Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Living as a Blind Person in 1889, a guest post by Edith Maxwell

Julia Spencer-Fleming: It's no secret that I love historical mysteries (and historical fiction in general) and it's been a great delight to dig into our own Edith Maxwell's Quaker Midwife books. Now, one of the several things that keep me from trying my hand at the genre is laziness - getting history right takes a lot of work. And it's not all reading documents in libraries and archives - today Edith tells us about the sort of real-life research necessary to create, not just n authentic historical world, but authentic characters.




Living as a Blind Person in 1889

Thanks for having me back on the Reds, Julia! I’m happy to send a copy of Judge Thee Not to one commenter here today.

In my latest Quaker MidwifeMystery, I wanted to include a blind character (and I love that Leslie Karst’s recent post on Jungle Reds addressed the same topic). I have a good friend here in Amesbury who has been blind her entire life. Jeanne Papka Smith raised two children, recently retired from a full-time career as a social worker, plays fiddle and guitar beautifully, and is a fellow Quaker and international traveler with whom I not only share a natal state (California) but a birthday!


Jeanne was the model for Jeanette Papka in Judge Thee Not. In this book, the fifth in the series, Jeanette is pregnant with her second child, so midwife Rose is watching over her pregnancy. Jeanette is trilingual and interprets French and Polish in the courts. Her parents had sent her to the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston, and she is well educated.


Besides Helen Keller, the only real blind person from the late nineteenth century I knew of was Mary Ingalls, the oldest sister of Laura. And what I knew came from reading children’s books. So I set myself to learning about the past, as we historical novelists do.

I was able to find Mary Ingalls: the College Years by Marie Tschopp, an account of Mary’s school years and picked up a few good tidbits. I also read a reproduction of The World as I Hear It by Lansing V. Hall, published in 1878. From these books and elsewhere I learned that the blind and deaf were generally considered morons in that period.

My main historical research source was a field trip I made to the Perkins School, which is still operating today. A wonderful research librarian let me into the files. She gave me a tour of the museum. She sent me home with Braille samples and so much more.

Check out how kids learned the shapes of countries and states. They could feel life-sized relief amphibians.


 
I noticed how they used different kinds of tiles in the floor to mark out pathways.

The librarian said the genders were segregated as teenagers. Boy scouts were brought in to socialize with the girls, and girl scouts with the boys. Despite Perkins being an enlightened school devoted to educating the blind, the thinking was that the students shouldn’t be allowed to fall in love with each other because they then might intermarry and, heaven forbid, reproduce. She also said that of course the kids found ways to get around the segregation, making holes in the cafeteria dividing wall, for example, so they could talk and touch.

I also learned that American braille lagged behind French braille. By 1889 not that many books were yet published in American braille, so I put a scene in my book where Jeanette is sitting outside reading Jane Austen in French.
Photo by antonioxalonso, Wikimedia Commons

Modern-day Jeanne kindly read (well, listened to) my manuscript twice over before I submitted it. She set me straight in several spots, one being where Rose had commented that of naturally the blind have better hearing. Jeanne told me, “No, our hearing isn’t any better than anyone else’s. But we don’t have sight to distract us from listening.” Off I went to fix the passage, with 1889 Jeannette correcting Rose.

In my story, because of the prevailing beliefs, people around town and in court say things in Jeanette’s hearing that they wouldn’t otherwise in public. They don’t think she can make sense of them. She gladly relays important bits of information about the murder to Rose. Rose’s lesbian pal Bertie is also subject to a great deal of judgment. Justice-minded Rose stands up for both her friends.

I loved writing this book, as I do all the Quaker Midwife mysteries, and bringing the past to life for readers.

Readers: what have you learned from differently-abled people you have known or admired from a distance? One lucky commentor will win a copy of JUDGE THEE NOT!

No stranger to judgmental attitudes in her small town, 1880s Quaker midwife Rose Carroll is nonetheless stunned when society matron Mayme Settle publicly snubs Rose’s good friend Bertie for her nontraditional ways. When Mrs. Settle is later found murdered—and a supposed witness insists Bertie was spotted near the scene of the crime—the police blame her. Rose is certain her friend is innocent, and she enlists the help of a blind pregnant client—who’s endured her own share of prejudice—to help her sift through the clues. As the two uncover a slew of suspects tied to financial intrigues, illicit love, and an age-old grudge over perceived wrongs, circumstantial evidence looms large in small minds, and Rose fears her friend will soon become the victim of a grave injustice—or worse. 

