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Interview with a Blind Canadian

We are fortunate to have been granted this opportunity by Mary Ellen Gabias from Kelowna, British Columbia, and current chair of the Canadian Federation of the Blind (CFB), to interview her about her life, experience, and hopes for public libraries. We thank Mary Ellen for her generosity with both words and time, and for allowing us to post this interview publicly.

- NNELS Staff


1. You have led a rich and varied life. What can you tell us about yourself?

I was born in Toledo, Ohio, in June, 1952.  Because I was several weeks early, I was placed in an incubator and given high levels of oxygen.  It was shortly after my birth that studies were published linking blindness in premature babies with oxygen levels that were too high.  If I’d been born five years earlier, odds are high that I would have died due to lack of sophisticated incubators.  I consider myself very fortunate indeed.
My parents joined with several other families in our area to push the local public school system to provide a class for us.  The only option available when I was born was the school for the blind, which was located 120 miles from our home.  Intensive advocacy (including some political lobbying and playing one politician off against another) resulted in the establishment of a class for blind children in Toledo.
I attended that class throughout elementary school and was fully integrated in high school.  I graduated in 1970.
I discovered the National Federation of the Blind during my first year at university and the philosophy changed my life!  I was finally able to understand some of the discriminatory things that had happened to me as being the result of well-intentioned ignorance.  I’d know that before, but felt I didn’t have the right to protest bad or discriminatory treatment too strenuously because “They meant well.”  Learning to continue to appreciate good intentions while at the same time refusing to tolerate poor treatment was liberating for me.

I received a B.A. in psychology from Bowling Green State University in 1974.  In 1975, after a six month stint at an unrewarding job, I was fortunate to be hired by the State of Nebraska Services for the Visually Impaired to develop specialized services for the senior blind.  I later became statewide coordinator for services to deaf blind individuals.
In 1979 I left that job intending to pursue a master’s degree in public administration, but I received a job offer from a man who became Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives, so I moved to Chicago in 1980.  My duties included evaluating the effectiveness of state funded services for people with disabilities.
In 1982, I was hired by the National Federation of the Blind to manage the Job Opportunities for the Blind (JOB) program.  JOB was funded by the U.S. Department of Labor to provide job information and referral services as well as career counselling to blind job applicants throughout the country.  At any given time, we had between twelve and fourteen hundred applicants.  It was my job to supervise a group of one hundred volunteer field service representatives and to publish a cassette bulletin informing applicants of interesting job leads, as well as sharing the kind of career articles that are readily available to any sighted person who picks up a newspaper.  Computers were just beginning to come into their own, so, though these methods sound absurdly crude today, (cassettes, really?) they were the best available at the time.  Our results were exciting!  Every year we could point to more than a hundred people who had received assistance from us who had found jobs.  Compared to the need, those results seemed miniscule.  Nothing, except for the obvious exception of the birth of our four children, has ever brought me more satisfaction than being able to announce “A blind person just got hired!”
I met Paul in 1988.  He came to the National Federation of the Blind headquarters in Baltimore for a leadership seminar.  I was responsible for giving the seminar group a tour of our building.  Later we worked to try to save the job of one of the members of his chapter who was losing vision.  As it turned out, the member retained his eyesight but lost his job anyway.  Life is complicated sometimes, and not all claims of discrimination are simple and straightforward.
Ten months after we got acquainted in Baltimore, we were married.  It was a long distance courtship; Paul lived first in Reno, Nevada, and then in Pueblo, Colorado.  New Ph.D.s often have to take sabbatical replacement positions and lead a nomadic life for awhile.
We were married in January, 1989, but Paul couldn’t move to Maryland until that May.  (Longest five months of my life!)  He was unable to find a teaching position in the Baltimore area.  When I became pregnant, Paul accepted a job at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, NB, where our daughter Joanne was born.  After one year in New Brunswick, Paul received a tenure track offer from Okanagan College here in Kelowna.  The college has gone through several structural changes; when the University of British Columbia took over most of the academic portion of the institution, Paul was offered an Associate Professorship.
We have four children, one daughter and three sons.  I was able to stay home with the children.
In 1992 we founded an organization which has now morphed into two.  The Canadian Federation of the Blind is an organization that is closely tied to the National Federation of the Blind in the United States, albeit completely legally separate.  I served as its first vice president from 1999 until 2012 when I assumed the presidency.  CFB believes that blindness need not be the characteristic that defines us, that blind people, given adequate training and a fair chance at proving ourselves, can and do perform competitively in professions, skilled trades, and common callings.  The list of jobs blind people have done is long, indeed!  Our major efforts these days are aimed at getting governments to pay for intensive rehabilitation training that is currently not available in Canada.  Until it is, and we strongly support development of good training here, we want government to send people wherever intensive immersion training is available.  We are also continuing to stand up against discrimination, in such areas of the denial of service for blind people accompanied by guide dogs by taxis, refusal of BC Transit to effectively ensure that blind passengers are clearly informed of stop information.


