BrailleInk: Storybooks for Blind and Sighted Children

Hometown Heroes, People
on November 11, 2007

When Eric and Leslie Ligon learned in 1997 that their 2-month-old son, Ethan, was blind, they were devastated.

“It was a shock,” says Eric, 47, of Denton, Texas. “We had no previous experience with blindness and we thought he would be helpless.”

Their shock was soon replaced with a determination to create a full life for their son.

As Ethan grew older, the Ligons were excited by the idea of sharing storybooks with him, but found traditional children’s Braille books nearly impossible for a sighted and blind reader to enjoy together. Some were Braille-only books with no corresponding words in print, while others had Braille printed on plastic pages that either adhered to the original pages, sometimes covering the text and illustrations, or were bound in separately where the Braille didn’t align with the printed words.

Eric, an associate professor of communication design at the University of North Texas in Denton, was convinced that the format could be improved.

“For Ethan to share books with siblings and friends (like his 8-year-old brother, Spencer), the original illustrations and text needed to remain intact,” Ligon says. “I basically took the list of problems, and thought, ‘How am I going to solve these?’”

With the publishers’ permission, Ligon redesigned well-known children’s books so that print and Braille readers could enjoy the same book. The new design included the original text and illustration at the top of each page, and Braille at the bottom with the corresponding print also directly above. This prevented the Braille reader’s hands from blocking what the sighted reader needs to see, and it enabled a sighted reader to learn Braille basics. Each book also had a Braille glossary in the back for the alphabet, numbers and punctuation.

In 2003, Ligon presented his ideas at a literacy conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, and grabbed the attention of attendee Bruce Curtis, who at the time coordinated reading materials for the Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts. Curtis recalls that Ligon’s presentation was “the talk of the conference.”

“While working at Perkins I was floored by the magnitude of need for materials for families with blind or visually impaired children,” Curtis says. “Eric’s design is such a tremendous improvement on the formats in the past.”

Following eight months of discussion and planning, Curtis moved to Texas to partner with Ligon, and in 2004, the pair founded BrailleInk., a nonprofit organization, to publish and sell the books.

In 2005, BrailleInk. released Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney, and The Dot by Peter Reynolds. The books, which are sold online and at conferences, cost around $20 each, just a few dollars more than the original book.  Lauren Gandhi, of Winston-Salem, N.C., bought both books for her blind 6-year-old son, Drew. She says they are anxiously awaiting the next titles.

“Teaching our kids to read and like books was important to us, and there was a gap there with Drew,” Gandhi says. “These books have been helpful to show the importance of literacy and the idea that there’s something on the page he can feel that corresponds with what I’m reading.”

BrailleInk. plans to release a bilingual English/Spanish alphabet book early next year, and has two other titles in production, with a goal of publishing up to eight titles a year.  “Our main dream is to do lots and lots of books, but the bottleneck is cash,” says Curtis, noting that it costs between $4,000 and $6,000 to produce 1,000 copies of a title.  Ethan, now 10, is a talented pianist and singer, and although he’s surpassed the reading level of the BrailleInk. books, he occasionally reads them with his father. And Ligon is thrilled to hear that the books Ethan inspired are enabling families with print and Braille readers, like the Gandhis, to easily share children’s literature.

“These books have made reading time more pleasurable for both of us,” Gandhi says. “I don’t have to be so protective of the book, and I’m not constantly asking Drew to move his hand. He knows his sister loves to read, and now he has a better appreciation for what she enjoys.”

Kristen Tribe is a writer from Decatur, Texas