EdithMaxwell writes the Quaker Midwife Mysteries and award-winning short crime fiction. As Maddie Day she writes the Country Store Mysteries and the Cozy Capers Book Group Mysteries. Maxwell, with nineteen novels in print and four more completed, has been nominated for an Agatha Award six times. She lives north of Boston with her beau and an elderly cat, and gardens and cooks when she isn’t killing people on the page or wasting time on Facebook. Please find her at edithmaxwell.com, on Instagram, and at the Wicked Authors blog.

72 comments:

  1. It’s sad that, historically, in addition to being blind, people were considered to be mentally disabled as well. It’s rather difficult to understand that attitude. The tenacity and courage of differently-disabled people is particularly inspiring . . . .

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  2. A new Edith Maxwell book is always cause for it being a great day of book celebration!

    When I was in my teens (I think, I may have been a little older), my mother and sister took a sign language class. They ended up becoming friends with the instructor named Paul. He ended up as a family friend and would visit every so often. I never took up sign language myself (other than the one sign known the world over that we probably all learned as children) but he was a nice enough guy. I guess what I might've learned (even though I essentially already knew this) was that besides his impaired hearing, he was pretty much the same as anyone else.

    Oh, and he was a cousin to a guy who appeared in the first Rocky movie!

    Edith, I can't wait to get my hands on the new book and hope that there will be a signing event nearby that I can attend because as Hank says, "A signed book makes a great gift!"

    And I always like to give myself a literary gift whenever possible!

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  3. My grandfather, blinded by cataracts, encouraged us to read aloud to him or tell him stories about our schoolwork and daily life. He marked our growth with our hugs. He could sit in my car and tell me exactly what he heard and how to fix it. He was amazing! My cousin, born hearing-impaired, taught us patience in our communications. I believe both taught us early on in our childhood to treat everyone the same.

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  4. "From these books and elsewhere I learned that the blind and deaf were generally considered morons in that period." Sadly true. I like your twist that makes Jeanette a blind Miss Marple! Did Jeanne like that?

    I have a severe hearing loss. When I was growing up there were only two role models: Helen Keller and Thomas Edison. Helen taught me that anything is possible and Thomas taught me that you can still be brilliant even though people might think you are not. No one ever thought me stupid but I was bullied but throughout childhood by other kids because I was different. That's probably why I spent so much time reading, so it turned to be a positive thing in the long run. :)

    "Jeanne told me, 'No, our hearing isn’t any better than anyone else’s. But we don’t have sight to distract us from listening.'” I am the opposite because I rely on lipreading. I must be pretty good at it because sometimes people still tell me they had no idea I have such a severe hearing loss. Whatever the disability, we learn to adapt because we have to choice.

    I wish I could meet Jeanne and tell her how much reading about her today has inspired me! Thank you, Edith.

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    1. Yes, I think Jeanne did like that aspect. I'll tell her to drop by and read the comments, Cathy! I have a slight hearing loss. I was talking with a man at a party a couple of years ago, who turned out to be an audiologist. He said, "You're really tracking my mouth," or something to that effect. I realized he was right - I don't hear as well if I can't see someone's mouth. Drives me nuts when people talk with a hand over their mouth.

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    2. And beards! Heaven spare me from dropping mustaches and beards.. worse than mumbling or looking down.

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  5. Recently I looked into the Gallaudet family's history. The original student body of what has become Gallaudet University was composed of deaf and blind children. Schools in other countries focused on veterans blinded in war. The educational needs are quite different, as learning braille or sign language later in life is challenging. Technology has made an immense difference. It had me wondering whether your book will be available in audio form.

    Best wishes for its success.

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    1. Thanks so much, Liz. We are working on a sale to audio - fingers crossed! I know technology has made a big difference to Jeanne - for good and bad. Touch screens are impossible to use.

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  6. Congratulations Edith--sounds like a wonderful story and weren't you lucky to have Jeanne backing you up! I would never have thought about touch screens...

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  7. This must have been fascinating to research and write!