2. What is your most concise advice for librarians about working with blind people?

If I could tell librarians anything, I'd say "Relax! We don't expect you to have answers, just that you be willing to look for them and implement them when they're found. We know about blindness; you know about libraries. Let's both enjoy learning something new." A relaxed and open attitude on both sides takes care of about seventy per cent of the problems.


3. What’s your less concise advice?

You don't have to worry about blindness; we know how we want to deal with it and are very comfortable helping you help us. Besides, what any of us needs may be different from what another person needs. My approach to getting things done often varies from day to day. It's my job to put you at ease. It's your job to demonstrate willingness to interact with me as one human being to another, not as sighted person who is afraid of "getting it wrong" to blind person. If in doubt, ask. Rarely will you meet a blind person who is offended by a simple "I don't quite know what to do here; you'll have to help me out." Speaking personally, I'm much more likely to get frustrated with somebody who's taken some sort of sensitivity class and is following a learned formula.

I'd also say that librarians (or assistants) on help desks need to speak to us directly. Most are very good, but occasionally we meet somebody who seems tongue tied. A simple "may I help you?" can give a blind person orientation to find the desk and at the same time signal the willingness of the librarian/assistant to be of service.

As for the technical stuff, librarians and blind people fall into a range that goes from Luddite to technogeek. Sometimes the combinations can be a bit awkward, as when two Luddites don't know how to download and/or play anything, or when a technogeek gets frustrated with a Luddite.

It is really helpful when a librarian becomes a sleuth. For example, if I ask for a book that isn't in form I can use, I appreciate when the librarian checks interlibrary loan options, then goes online to check commercial sources like and others. It's really helpful if somebody with better skills can do some of the searching. I'm not particularly good at it, and I'm certainly slow.

Basically, you know more about what your library has to offer than I do. Engage in a conversation that leaves room for exploration and creative problem solving. For example, I didn't know that libraries had sound recordings and videos until I was an adult! I only learned that they had newspapers and magazines when I went to university and was assigned to do research. Your research and reference skills can be incredibly valuable!


4. How important are books and library service to you? Why?

If I had the choice of living for thirty years but could never read another book, or living for ten years with access to all the books I want, I'd have a hard time making a decision. My attitude toward books and reading is somewhat like the attitude toward money of someone who grew up during the depression. I remember taking home volumes of the Braille dictionary from school because I had nothing else to read.

The specialized library for the blind was my only option for getting reading material when I was a child. I bought my first audio book in the 1980's and felt as if I'd just been liberated. It was a condensed version of a book, which disappointed me when I got it home, but I'd actually bought a book I could read myself!

As technology improved, my expectations rose. I got a digital copy of the family cookbook and had it transcribed into Braille. It still sits on my bookshelf and I still consult it regularly.

