CINCINNATI — Samuel Foulkes traveled to Africa last year on a mission to help improve literacy rates among blind or visually impaired young people in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania.

Foulkes was there representing Clovernook Center for the Blind & Visually Impaired in Cincinnati.

What You Need To Know

  • Clovernook Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired delivered 2,000 culturally relevant braille storybooks to East Africa last year

  • The trip is part of the braille printing house's efforts to increase braille literacy across the globe

  • As part of the three-week trip, Clovernook staff met with teachers and community leaders to determine areas of need

  • Initial expansion plans call for Clovernook to continue to work with the same students as they get older

Beyond its other resources, the 120-year-old organization operates Clovernook Braille Printing House, which produces books, magazines and other materials for the National Library Services and braille readers around the world. 

It is the largest producer of braille in the world by volume at more than 30 million printed pages every year.

Foulkes, Clovernook’s director of Braille Production & Accessible Innovation, didn’t make the trek across the Atlantic Ocean in September unhanded. He brought with him more than 2,000 culturally relevant braille storybooks.

Samuel Foulkes met with teachers and community leaders to discuss needs of visually impaired students in four East African countries. (Photo courtesy of Clovernook Center for the Blind & Visually Impaired)
Samuel Foulkes met with teachers and community leaders to discuss needs of visually impaired students in four East African countries. (Photo courtesy of Clovernook Center for the Blind & Visually Impaired)

The trip was the kickoff of Clovernook’s global learning pilot, Foulkes said.

While still in its infancy, the program has a focus on early learning and literacy among global populations that have a higher prevalence of childhood visual impairments and lack access to accessible resources. 

The current focus, Foulkes said, is children between the ages of 5 and 10 years old in East African nations.

“When you think of all the early reading books that print readers have access to – fun little stories about a boy and his dog, those don't really exist for braille readers (in East Africa),” he said. “They're very easy for us to produce because they're typically very short books, so we thought it would be a great place for us to start doing some deliberate engagement with schools to see if it would have an impact on learning.”

As part of the trip, Foulkes worked closely with Dominic Kiamba, of Nairobi, Kenya. Foulkes described him as “the boots on the ground” for their mission.

“Braille literacy in Africa is still in its infancy,” said Kiamba, a Clovernook consultant. “Many children struggle to read or write braille, and there are very few braille books available.”

For Kiamba, the issue is personal. His mother is visually impaired. 

He learned about Clovernook through inquiries about organizations that support braille literacy and production, and he wanted a chance to work with the organization.

Kiamba recalled an interaction with a 9-year-old girl, Fiona Hamisi, from Tanzania that really stuck with him.

“Clovernook staff coming to visit us was an incredible, game-changing initiative that gave everyone involved optimism that a small blind girl in the most isolated African village could have access to a braille storybook to read at home and at school,” he added.

As part of his role, Kiamba located schools with the most in-need visually impaired children — Nairobi; Kampala, Uganda; Jinja, Uganda; Soroti; Uganda; Rwamagana, Rwanda and Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania.

Besides lacking some educational resources, many of the schools also lacked funding to secure those resources, Foulkes said. Clovernook is going to fundraise to support growth of the program, he added.

Each school received 200 to 300 books made up of 12 different stories in three different languages — English, Swahili and Kinyarwanda. 

The focus was on “authentic African stories told by Africans,” Kiamba said. Clovernook partnered with the organization African Storybook.

One of those stories is “Chicken and Millipede,” which tells the comedic tale of two animal friends getting into a terrible fight while playing soccer.

Foulkes fondly recalled hearing the children light up with laughter while reading that story while visiting an Ugandan school for the blind.

Along with the book, each school received 12 sets of custom designed and printed tactile 3-D models representing items found within the book, such as an elephant, rabbit or a soccer ball.

The models provide a “tactile learning” component that allows the reader to more fully understand what’s going on in a scene, Foulkes said.

Some books also have models that tie into learning objectives.

Schools received 200 to 300 books and 3-D models to help explain the stories in the book. (Photo courtesy of Clovernook Center for the Blind & Visually Impaired)
Schools received 200 to 300 books and 3-D models to help explain the stories in the book. (Photo courtesy of Clovernook Center for the Blind & Visually Impaired)

In “How Far,” for example, the story tells of a javelin throwing contest. Readers can “play along” with the model, as various animals throw the javelin various distances: Near, far, farther, farthest. 

University of Cincinnati graduate student Henry Levesque designed and produced many of these 3-D model kits during a summer internship at Clovernook.

“There’s just something really magical about seeing young students have these moments of enjoyment when it comes to learning and reading,” Foulkes said. “It felt like a moment of validation for the work that Clovernook does, and it’s not something I’ll soon forget.”

Introducing children with visual impairments to this type of education is key to their development, said Kelly Lusk, a Clovernook employee who’s worked with children and families with visual impairments for more than 20 years.

This type of learning is important for children with visual impairments as well, Lusk said, when it’s as a children’s storybook or signage in braille outside a public bathroom.

Lusk noted that unlike children who are visually impaired, children with typical vision get “bombarded” with text and visual cues that help them understand the world around them when they’re young.

“We want to make sure to give (children with visual impairments) a literacy rich environment as early as possible because they’re going to miss out on anything that they’re not able to encounter in the way that other kids do,” she said.

Clovernook produced the books in print-braille format. Some pages have large print text, while the braille pages get embossed on see-through plastic pages.

This method results in a storybook which is accessible to anyone regardless of visual acuity. The format made it easy for teachers, students and parents to read with them, Kiamba said.

“The children couldn’t put them down as they enjoyed reading them,” he added, noting he was an immediate change in the confidence in the children. 

As part of his trip, Foulkes interviewed teachers and community leaders to better understand the needs and challenges of each school. The Clovernook team plans to use that information to enhance the program over the next several years.

Foulkes believes the initial plan is to return to those same cities and schools again in the future and continue to work with many of the same children. 

Based on what they learn, they’ll scale up, and out, in the future, he said.

“There are a lot of children out there who could use our help, and we look forward to assisting them in whatever way we can,” Foulkes added.