    Back in early 1990's I worked with a man whose wife was blind from birth. They met in college, married, and were raising a family at the time. He used to tell the best stories about life at their house -- because it was obvious they all dealt with her difference with great humor. One of my favorites was that, in order to limit the children's TV viewing time, they owned only a portable tv that normally was kept in a closet. Recognizing that "must-see TV" was a part of their children's social landscape, he said that if the kids asked to watch a specific show, they would usually allow it. It was the next part that I remember so fondly, though: "Oh, we might get distracted temporarily and the TV might sit out with them mindlessly watching another show or two. But sooner or later, Pat is going to bump into the damned thing, and that reminds us that it doesn't belong there, so we put it away."

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  8. Seedlings Braille Books for Children is great organization that allows children the opportunity to obtain books in Braille. I love donating! All children should have the access to books! I admire anyone who can read in Braille, what an awesome ability!

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  9. I spent a lot of time in a children's hospital as an adolescent, and I really learned to look past differences in a way I probably would not have otherwise.
    browninggloria(at)hotmail(dot)com

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    1. A silver lining to what much have been a hard time for you, Gloria.

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  10. I had been thinking about Mary Ingalls, too, and didn't realize that more was written about her. I'll have to look into that. You are really expanding our world with your characters - I can't wait to read the next episode with Rose. Does she get married in this book or would that be telling?

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    1. No spoilers, Judi, LOL! But thanks and I hope you love the book.

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  11. Congratulations, Edith! It's always amazing what you learn when you are willing to listen with compassion.

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  12. Oh, this is so thought-provoking. And congratulations on your new book! You are quite amazing. I am completely fascinated by braille. I find it astonishing that anyone could read it… And it makes me realize the skills we don’t tap into until we need to, and how powerful that is.

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    1. Thanks, Hank. And so true! I remember when I had to teach myself to use the mouse with my left hand because of a flared up joint in my right hand. At the time I had to draw lines with it for my work and thought I'd never be able to do it - but I was!

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  13. So interesting, Edith - and congratulations on the new book!
    One of my closest friend's mother was deaf from birth, and her stories of how she was sent away from home to be educated are fascinating and heartbreaking. Fortunately that no longer happens. And one of my best friends from college and roommate for two years had had polio and was confined to a wheelchair. I learned a LOT about why it's important for buildings and streets and transportation to be handicap accessible, and also how easy it is to marginalize someone who is different.

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  14. Thanks, Hallie. So true. My mother's cousin was in a wheelchair (and slept in an iron lung) from polio. She was one of the first pioneers for curb cuts and accessibility in California decades ago. Now one of our congregation is in a wheelchair and is a disability rights advocate and consultant for the boy scouts nationally. Whenever I see abuse of handicapped parking spaces, I at least point it out to the business owners.

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  15. Growing up in a metropolitan area, I had many opportunities to get to know people with disabilities.
    I learned so many things. Did you know, for example, that most pills have a different scent as well as a different shape/color to help people distinguish them?
    My mother, who had mobility issues beginning in her late 40's, was able to keep active through a discipline that included swimming, yoga and daily walks. She taught me persistence.

    In my own case, I find my lip reading suffers when someone is wearing sun glasses. The eyes are cues to the nuance of feelings something I don't always hear in speech these days.

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  16. Good point about the shades, Coralee. I had no idea about the scent of pills. Good for your mom!

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  17. One of my students told the school newspaper interviewer that he did NOT wish he had eyesight, because he liked who he is and didn't need to change it. He was planning on a career in international finance, using his facility with languages. His computer could read to him or elevate little metal pins to give the Braille format of the words. Fascinating technology!
    I had my eye exam yesterday, and Dr. Elliot asked for book club suggestions -- of course I suggested JUDGE THEE NOT. I just posted the review to Amazon, since they are so fussy about waiting for pub. dates. Brava for a very good book! <3

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    1. Aww, thanks so much, Mary! Your student sounds awesome.

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  18. I really enjoyed Jeanette in the book. It is always interesting to learn about how others live.

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  19. Edith, thank you for the reminder about your series. I loved the first book, Delivering the Truth, but, for some reason, forgot to keep going. I will definitely seek this book out, as your blog post caught my attention immediately. I see that you are from California--do you ever do public appearances in Northern California (I'm in San Jose)? I'd love to hear you speak.

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    1. Thanks, Margie. I will be out there a year from now in October - would love to arrange a gig in your area!