National Braille Press (NBP) in the United States brailled the Harry Potter series and I read them to my children. NBP got the last three or four books of the series out on the same day as the print version. I downloaded the final book and read it as my children read the print and my husband listened to the audio, which we had also bought as soon as it went on sale. (Our family bought several bricks in J. K. Rowling's castle.)

Even with the increased availability of audio books, most books are never recorded. Audio versions are generally more expensive than their print counterparts, so libraries still remain the first place I check when I want a book.

After that long answer, my "why" is that, most of the time, my library is either my best or my only option when I want to read.


5. You and your husband are both blind, but your children are sighted. How did you read to them?

Yes, our four children are all fully sighted. Our daughter has better than 20/20 vision. We both became blind due to retinopathy of prematurity. That condition is never inherited.

When our daughter was born we subscribed to the Children’s Braille Book Club from National Braille Press.These books are published as print/Braille, which means that every book can be read by both Braille and print readers (examples of print/Braille). We ended our subscription when our youngest could read on his own. They looked at the pictures before, during, and after I read them the words.

As I already mentioned, I read the first four books of the Harry Potter series aloud to them from Braille copies. After that, we bought the print, Braille, and recorded copies of the final three books. Paul (who reads Braille perfectly well but really loves Jim Dale’s narration) started the recorded copy and read all the way through with very short breaks for sleeping and eating. As he finished one tape or CD, Jeff took it and started reading. I took my downloaded Braille copy and sat on our balcony (thereby developing a significant sunburn!). Joanne read the print copy. Philip and Elliott were content to wait for the movie. There were times when we were reading those books that we would enter a room and say, “Turn it off! I haven’t got to that part yet.”

I’ve also downloaded audio books and sat with Elliott and listened together. I’ve downloaded Braille and studied literature with my children as they read certain books in class. Now that my youngest is sixteen, I miss reading to them. I’d be willing, but they will sit still for no more than a few paragraphs. I occasionally throw in a little of “Sarah Stout will not take the garbage out” if they’re moving a little too slowly with that chore.

Probably because I listen to so many audio books, I love reading aloud. Every year when our library does a day of out loud reading (mostly for children) I think, “I’m volunteering to do that next year!” So far I’ve always forgotten to plan so that I can be involved.


6. Speaking of children, what are some things you think libraries can do to better serve young people who are blind or visually impaired?

Let's start with preschoolers and move up in age.

Blind preschoolers can generally fit in quite well at story hour. If the librarian is reading a book about an animal, perhaps there's a stuffed animal that can be passed around to all the children. If the book is available in print/braille format, the library can have that version on hand so the blind child can take it home and Mom or Dad can read it again. National Braille Press has that Children's Braille Book Club that only costs $100 for twelve books, one per month. The books are beautifully done! Sighted kids can enjoy them, too, since the print book is simply rebound with transparent plastic pages containing the Braille. Surely most library systems can afford a subscription, especially since everybody can use the books and they're cheaper than buying each print book separately.

Librarians can become aware of some other options for children's books. Seedlings has Braille books at reasonable prices. These are fully Braille with no print, and they cost more than print books, but perhaps libraries could work together to have some of these books available for interlibrary loan. Braille is fairly bulky, so local libraries might find it difficult to have a large collection, but perhaps the cost and shelving requirements could be shared across a network of libraries.

Librarians can tell the parents of blind children about the Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults. The Action Fund has a free Braille lending library that serves Canadians. They'll work with libraries or directly with families. The Action Fund also gives away free Braille calendars upon request. It has two programs to give kids books, one for very young readers, and the other for elementary/middle school children. Each child gets a free book every month or so, ten per year. Another source for Braille books is the Beulah Reimer Legacy sells print/Braille children's picture books and flash cards at an affordable cost. They also ship to Canada.

If local librarians and/or NNELS were to get hold of school reading lists, a special effort could be made to ensure that those books were available in accessible formats. For example, local librarians could make sure that schools knew about what was available and that the public library had copies of particular books. Libraries could contact teachers of blind children to acquaint them with the resources in the public library available to blind children.

