All Articles by Camilla Sterne

4 Articles

A Blind Poet in the LightHouse Studio: Watch “Vision” by Leah Gardner

“I’m a woman who’s a blind, depressed lesbian,” says Leah Gardner, with a good-humored chuckle. “That’s who I am. That’s my reality and I’m okay with it.”

Leah is also a part-time tech trainer at LightHouse and a slam poet. She will be marching with our San Francisco Pride Contingent this Sunday, June 25 to #BeSeen.

Leah hasn’t participated in Pride in about 15 years — since she was a young poet in New Hampshire and Vermont — but when she heard about our blind and visually impaired contingent from our weekly newsletter, she decided it was time to march again. In her late 20s, marching in Pride offered her a lot of hope, along with a sense acceptance and celebration in who she was and what she offered to a community. After a tough couple of years, Leah is ready to feel that hope again.

“There’s a lot of excitement building for me, just in terms of being part of this,” she says. “Every time that I participated in the New Hampshire and Vermont marches, it was with wonderful friends but they were all sighted. It was not part of a visually impaired community, as key to me as that was in my life. This year carries this newness to it. It will be a completely original experience of sharing this day with people who are also blind and GLBTQ. So I’m really energized.”

We’re asking folks to use the hashtag #BeSeen and think about what that means in the context of Pride.

“I think a lot of people are very comfortable with talking about sexuality but the vision loss and the reality of that creates a lot of shame,” says Leah. “And in my case I also deal with severe depression, which adds some challenges in finding a way to form bonds with other people. We all have some shame about something, some facet of our personality. This ‘Being Seen’ concept to me has become about saying no to that shame.”

And Leah is no stranger to thinking about the intersection of blindness and sexuality. One of the poems she has performed most over the years is a poem called “Vision” about a gay friend who was losing his sight. The poem unpacks the shame and fear that often accompanies both sexuality and disability, and is a testament to the courage it takes to go through a world that isn’t always kind to people it deems outside of the norm. In advance of San Francisco Pride, we asked Leah to perform “Vision” in the LightHouse studio. Watch the video below.

Leah will present this poem live at our “All Eyes on Allies: Pride Training and Community Building” on June 22 where she also discuss what it means to show up to Pride as an ally for people with multiple marginalized identities. This training will also teach volunteers how to be effective human guides.

We hope you’ll volunteer to be part of our contingent. Sign up to march with us on June 25 at our Eventbrite page.

Student Spotlight: Toby Clark

Toby Clark stops by the LightHouse one afternoon to grab coffee with a friend who he met at our 30% and Growing blind professionals meet-up. The friend has been taking cooking classes in the 10th floor Teaching Kitchen and ushers Toby into the pre-function area with a piping hot plate of pasta parmigiano (“It comes with a warning: I might have gone a little heavy on the pepper”).

Toby works around the corner as an attorney at the federal courts, and he’s recently started to regularly attend 30% and Growing.

“It’s a very open and supportive environment,” says Toby. “You connect over shared experiences. So that next time someone asks, again, “Has your hearing improved?”, you can internally roll your eyes but also find the strength to carry forward so that you don’t become embittered by that experience. Instead you can stay positive and even add a little humor into the mix.”

But long before Toby was networking with fellow blind professionals, he was struggling with the uncertainty of a rare retinal disorder and being cycled through doctors offices for various (and often inconclusive) tests. As his eyesight changed, his mood began to decline and he was started to grapple with depression.

As an attorney, Toby’s work requires that he do a significant amount of reading. He was getting constant migraines from the strain of trying to read legal documents and fine print. He had improvised a few adaptive techniques on his computer, but he felt like his progressive condition was a moving target. He was constantly scrambling to improvise new ways to see.

But everything shifted when a friend asked Toby, “Have you heard of LightHouse?”

A year ago, he connected with LightHouse psychological services counselor Connie Conley-Jung for an initial session. She laid out a path for him, showed him the available resources and told him how to get connected with Department of Rehabilitation.

“Connie was great,” says Toby. “It helped to talk with someone who gets it. It was the first time in all that floundering and trying to figure out how to do things on my own that I felt like there was a map forward, both personally and professionally. And it included both internal and external resources. There’s also a great atmosphere here and started to understand that people really care and it’s just an open and welcoming place. And that combined with the quality of services I’ve received it’s just kind of a no-brainer.”

And that was just the start for Toby at LightHouse. Now, he’s completed more counseling sessions with Connie, a Changing Vision Changing Life Immersion Training at Enchanted Hills Camp, orientation and mobility with specialist Katt Jones, technology training and is beginning to dip his toe into braille lessons with braille instructor Divina Carlson.