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  20. This novel would be a treasure since it is memorable and emotional. Your writing has brought me great enjoyment and given me much to think about.

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    1. I appreciate that so much and am glad I could bring you joy - and food for thought.

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  21. Edith, your research is fascinating, and the photos are terrific. I love this series--can't wait to read the new book!

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  22. I have known two blind folks reasonably well. When one asked me to describe appearance of a mutual acquaintance she was starting to date, I realized how much visual sense affected our perceptions. She had lost vision as a teen/young adult. They later married. Then there was a guy blind from birth (well from over oxygenated incubator right after birth) I know in college. We were in a group that shared many nights driniking wine and playing hearts with brailled cards. Sometimes we would forget and let him deal- he was ruthless about taking the advantage and memorizing every card he dealt. We did not forget again for a while.

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    1. Ha - I did not know about Braille cards, Helen! But of course...

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    2. Helen, you are the winner of the copy of Judge Thee Not! Please email me at edith@edithmaxwell.com. Congratulations!

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  23. Edith, this is fascinating! I am in awe of your ability to tackle history and portray characters with struggles that at the time would have been so much more challenging than today and add in a mystery. Brilliant!

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  25. What a great topic for discussion. I recently worked on a series of videos for Boston Medical Center aimed at educating doctors about their patients with ASD (autism spectrum disorder). It was fascinating to hear from patients and their families about some of the common misconceptions. One of the doctors made clear that there are two parts of language: receptive and expressive. Even folks who are non-verbal can often understand what is being said to them and should be included in the conversation accordingly.

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    1. I know about the language part of that, Robin, from my long-dusty background in linguistics. It's always good when we can expand our horizons, isn't it?

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    2. Ooohhh, yeah!
      And add to that that just because someone doesn't talk does not mean she can't.

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  26. I could go on at length about things I learned from my daughter, who is twice exceptional (auristic and gifted) and thus fits neatly into into few boxes. But what sticks in my mind most is an educational assessment done at our local children's hospital when she was eight.


    The Occupational Therapist working with her commented "H holds it together throughout the school day despite her disability. But at what cost?"

    "But at what cost" stuck with me and made me realise that just because it had been a "good day" doesn't mean it wasn't taking its toll, wasn't exhausting. And that extrapolated to everyone, not just very bright little autistic girls.

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  27. That is an insightful comment that we hearing people tend to be distracted from really listening. How true!

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  28. I am in such awe of blind people who navigate their world with seeming ease and success. The things that many blind people achieve put many sighted people to shame. Of course, I'm always amazed at those who don't let their disabilities stop them from living their dreams and being successful. I hang my head in embarrassment at the petty complaints and excuses I use to defer a goal. While I so respect the blind in their achievements, I fear that I may one day have to suffer the disability. My mother had macular degeneration, and it's something that hangs over my head as a daunting prospect. I'm such a visual learner and reader. It would be an enormous adjustment, and, yet, I see people making it with an approach of bravery and determination. I do have an ophthalmologist who keeps a yearly check on my eyes.

    Edith, your research and the result of it brings readers such wonderful stories in all you write. This Quaker Midwife series is so interesting. Rose is a great character. I'm behind in the series, as I'm behind in so much these days, but I may have to skip ahead and read this new one and then go back. Congratulations on the new book.

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  29. I am in similar awe, Kathy, and I know if you have to face a diminution of your sight you will do so with grace and persistence.

    Thank you for your kind words about my writing!

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  30. Congratulations Edith on your latest book! When I attended the U. of Texas in Austin I was in awe of the blind students who I saw daily, striding confidently across campus. Absolutely in awe. One of our friends is legally blind. She runs marathons, travels, operates several businesses and is in constant motion. She is something else!

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  31. I'm really looking forward to this book! Haven't known a lot of blind people, but we have lots of deafness in the family. My cousin who's deaf (because her mother caught the measles during the pregnancy) married a deaf man and raised three wonderful accomplished hearing children who grew up bilingual in English and ASL.

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  32. I've been trying all day to comment, but it's been busy here!

    When I was a kid I had terrible, and rapidly deteriorating, eyesight. Blindness was one of my most morbid terrors, so I was grimly determined to be prepared in case things kept going the way it seemed they were. Heidi's blind grandfather, and the Rudyard Kipling character who became blind from reading in dim light and licking lead painted objects (dumb kid) gave me clues about how I might adapt if the worst scenario came to pass.

