were only two raised-print books about your religion in the whole country: Cardinal Gibbons's Faith of Our Fathers and a small catechism, both out of the price range of the common man or woman. Fast forward a hundred years; today that same organization is figuring out ways to use the potential of the internet to serve the blind.
But the situation that prevailed at the turn of the century was a tough one for the blind. It stirred Margaret Coffey, a Catholic who was blind, to approach Jesuit Fr. Joseph Stadleman, the director of the School for Deaf and Mutes in New York, for help in publishing religious materials for the blind. She backed her request with her life savings, all $350 of it.
Fr. Stadleman, a man of vision, immediately began learning New York Point, a regional equivalent of Braille, and started studying how to produce copies of books in raised print. More crucially, to get the project off the ground, he formed a group of Catholic women, nine of whom became trustees of the new society. Six months later, Fr. Stadleman was able to present Margaret Coffey with the Society's first book, the Gospel of St. John.
Like many Catholic organizations of the day, the Society kept hopscotching around Manhattan in search of a lasting location, but the books began pouring out all the same, along with a monthly magazine for the blind, the Catholic Transcript. Initially, book distribution was free through Library of Congress branches all over the country; by 1908, the Society had started a circulation library of its own in a brownstone on West 15th Street.
The broad lines of XSB's task were now set. But who was going to carry it off? To give the organization stability, the Jesuits agreed to take over sponsorship in 1910 on the condition that they receive the unanimous concurrence of the trustees. They got it.
The heart and soul of XSB over the years has been its volunteers; all the impetus the first group of volunteers needed came from a rousing circular letter sent by Clara Louise Banton, a Philadelphian in charge of the Bureau of the Blind of the International Federation of Catholic Alumnae (IFCA), to her fellow alumnae.
Clara had learned Braille during World War I when she was assisting soldiers blinded in battle. She made XSB's cause her own, enlisting many volunteers from IFCA and others from the Fordham School of Education Alumnae, Met Life, New York Telephone, and the Jewish Guild for the Blind. Many--from housewives to right reverends--got on board. Among them were people like Marion Hansbery, who went on to raise funds and transcribe texts into Braille for XSB for a phenomenal 66 years.
The volunteers first had to be trained in how to read Braille, which was no easy exercise in altruistic dabbling. The basic unit of Braille is a rectangle with six holes in it, each rectangle offering combinations of raised dots from among the holes to represent letters and numbers. Volunteers exited XSB's training program with full Library of Congress certification.
They next had to learn the art of printing Braille, not just reading it. This skill required mastering the tricky Braille slate, a metal plate that folds over paper. With a stylus, the Braillist presses into the paper one or another combination of raised-dot patterns to emboss it on the far side. The trick was that the Braillists had to do this backwards and right to left, so that the raised side, facing down when they were working, could be read in normal fashion. Perkins Braille Writers, small six-key typewriters that hammered through the paper from the back, were developed in the early '50s. These were a definite improvement in that they allowed typists to see the Braille text forming before them as they worked.
Duplicating these master prints was another matter. Early on XSB had a machine that could produce a master print on brass plates to make copies, a very expensive prospect until the advent in the early '60s of a heat and vacuum machine that would make copies by molding thin plastic sheets over a master print.
These days, some volunteers still work at home, continuing to use the Braille writer. At its offices, XSB has moved on to computerized programs such as Duxbury Braille Translator, which converts text (still typed in or scanned by volunteers) into Braille, which a computer-driven embosser prints out at the rate of 300 pages an hour.
The tenacity and daring XSB showed through a depression and several wars were remarkable. When Braille became the official American standard in 1918, XSB made the tough decision to switch, even though that meant all of its prior publications in New York Point became useless for future generations of blind people.
Fr. Stadleman also developed a machine that embossed our normal alphabet in large size for people who could not master Braille. And when XSB began publishing liturgical music in Braille, blind organists started popping up in Catholic churches; when Sunday readings came out in Braille, more and more blind lectors took their turn at mass.
