by Kim Charlson
I am very sad to share with you that Camille Caffarelli, chair of the BANA Crafts & Hobbies Committee, and founder and CEO of Horizons for the Blind, passed away on May 28th in her home in hospice care.
She had been ill for a while and fought hard to beat her illness while maintaining a hand in day-to-day operations of Horizons for the Blind as long as she could. In recent months, she had to step away from Horizons as well as her Illinois Council of the Blind work in order to focus on her health. Unfortunately, she was moved into Hospice care last weekend, and lost her battle with cancer last night.
Camille was very passionate about her braille and used that passion to not only start Horizons for the Blind back in the 1970s, but also just a few short years ago, was very instrumental in starting the Illinois Braille Revival League, an affiliate of the national ACB affiliate, the Braille Revival League.
We have truly lost a gem and a friend in Camille Caffarelli, but her legacy and love for braille will live on through the great work of Horizons for the Blind. I think it was said best by Rachel Schroeder, president of the Illinois Council of the Blind, “If there was ever a reason at all to smile when that braille bill comes in the mail each month, it is that we can open it up, read the braille and smile as we think of the tireless work by Camille and others like her who have worked so hard to keep braille alive and under our fingertips.”
I was very pleased to have nominated Camille for the George Card Award from the American Council of the Blind at our upcoming convention. We were making arrangements to present it to her ASAP but her death came so suddenly. It will be presented to her family and colleagues at Horizons for the Blind, and I hope it will give them pleasure. My only regret is that I didn’t make this nomination years ago so Camille could have known of our admiration for her great work in the world of braille. Here is a bit of Camille’s story from my nomination letter:
“Camille Caffarelli is currently the executive director and founder of Horizons for the Blind. She has worked with numerous organizations to promote accessibility for the blind and visually impaired, providing braille and large print educational materials to organizations such as the Botanic Gardens, Brookfield Zoo, Field Museum, Smithsonian Institute, and NASA. Horizons produces tens of thousands of pages of braille annually, with a staff of over 50 employees, 60% of whom are blind or visually impaired.
“Blind since birth, Camille realized, even as a child, that experiencing life through the cultural arts should not be limited to those who view them in traditional ways. In the 1970s, Camille was married and had three small children. But after her husband died of a brain tumor, she became the sole provider for her family.
“While raising a family alone would have been a difficult task for many, Camille’s situation was slightly more complicated because she was blind and her opportunities for work were more narrow.
“Camille was left with three children to raise, trying to figure out how she would be able to support her kids. How could she make a difference? What could she do with her life after all with three kids to take care of, and being blind, what was she going to do?
“Camille was always very interested in cultural institutions, and the access people who were blind or visually impaired had to museums, theatres, zoos and the like. She thought if she could start a business that would make these places more accountable to the blind and visually impaired community, it would be something she would be very interested in, and something she could make work with her lifestyle and family responsibilities.
“So, in 1977, out of the basement of her home, Camille started Horizons for the Blind, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for people who are blind or visually impaired by increasing accessibility to consumer products and services, the cultural arts, education, and recreation. She began lecturing at the Art Institute of Chicago and helping others to appreciate works of art from a tactile perspective, noting that sometimes sight isn’t the strongest sense.
“Her first opportunity came when the Chicago Botanic Gardens requested tactile maps, artwork and braille signage for their nature trails. The success of this project was quickly followed by similar opportunities at the Shedd Aquarium, the Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Field Museum … and Horizons for the Blind was off and running. From the original staff of 2 volunteers, Camille now directs a staff of more than 50 employees. Through her innovative work, the range of products and services now offered by Horizons includes braille, large print and audio, billing and credit card statements, hotel directories, restaurant menus, newsletters and much more.
“Drawing from her own life experiences, Camille and her staff have produced a catalog of over 400 low-cost, accessible books and craft kits for the enjoyment of blind and visually impaired consumers. Books on topics ranging from cooking, gardening, household hints and medical tips to knitting, crocheting, poetry and books of historical interest.
“Soon, she started getting inquiries from utility companies and banks wondering how they could make billing information more accessible to people who were blind and visually impaired. She remembers those times when she had to have somebody read her phone bill to her. Camille’s mantra has always been no matter how much you like someone, you probably don’t want them to know the balance in your bank account. So, she worked with these institutions — the banks, the phone companies, the utility companies — so people who are blind or visually impaired have equal access to information.
“Today, Horizons for the Blind prints approximately 30,000 monthly statements in braille and large print from its Crystal Lake headquarters. Most recently, Camille and her staff at Horizons launched DirectionsForMe.org, a website that provides the information that’s on consumer packages or labels in a simple online format for anyone who has trouble reading the small print, including people who are blind or visually impaired. It provides a consistent, quality source of complete packaging information for everything from preparation or cooking instructions to ingredient lists to Nutrition and Drug Facts labels for many common grocery, health and beauty and general merchandise products. In addition, it also provides potentially life-saving allergy and drug interaction warnings. For those watching their carbs, fat, sodium or cholesterol intake, Directions provides a user-friendly way to get access to this information. Gaining comprehensive information access fosters self-sufficiency and allows individuals to lead a more healthy and independent life. Directions for Me was designed to be completely accessible with text-to-speech screen readers, screen magnifiers and braille displays as well as web-enabled cell phones.
“Throughout her career, Camille has been committed to partnering with national and state organizations which support the needs and interests of people who are blind or visually impaired. She has been honored by numerous groups such as Lions International, Chicago Jaycees, City of Chicago Honor Roll of Handicapped Chicagoans and the recipient of the Impressa Award from the Women’s Division of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian-Americans. She also served as chair of the Advisory Committee of the Illinois Library Program for the Blind, state chair for the Blind Services Planning Council for Illinois, and currently serves as chair of the Crafts and Hobbies Committee of the Braille Authority of North America.
“Camille believes that ‘what our function is in our life is to make a difference, and that’s why she’s here, to try to draw out whatever is the best in us and make it work for everyone.’ She exemplifies what the award is all about – access, empowerment, and advocacy.”