    Then my sight leveled out, although it was still really bad (20/1100 in one eye; 20/950 with astigmatism in the other). Thank goodness for LASIK surgery that corrected it to 20/25 in both eyes.

    My book club, which I've mentioned before, had at one point two blind members. The younger of the two was Deborah Kendrick, who wrote a column in the Cincinnati Enquirer for several years on various types of in-abilities, including blindness. Deborah was very generous in sharing her own experiences, and since she was not born blind, she could remember some things, like colors, from before she lost her sight in middle school.

    Deborah was amazing. She had two daughters, and she sewed their clothing, and her own, when they were growing up. She made her own wedding gown! I wish I'd known her when I was a worried kid, fearful of losing that precious ability to see.

    It's heartening to see how much has been developed so that the blind can maneuver more gracefully through life. Computers, in particular, are such a boon, including the tiny ones we call cell phones. And the aids for the hearing impaired are equally astonishing. When I taught sewing in the 90's I had a student whose mother and father were both born deaf. Laurie and her brother had no hearing loss, and they helped their parents a lot, but their entire house was set up so that the alarm clocks, the doorbells, and the telephones were rigged to lights that flashed to alert them. The clunky phone relay situation of the time--where a third party would translate from text to speech and back--has been replaced by so many far more elegant systems of communication.

    It would be a far different world in Rose's time, for sure.

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    1. That must have been so scary, Karen. I'm glad it leveled out - and Lasik! I've always been impressed by what my friend Jeanne has done. I recently saw a picture of her and a friend on Jeanne's tandem bike when she was a teenager.

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  33. What an interesting topic to tackle in that time period. Being blind has to be challenging now, much less in the 1880's. I have a friend who was legally blind and I always admired how she was as always so perfectly put together and beautifully dressed. When I first met her I had no idea she was legally blind. She went to The Chicago Lighthouse For The Blind when she first lost her sight and it helped her adapt.

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  34. My mom went blind with her last brain tumor. (She previously had 2 benign brain tumors before dying of a malignant brain tumor at age 45, leaving behind twin 23 y o daughters, and two younger ones 17 and 18–I was 18.) I learned patience and not to feel sorry for oneself. She accepted her illnesses with grace, and she worked hard to do all she could, but accepted help when necessary.

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    1. That must have been so very hard for all of you, Kara.

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  35. Forgot: legallyblonde1961@yahoo.com

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  36. Edith, welcome to Jungle Reds! I just finished your Quaker midwife mystery CHARITY'S BURDEN today. I borrowed the library copy of the book, which is New at the library. What Jeanne said about sight and hearing resonated with me. I remember someone asked me if my deafness made me better at seeing. I think Jeanne said it very well. I think because I could not hear, the sounds did Not distract me from noticing things. Deaf people often notice things that hearing people overlook. Whether the deaf person grows up mouth speaking like hearing people or speaking with their hands, both groups rely on visuality more than hearing. Sometimes hearing aid works for a deaf person, depending on the degree of hearing loss or the type of hearing loss. My hearing loss was due to nerve damage from a high fever (meningitis). The cochlear implants helped a lot and I could tell the difference between the sounds. Yet I did not get the CI until I was an adult.

    And Helen Keller was also Deaf. I remember reading about Helen Keller when I was about seven years old. I remember that she was also blind. I focused on her deafness since I also was deaf. Her teacher, Annie Sullivan, went to Perkins School.

    Diana

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    1. I'm sure there is much you notice that people with hearing don't, Diana.

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    2. Edith, thank you. I remember when I was a kid, my Dad created a globe out of leather and designed the globe for blind people so they could locate the continents with their fingers.

      Diana

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  37. Definitely yes! I am an elementary school special education teacher! lindaherold999(at)gmail(dot)com

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  38. Helen D is the winner of the copy of Judge Thee Not! Helen, please email me at edith@edithmaxwell.com. Congratulations, and thanks to everyone for sharing your experiences. I wish I had a copy for each of you!

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    1. Congratualtions to Helen D., to Edith for her wonderful book, and Edith, you do have a copy for everyone -- it's for sale! (Just had to add that)

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