November 24, 2015

By Michele Farrell
IMLS Program Officer

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Kim Charlson, the first woman serving as President of the American Council of the Blind, while on a site visit to Massachusetts to see how IMLS funds are being utilized to support community needs.

Kim is the Director of the Perkins Library, part of the Perkins School for the Blind, located in Watertown, Massachusetts. Founded in 1829, Perkins is the oldest school for the blind in the United States.  Its first director was Samuel Gridley Howe, a physician and reformer whose wife, Julia Ward Howe, authored “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

While touring the campus, I explored the free and fascinating Perkins History Museum. There, I learned that braille was developed by Louis Braille in 1845. In 1895, a Perkins teacher named Joel W. Smith developed American (Modified) Braille. Since 1837, Perkins has offered an educational program for the Deafblind. One distinguished alumnae, Anne Sullivan, became Helen Keller’s teacher. In 1982 Perkins expanded its mission to serve students with multiple disabilities. Since then, Perkins has continued to grow and serve as an educational model for other institutions.

The Perkins Library has one of the largest collections of braille on the east coast. The Library circulates more than a half a million items a year, provides braille production and correspondence services, and records approximately 120 titles of local interest each year in its recording studio.

As an affiliate of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), the Library provides free audio and braille materials to residents who qualify for the service. In the past, materials were sent by mail, but thanks to technological advances, NLS was able to develop the Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) service. With an app called BARD Mobile, users are able to download both braille and audio books and magazines. Recently released for Android devices, BARD is available on both iOS and Android devices, benefitting tech- savvy users who especially enjoy the flexibility it offers. For more information about programs in your area, visit

While the Perkins Library uses 50 colorful road-side billboards around the Commonwealth to advertise its services, the Library reaches many more people than those living in Massachusetts.  It also has a contract to provide accessible services to the residents of Rhode Island, and braille services in Washington D.C., Maine, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Vermont.

As Director of the Perkins Library, Kim Charlson not only helps students and faculty on campus, but also serves on a number of accessibility advisory committees, educating other organizations on how to open their institutions to all. Currently, the Library offers museum passes and provides accessibility contact information for nine area museums.

Director Charlson was excited to share news about a new device that is free to U.S. citizens who are blind or visually impaired: a “talking” U.S. Currency Reader. Created this year by through a partnership between NLS and the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP), the money reader is available upon filling out an application for on the BEP website.

Perkins Library image

Rapid changes in technology are altering the way our society meets the needs of people with visual, auditory, or physical issues.  As a nation, we are fortunate to have institutions like the Perkins Library, which for decades has offered a wealth of knowledge and experience in providing accessibility services. As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, it remains a crucial for librarians, archivists, and museum professionals to take reexamine their services and buildings to ensure that they are providing the latest access tools for all members of their community.


Michele Farrell is Senior Library Grant Program Officer in the Office of Library Services within IMLS. She can be reached at .