Closing the Gap

A library program helps the visually impaired keep up on best-sellers, magazines and even movies.
Thanks to technology, Milton Ota is able to make use of library services. photo: Sergio Goes

Milton Ota sits in front of the computer screen. As his hands zoom around the keyboard, his dark glasses are the only indication of his blindness. Ota follows a series of keystrokes dictated by a man’s voice coming through the speakers. He quickly brushes his fingertips over the refreshable Braille strip at the base of the keyboard. As plastic pins rise and fall, creating letters and words, Ota reads the computer screen aloud. And it hits me—there is an entire world of technology and access available to Hawai‘i’s blind population. Unfortunately, relatively few people know of the opportunities.

“It’s about equal access to information,” says Fusako Miyashiro, of the services provided by the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (LBPH). From audible books to talking computers to closed circuit radio reading programs, opportunities for the blind are quickly catching up to those available to the sighted population, says Miyashiro, branch manager of the Kapahulu library. “It’s a free service,” she says, “if people would only know to use it.”

Opening in 1931, the library was one of the nation’s first to provide material for the blind and those whose physical disabilities interfere with reading. The most popular program offered is the circulation service. Audio tapes, Braille books, descriptive videos and requested transcriptions are mailed to and from homes free of charge, sparing patrons the trouble of physically getting to the library.

For many patrons, “the only way they find entertainment is by reading,” says Ota, who not only uses the library’s services but has worked at LBPH for 27 years. Currently, the library is promoting its services to nursing homes, assisted living centers and group homes. “They don’t have to stop reading and learning just because their sight is gone,” says Miyashiro.

Programs offered through the library are closing the gap between the blind and sighted populations. Through descriptive videos, the blind or visually impaired can listen to movies with a voiceover describing the unspoken actions of the films. To know which building explodes or to understand a facial expression, dramatically improves the film experience.

The library also helps its patrons with keeping up with local newspapers, reading the daily obituaries or sharing when tuna goes on sale through its radio reading program.

The radio program is run daily by volunteer readers who undergo an extensive audition process. With Hawaiian words and a local population with names from every culture, pronunciation can be very difficult. Volunteers read several local publications, including HONOLULU Magazine, during weekly radio segments. For the past 12 years, volunteer Dede Reiplinger has been sharing the features and columns from HONOLULU every Tuesday night. Volunteers also record entire novels, which generally takes four to six months, providing the library with locally published books to supplement the national best-seller collections already available.

This past month, the Hawai‘i State Library System added another service, opening accessible computer stations at six local libraries. With five O‘ahu locations and one on Moloka‘i, the services for the blind reach a much larger portion of the population. Miyashiro hopes for a positive response to the computer stations so the pilot project can further expand on O‘ahu and reach the Neighbor Islands.

With the limitless Internet at their fingertips, “They can find information and go anywhere [a sighted person can go],” Miyashiro says. “[Patrons] are excited because [our services] have opened the whole world to them.”

For more information on charities in Hawai‘i, contact the Hawai‘i Community Foundation, a statewide grant-making organization supported by generous individuals, families and businesses to benefit Hawai‘i’s people. Visit