The NYPL creates the largest audio archive of persons living with disabilities



Visible Lives program director Alexandra Kelly (far right) with volunteers.  Photo: Courtesy NYPL.j

On September 26, eleven New Yorkers gathered at the Andrew Heiskell Braille & Talking Book Library, located at 40 West 20th St., for a meeting about a special oral history project that chronicles the lives of persons living with disabilities in New York City.

Alexandra Kelly, the New York Public Library’s Outreach Services and Programming director, launched Visible Lives a year ago, a collection of audio interviews available on the library’s website. These stories are the nation’s largest archive of oral histories about persons living with disabilities. Kelly welcomed new volunteers at the meeting to kick off the continuation of the project that will run through March.

According to the American Community Survey, 10.3 percent of people in Manhattan are living with disabilities, which amounts to 164,780 people. Of that total, two percent have a visual impairment, two percent are hearing impaired, 6.8 percent are ambulatory impaired, and four percent are cognitively impaired.

“There is so little history of this [disabled community]—often times it is an invisible history,” said Kelly. “There is a gap there that needs to be filled. There are so many New Yorkers looking to share their stories.”

Visible Lives is an offshoot of the NYPL’s Oral Histories project, another archive conceived of and headed by Kelly. Visible Lives itself has collected 155 interviews thus far, ranging in length from 30 minutes to an hour or more with accompanying transcripts.

Ed Plumacher of Long Island has volunteered for the project since it began and, like many of the volunteers, is visually impaired. He is the director of vision services for Apex Rehab Management, a nonprofit that helps persons with disabilities adjust and connect to resources in New York City. One of the main reasons he was drawn to the project was the chance to have others listen to the daily struggles and successes of people living with disabilities.

“We hear about all the famous people who are blind that, you know, swim the English Channel or climb Mount Everest. But this project deals with the silent majority, the day-to-day people who are dealing with blindness,” he said. “They are full of culture and life and family issues and heaviness and sadness, and that’s just life in general.”

Plumacher said he wants others in the visually impaired community to know there’s a wealth of resources available, like the Andrew Heiskill Braille Library.

“It’s very accessible, very accommodating,” he added. Plumacher said Kelly listens to all the interviews and puts them online for anyone to access. “I’ve listened to stories of people who I’ve known for so long, but I learn things from those interviews that I never knew about them before.”

Nancy Miller, Executive Director or VISIONS/Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired, a care facility on West 23 Street, said the project is not only a great opportunity for persons with disabilities to tell their stories, but it can help “promote independence for blind people of all ages.”

The project has been lucky finding new volunteers. Heather Marshall, an educator and member of the NYC chapter of the Foundation for Fighting Blindness Organization, became a volunteer at the meeting.

When Marshall was 12 years old, she was diagnosed with Stargardt disease, which causes degenerative partial blindness. She believes this project highlights a community long ignored.

“I’ve felt like people with disabilities have been dehumanized,” said Marshall. “By telling our stories I think it combats that, it helps people see us as humans.”

“There is value to our lives,” she added, “the way we see the world there is value in that, and there is something to be learned from our experience. There is value in recording this, so that it can be seen, can be heard, can be evidenced.”

Kelly plans to create a model for similar projects to be replicated in other cities across the country.