If a child has a refreshable Braille device, Daisy books have text versions included in the list of files. Most refreshable Braille devices have the ability to "convert" text files into contracted Braille, so a child who reads Braille can get a Braille copy of a book if he or she can get a plain text version.

If the service that provides textbooks to blind students in a province is prepared to coordinate with a network of public libraries, a lot more could be done without duplication of resources.

Teens and young adults are probably more tech savvy than smaller children and so have learned to use the web better. If libraries can find a way to accommodate access technology, blind youth could begin to use the library systems available to all other young people. It wouldn't need to cost the library very much. Either the library could have Wi-Fi so that kids could "plug in" external computer devices they bring with them, or one machine could be equipped with a sound card. (Most computers have sound cards, but sometimes computers in public places don’t.) There is a totally free program called NVDA that gives access to computers with a speech card. The program can be downloaded onto a USB memory stick and plugged into the computer when needed. It would be a nice idea for every library to have one on hand, but that wouldn't even be necessary. Most blind kids know about it and could just be encouraged to bring a thumb drive and be allowed to plug it, and a set of headphones, into a computer at the library. The program doesn't interfere with other software, at least not most of the time.

If a child has a refreshable Braille device, most refreshable Braille devices have the ability to "convert" text files into contracted Braille, so a child who reads Braille can get a Braille copy of a book if he or she can get a text based version. A plain text version, or even a rich text or Microsoft Word version, is workable in most refreshable Braille systems.


7. What about for yourself: what are some of the things that happen in your dream library experience?

I hear about a book and decide to read it. First, I check on line. Does NNELS have it? What about Overdrive? Of course, the only books on Overdrive that are accessible to me are the audio books. I hear they’re working on making the digital print books more accessible. Until it happens, though, Overdrive is a severe disappointment to people with print disabilities. I wish libraries across North America would push Overdrive for more accessible content. If I don't find what I’m looking for in NNELS or Overdrive, I either phone my local librarian or drop in, preferably drop in.

If I am at the library, the librarian checks the catalog, either finding the book locally or a place to get it on interlibrary loan. If it's there, I walk home with it. If it's not, I get a call when it arrives at my branch.

While I'm requesting that book, my librarian says "If you're interested in that topic, have you ever read ...?" I not only get the book I want; I find out about three or four more that may be even more interesting.


8. Can you describe some interactions with librarians that make you shake your head with despair or exasperation?

The very worst experience is to meet a librarian who is so flustered that he or she doesn't even feel comfortable speaking to me. Fortunately, those encounters are rare, but they have happened. I'm usually assertive and persistent enough to break down that "cone of near silence," but having to work so hard at it sometimes causes me to decide to just walk away.

The second most frustrating thing is to always and every time be told to go to CNIB for what I need. Do people who keep saying that to me really believe that I haven't heard of CNIB? Do they not understand that I'm a member of the public trying to participate in a public program? I'm there because I believe the library may be of service to me. Before sending me back to the "experts," at least have a conversation about what might be possible. I'm not so "other" that I must always content myself with "separate but equal" service, especially since the "separate" is in no way equal.

Librarians need to understand that they know things I want to learn. It's unfortunately true that sometimes (far too often) the book I want isn't in their collection. Nevertheless, knowing about it gives me a place to start. Librarians are readers and a wonderful resource for ideas. Even if I can't walk out the door with something in my hand, I almost always learn something of value from a conversation with a librarian. It's frustrating when I meet a librarian who is so concerned about the formats that I read that the possibility for a lively discussion is thrown away.


9. Any final thoughts to share in closing?

Libraries began as a means of getting books into the hands of poor people who didn't own their own private collections. They were gathering places for men whose work took them far from home. Immigrant children whose parents spoke little or no English assimilated partly because a library gave them access to more than textbooks. Blind and vision impaired people are a new frontier for changing libraries. Technology is changing the way you work and the way you think about your profession. As you reinvent yourself, please take the opportunity to include us as an integral part of the new library equation.