Curious Louisville

When Nathan Hernandez was an intern at the American Printing House for the Blind, one of his jobs was to give tours. He’d show people around the manufacturing area where Braille books are printed and assembled, and through glass-windowed recording studios where talking books are recorded.

APH/Laura Ellis

Audio book technology has changed, but the studio set up remains the same

“I had a person who was on one of those tours ask me, ‘Does Louisville have one of the largest blind populations in the country,'” Hernandez says. “I was never able to actually find out for sure.”

He asked Curious Louisville, so we headed over to the printing house to find out.

Mike Hudson, director of the museum at the American Printing House for the Blind, didn’t mince words. “The short answer is, no, it doesn’t,” he said.

“From the best data that we’ve been able to ascertain, Louisville doesn’t have any more visually impaired people that any other community of its size.”

About 2.3 percent of Louisville’s population is blind or visually impaired. That’s from self-reporting done through U.S. Census forms. “We’re not sending doctors into your house and deciding whether you’re legally blind or not,” Hudson explains. “We’re asking you to say.”

Here are some other cities percentages, for comparison:

  • Miami/Dade County: 2.9%
  • Clark County (Las Vegas): 2.8%
  • New York City: 2.2%

Nationally, about 2.3 percent of the population is blind or severely visually impaired. Again, self-reported. So if your stubborn grandpa has lost his sight but insists he can see just fine, and he fills out his census forms that way, he’s not counted as blind.

Data from the National Federation of the Blind actually shows Kentucky on the high side in terms of population percentage, but not the highest.

Laura Ellis | wfpl.org

Curious Louisville question asker Nathan Hernandez

So if we don’t have a particularly large blind population, why do we have the Kentucky School for the Blind, and the APH? Well, most states have a school for blind students — and that’s a very good thing for blind people.

 

“The primary occupation of most blind people before the foundation of the schools for the blind was as a beggar,” Hudson says. “If you had a supportive family you might have had a very good life, but lots of folks didn’t.”

As for the printing house, we can thank a Mississippian for that.

“There was a southerner named Dempsey Sherrod,” Hudson says. “He was traveling around the south, trying to organize a place that would emboss books for blind readers. He was blind himself.”

Sherrod found some like-minded friends at the Kentucky School for the Blind, and the printing house was born. It began operating in 1860.

But Why Clifton?

When we sent Mike Hudson our Curious Louisville question, he started doing some research and made a startling discovery.

“I’ve said it many times, without any evidence whatsoever: The 40206 ZIP code has more blind people than any ZIP code in the United States, per capita.”

 

Laura Ellis | wfpl.org

APH Museum Director Mike Hudson with a tactile map

But then he looked at a report from the Metropolitan Housing Coalition called “Living in Community: Housing for People with Disabilities and Our Aging Population.” In that report, the 40206 ZIP code doesn’t even have the highest density of blind people in Louisville. Census tracts including Portland, Russell, Park Hill and Old Louisville have more.

Hudson says the real reason the school and printing house ended up in Clifton was more meteorological than demographic. It was a drought.

“The school for the blind was founded in 1842,” he says. “It was originally in a building downtown on Broadway. They had a fire one year when they’d had a hot, hot dry summer. All of the cisterns and the places where you might keep water in reserve to fight a fire had all dried up.”

Nothing could be done to save the school, and it burned to the ground.

They needed a place with enough affordable land to rebuild, so administrators looked all the way out on the edge of town, which, at the time, was Clifton.

“Back in 1840, this was the boondocks,” Hudson says.

There was nothing around, and land was affordable, so they moved there. The school opened in its current spot in 1852.

Claim to Fame

Laura Ellis | wfpl.org

Educational materials made by American Printing House for the Blind

The 40206 ZIP code may have lost it’s population bragging rights, but they still have a pretty good thing going. Today, they make Braille books and textbooks, audiobooks, tactile maps, scientific calculators that talk, geo-location phone apps, and more.

In fact, they are the largest producer of educational products for blind people in the world. Yes, the whole world. Right here in Louisville.

Last year, they published 17 million pages of Braille, 13 million pages of large type, and they recorded about 700 audiobook titles, mostly for the Library of Congress.

“If you are visually impaired in the U.S., 1839 Frankfort Avenue is very familiar to you because you’ve been using our products all your life,” Hudson says. “If you don’t know anybody with vision loss, you may have never heard of us at all.”

If this story has sparked your curiosity, the museum at the American Printing House for the Blind has public exhibits and tours.

Listen in the player above or download this story. Subscribe to Curious Louisville wherever you get your podcasts, and don’t forget to submit your own question at curiouslouisville.org.

Laura produces Curious Louisville, Strange Fruit, and other audio news stories for WFPL.