Visual impairment takes many forms. Some people lose their eyesight later in life due to diabetes or glaucoma, well beyond the time when they can pick up Braille without a tremendous amount of effort; others have difficulty reading due to palsy or paralysis. To meet needs that Braille could not, XSB developed different programs, including a Talking Books program in 1937 that made books available on records and publications available in large-print format. It is difficult to imagine in these days of computers, but large-print format required special typewriters and, of course, more volunteers, but the end result was that XSB's director at the time, Fr. Tony LaBau, SJ, was able to offer clients a Book-of-the-Month Club beginning in the mid '80s.
The advent of cassette tapes in the mid '60s was a major breakthrough. A friend gave XSB 50 cassette players to determine the suitability of the medium. The program took off; the Library of Congress showed up to see how it could adapt its own holdings for the blind along XSB's lines. The blind could now treat themselves on tape to authors such as Merton, Rahner, Waugh, Teilhard de Chardin, and others. Magazines were added to the list as well: America, Bible Today, and Catholic Digest, among others, including Company. In time, cassettes became economical enough to give away, doing away with some lending library procedures.
None of it would have worked, however, without the volunteer readers and monitors who staff XSB's recording booths day after day, hour after hour, to give intelligent, nuanced renditions of books clients are hungry to hear.
Volunteer Bill Martin, longtime announcer at CBS who worked with Lowell Thomas and Walter Cronkite, started reading to his father, who went blind from glaucoma. Then Bill heard about XSB, and his 31- year stint as a reader started. He used his CBS contacts to recruit actors and other announcers as readers. "When I finish a recording," Bill reflects, "there is a feeling of goodness in my heart knowing someone has been helped with my reading to them."
Fr. LaBau continued directing XSB for 23 years with grace, daring, and imagination. A token of the man's stature is the explanation he once gave for XSB's Book-of-the-Month giveaway program: he was simply mad at the fact that some blind person could never afford to own a single book.
All during this expansion into cassette and large print, creative steps were being taken in Braille as well. Volunteer help allowed XSB to push education in Braille back to the preschool level, giving blind children an even earlier start with this precious tool. Next, religious and world news updates were covered in a new offering, the DeafBlind News. Its clients did not pussyfoot about their reactions: "You have no idea what it means for XSB to do what it does for people like myself. You have come into my home with news of the world that has been shut off for me for many years. Thank you."
Fr. Al Caruana, SJ, XSB's director since 1995, is a man who takes the future one five-year-plan at a time. His first plan computerized many of XSB's services, surveyed client needs and preferences, introduced digital audio tape recorders for some of the taping, brought in high-speed Braille embossers, refashioned direct-mail appeals, and undertook much-needed repairs on their 23d Street building that is older than XSB itself. The next five years will kick off not only a new century but a new millennium. XSB is thinking web site--possibly a talking web site--and other ways of helping the blind, all of them for free.
XSB's clients include teachers, lawyers, journalists, legislators, computer programmers, and social workers; some of its own board members have been clients. Blind people are quick to make St. Augustine's boast their own: nothing human is alien to me.
"I'm currently reading John Paul's encyclical On Human Suffering," says Maureen Moscato, an XSB client for 22 years and avid reader of the biographies XSB has put out. As a lector in her parish Ms. Moscato is particularly proud of the spiritual resources XSB provides. Her work as a rehab teacher and academic instructor for the Catholic Guild for the Blind in New York keeps her busy.
"Many of my clients are older people whose recent blindness has reduced them to dependence. I teach them skills of daily living and neighborhood survival techniques, and frankly, XSB provides them with the only thing they have to help them grow." A former XSB board member, Maureen has heard one word over and over in the reaction of other clients to XSB's services: priceless. "That's the thread that goes through all their letters," she says.
There is nothing on this earth more intense than the desire of handicapped people to claim as their own a degree of human dignity and accomplishment that could seem, to those more carefree, denied them by their handicap. A young client of the Xavier Society for the Blind put it right on the button: "Instead of feeling sorry for us, Xavier gives us books to educate ourselves, to help develop our individual potentialities, as every human being, with or without sight, is meant to do."