Celebrating 35 years, Horizons for the Blind – with the leadership of Camille Caffarelli – fosters high-quality, independent and enriched lives for blind and visually impaired people nationwide from its Crystal Lake headquarters.
Horizons for the Blind: Broadening Their Horizons
What kind of world would you want to live in if you were blind? One of dependence? One void of cultural experiences? One lacking privacy? Not likely.
Blind since birth, Camille Caffarelli, founder and executive director of Crystal Lake’s Horizons for the Blind, has believed as long as she can remember that she deserves to experience things sighted people enjoy.
A defining moment for her was when as a toddler visiting the zoo, she was unable to experience the animals. She desperately wanted to touch them. How else would she know they were there? “I knew there had to be a better way,” she said.
“I believe that blind and visually impaired people can do just about anything people can do who can see,” she added. “We develop alternate techniques to execute these tasks, but the bottom line is that they do get done. Besides, there isn’t anyone – including sighted people – who can do everything. There is this misconception that blind people have one of the most severe disabilities, and it’s that misconception which creates the biggest problem in being blind.”
In the ’70s, at 27 years old, suddenly widowed with three children and uninterested in traditional jobs for the blind, Caffarelli decided to blaze her own trail in advocating for the blind and visually impaired.
Kids 4, 8 and 9 years old in tow, the Chicago native began by pitching Braille, large-print and tactile exhibits, maps and signage for the blind to cultural institutions in the city such as the gardens, zoos and museums. “I’ve always appreciated cultural institutions and found that many of them were not accessible for people who are blind, so I believed there was a need, and still is, to change that,” she said.
Bolstered by the success of her partnerships with Chicago institutions, and after working as a writer, lecturer and project officer, she founded Horizons for the Blind in 1977 with the mission to improve the quality of life for people who are blind or visually impaired through consumer products and services, the cultural arts, education and recreation.
Today, the nonprofit operates out of a new, state-of-the-art location in Crystal Lake with a staff of 50 people.
Most of us are familiar with the colloquialism “blind leading the blind” and its negative connotation. But think about it for a moment – who better understands the needs of visually impaired and blind people than people who share their experiences?
That’s exactly why half of Horizon’s staff is visually impaired or blind. They are charged with producing and proofing bills and books on topics including crafts, cooking and gardening. in Braille and large print. In a real sense, they are “leading” their peers to an independent, high-quality life – that’s a positive thing.
Horizons produces more than 3,000 billing statements each month to enable blind or visually impaired people nationwide to independently read their bills. It’s about quality control, Caffarelli said. “The bills have to be perfect,” she said.
In addition to billing, Horizons produces more than 200 books on crafts, cooking, gardening and other subjects in Braille and large print. It has created more than 1,000 tactile pictures, as well. A small store within the facility sells everything from bakeware to books. A library is full of books, medical displays, dolls from around the world with descriptions in Braille and more.
Other services through Horizons include Weekenders groups, which give blind, visually impaired and sighted people an opportunity to have fun and explore activities together. In February, the group held a Weekender at Second City Comedy Club in Chicago.
“That interaction is the best way for people to enjoy themselves and to bridge the gap,” Caffarelli said.
Directions for Me
Horizons for the Blind’s Directions for Me (www.directionsforme.org) has taken independence, convenience and product safety for blind and visually impaired people to a whole new level.
The free online service allows anyone to look up an item to find out how to prepare it and learn about the ingredients and warnings – in short, anything that’s on the package. Medical information is essential for people to understand and many medications, prescription and non-prescription, are included in Directions for Me. Millions have visited the site since its launce in 2012.
“So now, if I want to bake a Betty Crocker-brand angel food cake, I can look up it on directionsforme.org and get all directions and other pertinent information, and not have to ask anyone to read it to me,” Caffarelli said. “This service is excellent not only for people who are blind, but also for those who are losing their sight and find print to be too small. It’s definitely impacting people all over the United States and Canada – and it all started here in Crystal Lake.”
About 10 years ago, Caffarelli presented to Rotary Club of Crystal Lake Dawnbreakers, which is part of Rotary International, the largest humanitarian service organization in the world. She introduced them to Horizon’s products and services, and discussed the ongoing needs of the organization.
“We learned about all of the amazing things Horizons does for the blind and visually impaired nationwide,” said Karen Hutchings, youth exchange officer for the Rotary.
Horizons was able to arrange a great deal on two Braille embossers ("bursters"), which render text as tactile Braille cells. The Rotary Club of Crystal Lake Dawnbreakers donated funds to purchase the burster equipment.
Horizons is grateful for the Rotary’s continued support and invites others to get involved. Horizons particularly needs donations to promote, update and increase the capacity of Directions for Me. Volunteers are needed for the store, tactile art and audio programs.
>> For more, call 815-444-8800 or visit www.horizons-blind.org.
Sidebar: About Camille Caffarelli
Before founding Horizons for the Blind in 1977, Camille Caffarelli worked with numerous organizations to promote accessibility for the blind and visually impaired, providing Braille and large-print educational materials to the Chicago Botanic Gardens, Brookfield Zoo, Field Museum, Smithsonian Institution, NASA and Hyatt Hotels.
She has been honored by numerous groups such as Lions Clubs International, Chicago Jaycees and City of Chicago Honor Roll of Handicapped Chicagoans, and the recipient of the Impressa Award from the Women's Division of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans.
Prior to her founding of Horizons for the Blind, Ms. Caffarelli was a writer for Dialogue Magazine, a lecturer at the Art Institute of Chicago and a project officer for the State of Illinois Department of Rehabilitation Services, Division of Independent Living. The Lake in the Hills resident currently serves as a member of the Braille Authority of North America and a member of the Illinois Braille and Talking Book Advisory Committee.