“Now even as my vision continues to decline, I have that skill set waiting there and I have those resources ready,” says Toby. “Just knowing there are skills that I’ve learned and continuing to learn, like Braille, it’s a longer path but it’s building that foundation for going forward.”

The CVCL session he attended had a particularly strong impact on him, because it was the first time he was surrounded by other blind and visually impaired people, with a whole spectrum of sight and experience with adaptive techniques.

“We were there sharing all our different and shared struggles, our successes, tips and tricks,” says Toby. “You end up cheering for everyone and wanting everyone to succeed and it really felt like we, as a group and including the staff as well, had made progress towards this overall goal of ‘Let’s make our lives better, let’s be there for each other.’”

There, he was emboldened by a mobility exercise that involved navigating the woods at EHC blindfolded with a cane.

“It was really scary but kind of exhilarating at the same time,” says Toby. “And when I got back from the immersion I really started using my cane on a regular basis. I think it removed an emotional barrier, because I’d just think ‘Oh you were blindfolded and walked through the woods and somehow found your way back!’ I was like, “I can make it through the city.’”

And Toby has been making it through this city every day, as well as far off ones: he’s just returned from visiting Switzerland and Paris with his husband Chad, and they have a trip to Yellowstone coming up.

When he’s not perusing Parisian boutiques or visiting friends at the LightHouse, he’s acting on stage, and in short films and commercials. Losing his vision has made him a director’s pet though: he memorizes all his lines before the first rehearsal. “Directors love that,” he says, laughing.

These days, Toby uses Zoom Text, Jaws and NVDA to access his acting scripts and legal documents. And who knows, after a few more braille lessons, he might be reading braille scripts — so he can go back to procrastinating like the rest of us.

To learn more about LightHouse programs, visit or call 415-431-1481. 

See California Like Never Before: MAD Lab creates its largest low vision and tactile map yet

Photo: A close up shows the raised tactile features and brights blues and greens of this accessible map of California.

In the era of Google, reading a map can be deceptively simple. The 664 miles from say, Redding to San Diego, can seem like a simple calculation of hours, minutes, or transit stops – but truly understanding a place’s geography is not so straightforward. That’s why our state’s most reputable sources for accessible education tapped LightHouse to create a map worthy of the institution: encompassing the mountains, rivers, desert expanses and the varied, beautiful patterns of California.

Maps give us the bigger picture, show us how the earth unfolds and inform us how to traverse it – all opportunities blind people crave equally with their sighted peers. Unfortunately, most maps are not accessible. But after months of work, LightHouse’s MAD Lab is proud to present a three-foot large print, braille and tactile map of the entire state of California. It is their biggest tactile map yet.

Commissioned by the State Braille and Talking Book Library in Sacramento, the map will be part of a temporary display at the California State Capitol Building in January. It will later be moved to its permanent home at the Braille and Talking Book Library in Sacramento.

The map is 40 inches tall and 34 inches wide and was printed in six individual sections that make up the completed map. It was printed on the LightHouse’s new UV flatbed printer. High contrast coloration and large print facilitate viewing for people with low vision, and a selection of tactile symbols and fill textures denote cities, rivers, lakes, mountains, forests and deserts.

The whole map of California.
The whole map of California.

The state map went through many iterations in the design process, partially because the MAD Lab designers were met with the challenge of creating background fill textures for lakes and forests that, when touched, didn’t compete with symbols for specific landmarks.

“We had to figure out how to create varied textures, so you can tell there are different features, but also fade into the background enough so mountains and rivers could be felt on top as distinct landforms,” says Designer and Accessible Media Specialist Julie Sadlier.

By scaling down the size of the texture, Julie says they were able to achieve this. The first full draft of the map was printed in early December. The LightHouse’st Frank Welte was the first blind person to see the map after it was assembled.

A close-up shot demonstrates some of the fill textures Julie speaks of, like the circular green texture indicating a forest.
A close-up shot demonstrates some of the fill textures Julie speaks of, like the circular green texture indicating a forest.

“I’m a California Native, so I’ve seen some tactile maps of the state before but this one was probably the biggest tactile map of California I’ve ever seen,” says Frank. “It was fun to explore parts of California with which I’m not familiar, like the Northeastern part.”

And though exploring California is a perk, the overarching goal of the display is to raise awareness about the work of the Braille and Talking Book Library and its role in braille literacy and services for the blind and low vision community.

“One of the hardest things in the network of libraries serving the blind is getting the word out about our work,” says Director of the library Mike Marlin. “We provide a free service, so this display is a really helpful outreach tool. It gets our work in front of legislators and the public.”

