Preserving blind Coloradans’ history

Records going back more than a century are being digitized

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More than a century’s worth of records now packed into boxes and storage containers in the basement of the Colorado Center for the Blind will soon be transformed into a comprehensive, digital history and made available to the public.

Members of the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado are in year two of a five-year project to digitally preserve records of the state’s blind community — before the documents deteriorate or are lost.

Most importantly, project leaders said, the history will finally be accessible to the very community it’s written about.

“This is a really big project, and this is important because blind people’s history is not being told,” said Peggy Chong, who is leading the archival effort. “By and large, we don’t learn about our own history.”

Both the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado and the Colorado Center for the Blind are based in Littleton.

Chong, an Aurora resident, has been a member of the national organization for 50 years, joining at age 14 because her mother and three sisters were blind, she said.

She moved to Colorado two years ago and quickly set to work learning the local organization’s history, cataloging artifacts and taking on the archival project.

There are a variety of documents and artifacts waiting to be digitized, Chong said.

Meeting minutes dating back to the early 1900s are hand-written. Documents exist in several versions of braille and need transcribing. Old newspaper clips are fading. Some records were damaged by a basement flood at the center, or simply old age.

Chong’s main goal is to make this history available to the blind community in Colorado, she said, but she also aims to better inform the community at large. The organization will make the digital archive available to libraries and universities once it’s complete.

Then maybe, Chong said, creators in entertainment like screenwriters or playwrights will be inspired by characters that don’t fit tropes about the blind. She envisions stories about the blind legislators making a difference in their states, or blind entrepreneurs opening their own businesses.

Scott LaBarre, president of National Federation of the Blind of Colorado since 2005, said Colorado is lucky to have Chong.

She has become known as “the blind history lady” for her efforts preserving history about the blind, said LaBarre, who is blind and lives in Centennial.

“I think it’s critical that we understand where we came from as a population, as a community,” LaBarre said. “It gives us a lot of information about how much we’ve accomplished and how much more we have yet to accomplish. So, I think it’s a very important project.”

LaBarre said he’s most eager to see the early part of his organization’s history clearly laid out, which he described as the dawn of a “growing movement of blind people taking matters into their own hands.”

LaBarre, a lawyer who runs his own Denver law firm, said the public can learn about the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado’s roots, how they organized and advocated for blind residents in the state.

“For a long time and all throughout our country’s history and much of the world’s history, there have always been organizations for the blind,” he said. “But they weren’t the blind representing themselves and determining for themselves what the future would be.”

Julie Deden, director of the Colorado Center for the Blind, said the finished digital archive will show how far blind Coloradans have come. Deden grew up in modern day Centennial and was born blind. She has served as the center’s director for 22 years.

“When we have access to our own history, it gives us the opportunity and I guess the impetus to look at, where do we come from, and where do we want to go from here,” she said.

Having history available to them also gives blind community members “a newfound reverence” for the pioneers who helped create organizations like the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado, she said, or advocate for the community’s needs.

The project’s next step will be finding dozens of volunteers to help transcribe documents that do not scan well, she said.

Time is ticking. Chong said records about the blind are disappearing across the country.

As schools for the blind have closed in various states, the facilities’ records were often discarded or lost. When blind individuals pass on, their families sometimes toss items like diaries or records written in braille, because no one can read them.

In Colorado, Chong wants to stop that from happening.

“Our history is not important enough for storage. It’s not important enough to spend precious archiving money on. It’s up to us to do that,” Chong said. “It’s important that we preserve it and we do it before it’s destroyed or lost to the wind.”

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