Labor of love: Art prof Eric Ligon opens world of books

Friday, December 9, 2005

Eric Ligon loves to read, but struggled to share a book with his son.

Ethan, who is blind, covered book pages with his hands as he read Braille, making it difficult for his father to follow along with him. So Ligon, a University of North Texas associate professor of art, created a new design with the Braille words at the bottom and the printed words and illustrations at the top. Thanks to his dad's ingenious design, Ethan can share a book with his sighted brother, 7-year-old Spencer, and the rest of his family.

"It's really cool," Ethan said.

Ligon also co-founded BrailleInk., a nonprofit organization that produces the books in the format he created. His design opens up a world of books for people who have struggled to read together with their children, grandchildren, parents, students, teachers, siblings and friends – and even for people simply interested in learning about Braille.

"As a graphic designer reading with my son, I kept thinking there's a way to design books so they're easier to share between Braille and print readers, " Ligon said. "This new format accomplishes that and also helps educate sighted folks about blindness, Braille and disabilities. Teaching sighted children and adults about Braille is a big step toward reducing social stigmas associated with blindness, and that's now a lot easier."

BrailleInk. recently announced its first two titles – the classic "Guess How Much I Love You" by Sam McBratney and Anita Jeram, and "The Dot " by Peter H. Reynolds. Both were originally published by Candlewick Press.

BrailleInk.'s editions are large, sturdy, board books with thick pages that hold the Braille embossing securely and withstand heavy use. The corresponding print characters are directly above each Braille cell, so sighted people can read along and even learn Braille. Each book contains a glossary including the Braille alphabet and instructions about numbers and punctuation.

"It breaks up the Braille into manageable pieces, and we think parents, teachers and friends will find that a useful tool," Ligon said.

Eric Ligon and his wife, Leslie, discovered Ethan was blind when they took him to the doctor for a routine checkup when he was 2 months old. He had detached retinas – a problem that had likely developed after he was born, though doctors aren't sure why. Doctors immediately tried to restore his sight with surgery, but to no avail.

Knowing they had to guide their child to become independent in a sighted world, the Ligons immersed themselves in finding help for Ethan. They bought him a cane when he was just 2 years old. They enrolled him in T-ball, where he ran the bases by listening to his dad clapping his hands in front of him. He learned to swim and play basketball, piano and violin.

Eager to impart their love of reading to their child, the Ligons used to buy two sets of books – one in Braille and the other in the print version so they could read with him. With BrailleInk.'s design, they no longer have to do that. And neither do other families.

Bruce Curtis, co-founder and executive director of BrailleInk, said about 85 percent of children who are blind go to mainstream schools, as Ethan does.

"Their regular classroom teachers don't know Braille. Then, these children come home to parents who don't know Braille," said Curtis, former coordinator of the Perkins Panda Early Literacy Program for Perkins School for the Blind. "It's so critical for parents and children to share books, and now that's a lot easier for families with a Braille reader."

As for Ethan, he can reel off a few well-liked books – including Sponge Bob classics like "Trouble at the Krusty Krab." But he doesn't have a favorite. Not now, anyway.

"I haven't found the book that made me so into reading yet," Ethan said.

Perhaps with his dad's help, together, they'll find that perfect book.

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108