Frank too, hopes the map encourages more institutions and organizations to make tactile maps and other material available to their communities.

“I think it is wonderful for tactile graphics to be given high visibility, so that the general public can appreciate their value as we in the blind community already do,” he says.

MAD Lab is an important resource in collaborating with organizations to make these kinds of accessible tactile tools available. The MAD Lab has earned a reputation for producing fabulous tactile media of all kinds, including raised line drawings, tactile graphics and tactile maps like this one for Alcatraz, and other GGRNA maps – for everything from Burning Man to BART.

For a rate sheet or an informal quote on a business project, contact or call 415-694-7349.

High School Students Collaborate to Create First-Known Braille Yearbook for their Blind Classmate

Photo: A smiling brunette Maycie reads one volume of the yearbook stacked on top of its three additional volumes. CREDIT John Burgess/The Press Democrat

A school yearbook is a contradictory bit of nostalgia, a time capsule of days you either yearn to forget or wish you could relive. Regardless, it’s a trip down memory lane that everyone should have a chance to take.

For better or worse, 18-year-old Maycie Vorreiter ordered a yearbook every year. And yet, for the Enchanted Hills Camp veteran, receiving the standard print yearbook was never very useful seeing as Maycie, now a graduate of Windsor High School, has been blind since birth.

But early this year, the yearbook’s Editor-in-Chief Charlie Sparacio decided is was time Maycie received a yearbook she could really use. After winning $500 at a 2015 summer yearbook camp, the 18-year-old editor cooked up the idea of surprising Maycie with a 2015-16 yearbook printed entirely in braille. Advocates for the blind say this may be the first-ever braille yearbook.

What does a braille yearbook look like?

“I was so surprised. Honestly, it was the last thing I was expecting,” says Maycie. “What would it look like? I had this picture in my head of it being 10 to 15 volumes.”

The entire Windsor High School yearbook fit neatly into four volumes and, though it ended up costing more than $500 to source, could easily be printed by an agency like LightHouse at an affordable rate. There’s no traditional writing or design on the cover or inside the yearbook, just heavy white paper with a black spiral binding and a small label on the cover. Photographs were omitted from the braille version, but photo captions were included with lists of the students pictured in each photograph, allowing Maycie to have the same knowledge as her friends of who made it into the pages of high school history.

Maycie has enjoyed many summers meeting other blind students at Enchanted Hills Camp – in fact, she met her best friend there when she was 7 – but in a mainstream school setting, it’s important to be able to talk about the same stuff as the other students.

Though every school creating an annual braille yearbook is (quite literally) a tall order, Maycie thinks it’s a gesture that should be extended to each blind or visually impaired student in his or her senior year of high school.

“It was one of those really awesome moments that I would want to relive again, because it was done in braille and it has never been done before,” says Maycie, recalling the moment she received the yearbook in October. “My hope is that in the future other visually impaired students will get a braille yearbook for their senior year, too.”

After graduating from Windsor High, Maycie enrolled at the Orientation Center for the Blind in Albany, CA. Though she says mobility can be particularly challenging in the East Bay’s busy streets, she says she’s starting to get familiar with the city and learn the tricks of navigating on her own.

Braille equals literacy

Maycie is part of the less than 10 percent of the blind population that use braille – a number that LightHouse has long worked to increase. She has been reading and writing braille since she was 3 years old and used Perkins braillers and Braille note taking devices throughout high school. Braille, she reminds us, is an invaluable skill for blind students.

“I’ve used braille pretty much forever,” says Maycie. “I don’t ever want to give up braille. Braille is my way of reading and writing, and I don’t ever want to lose it.”

The LightHouse’s MAD Lab specializes in making materials like Maycie’s yearbook accessible – for clients small and large. Any media that facilitates independent education, communication and navigation for the blind community is fair game in our book.

We offer braille translation, audio recording and large print production, including conversion to DAISY formats for audio, in addition to the many forms of embossed and 3D graphics that we create on contract for consumers around the world. Recent big hits include the Apple iOS9 braille manual (available at our store), which consists of five volumes measuring 6 ½ inches high when stacked and weighing close to 10 pounds. The MAD Lab is currently translating the iOS 10 braille manual, which, at 82,164 words, will be larger yet. It may seem like a lot of weight, but that’s how important literacy is to the blindness community.

The MAD Lab produces a wide range of tactile media, including raised line drawings, tactile graphics and tactile maps like this one for Alcatraz, and other GGRNA maps – for everything from Burning Man to BART.

For a rate sheet or an informal quote on a business project, contact