by Bill Winter
Reprinted with permission from the Fall 2014 issue of “Perkins Perspectives.”
When Kim Charlson was elected as the American Council of the Blind’s first woman president, she thought back to the lifetime of advocacy that led to that historic day.
One memory stood out. It’s something that happened in a sandbox when she was just 5 years old. She was playing with her friends — and growing increasingly annoyed about the cigarette butts and other debris that littered the area.
A typical 5-year-old might have simply found another place to play. Not Charlson. She organized a protest.
“The sandbox was dirty and we didn’t like it anymore,” Charlson recalled. “So I said, ‘Let’s all go to the school principal!’ I organized all the kids, and we walked in en masse. I was the spokesperson, and I said we had come to talk to him about cleaning up the sandbox.”
Her strategy worked. “The principal said they would take care of it. And they did!” she said. “So that was my first advocacy.”
But certainly not her last. In July 2013, Charlson, the director of the Perkins Library, was elected to lead the American Council of the Blind, one of the largest blindness advocacy organizations in the United States.
The ACB has more than 70 affiliate organizations around the country. It engages in legislative lobbying and public awareness campaigns to improve the quality of life for people who are visually impaired.
“We address issues like employment, access to technology, transportation, education — all those different parts of our society,” Charlson said. “We’re trying to make them accessible, so people who are blind and visually impaired can reach their potential.”
It’s a cause that has motivated her for most of her life.
Charlson was born with vision but started losing it at age 11 from complications of glaucoma. By her twenties she was completely blind. She responded by becoming active in blindness advocacy. In college, she founded a statewide group for blind students. At age 23, she became the youngest president of the ACB’s Oregon state affiliate.
Around the same time, Charlson discovered her other passion: accessible libraries. She took a job at the braille and talking book library in Oregon, and later earned a master’s degree in library science.
“Traditionally, library science had been a very print-oriented field because you’re dealing with cards in a card catalog, books, magazines — everything was print,” she said. “I just happened to go into it at the beginning of the transition away from papers to computers.”
Degree in hand, she moved across the country to Massachusetts and took her current position at the Perkins Library. As director, she oversees a broad range of accessible library services, including supplying braille and audio books to 27,000 people who are blind or have another reading disability.
Charlson also threw herself into advocacy again. She became a key player in the campaign to make ATMs and currency accessible to people with visual impairments, and lobbied Hollywood to provide audio descriptions for television shows and movies.
She remained active in the American Council of the Blind, becoming president of its Bay State Council of the Blind affiliate, and then vice president of the national organization.
Then, as now, she does her work with a variety of accessibility tools, including her guide dog, her braille notetaker, her iPhone and her computer that translates text into speech.
“There are just so many great adaptive products, techniques and strategies to make the life of a person who’s blind very independent,” she said.
Her unanimous election in 2013 as ACB’s first woman president attracted attention from around the world — and made her realize how many people that milestone had inspired.
“I got hundreds of e-mails from people all over the country and internationally congratulating me, and saying how excited they were,” she said. “A lot of people were really happy to see that barrier come down.”
Charlson has an ambitious agenda as ACB president. She wants to improve educational opportunities for children with visual impairments, ensure access to popular technology and web sites like Facebook, and figure out how to reduce the 75 percent unemployment rate for people who are blind.
Being president also gives Charlson a chance to talk publicly about empowering people who are blind, as she did in a recent interview on WMJX radio in Boston.
Asked if she feels like a trailblazer, Charlson gave a thoughtful answer, one that has evolved through a lifetime of standing up for her rights — whether in a sandbox or on the national stage.
“I like to think that I’m enabling others to follow along on the trail that I clear for them,” she said. “Everybody has the ability to contribute in some meaningful way, and it’s really one of my driving missions to make sure they have those opportunities available to them.”