When I first started at the Xavier Society for the Blind almost five years ago, one of my fellow Jesuits said, “John, this is a great job for you. You have a terrific voice, and they won’t have to look at you!” Another Jesuit asked what my plans were, and without thinking seriously about the answer, I said, “The organization is not going to go down on my watch.” At the time, it was a flip answer; in the last year, it has become very serious. Our building on East 23rd Street in New York City is for sale; we have closed one of our service areas, and we are restructuring another. During the last year, I have had to tell nine people that they were no longer employed. The reasons for these moves were partly economic, and partly the realization that we needed to adapt to the changing audience and the changing technologies that serve the blind.
The Xavier Society for the Blind was founded in 1900, by a group of women who wanted to provide help to the blind community. In those days, that meant publishing, and in the intervening years the Society tried to adapt the way it provided its services as new technologies emerged: Braille in place of New York Point raised type, large print typewriters, records and reel-to-reel tape recorders, cassette recorders and, most recently, digital recordings. We provide our services without charge, to non-Catholics as well as Catholics, and to the wide audience that can be classified as “print impaired,” which includes, but is not necessarily limited to, those who are blind.
As we all know, technology has been changing rapidly, and the advances that have been made in the last 20 years equal and in some areas surpass the advancements of the previous 80. Older people tend to be resistant to change, and younger people often embrace it enthusiastically. It is a challenge to find ways to serve both audiences. If we adopt every new device that comes down the road, we lose our older clients. With regard to our younger clients, to modify the famous baseball movie line, “If we do not build it, they will most certainly not come.”
We have taken steps to make the organization better known and to appeal to a younger audience. Since I came on board, we launched our first website, added several e-mail accounts and we started to appear on social media. We hosted a series of events to increase our visibility, we did a mailing to every single parish in the United States, and we started an e-newsletter. We launched a program to reach out to veterans and reorganized some staff responsibilities. I expanded the board of directors with new members from a wider range of occupations and experiences.
At the same time that we need to balance using emerging technologies with the best ways to serve our clients, we also have to pay our bills. Technology is not the only thing that has been changing. The return on our portfolio has diminished, as have contributions from individuals and organizations. Many nonprofit organizations face the same problems that we do. Many of our clients are on fixed incomes, and were we to charge even a nominal amount for our services, we would lose so many clients that we would still not be able to pay our bills. As the board looked realistically at our situation, we did not see that changing in the immediate future.
After almost a year of study and reflection, we came to several conclusions. We need to focus on what is most important, and Braille continues to be of crucial importance to the blind. Today, in addition to being printed on paper, Braille can be delivered to refreshable display units, so instead of carrying huge books around, a blind person only has to carry an electronic unit the size of a medium-length novel. There are many avenues for obtaining large print and audio; there are very few for getting material in Braille. Our primary focus will thus continue to be Braille, while we’ll maintain a secondary focus on audio services.
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We also know that the future is hard to predict, and circumstances change quickly; we need to be able to react and to respond just as quickly. The decision to sell our building was based both on having a smaller staff and the need for financial underpinning for future projects. The money from the sale of the building will enable us to be much more flexible in the future in terms of how we provide these services to our clients, and it will let us interact and cooperate with other organizations in ways that were not possible before.
I can say with absolute assurance that the Xavier Society for the Blind is going to continue. Recently, someone asked what I thought we might look like in five or ten years. I answered that I had absolutely no idea, and that is precisely why we are doing what we are doing now. We do not know what the future will bring, and we cannot predict what we might need to be doing in the future. We do want to be absolutely sure that we will be here to do it, and so we are changing our focus and making ourselves more flexible. At the same time, we are reminding ourselves that the people we serve today are more important than the place where we work or past traditions that we may have created.
We do not want to abandon our past, but neither can we let it dictate our future. One of our board members wondered if we should be concerned about what use a possible buyer might make of our building. I said that once the check cleared, I didn’t care what they did with the building. I would hope they would not use our name—I would not like to see the Francis Xavier Massage Parlor taking up residence on 23rd Street—but while the building has been a great treasure for the past 64 years, it is now going to provide us with the flexibility and resources we need for the future. We are not so much “selling a building” as we are building a future.
During my time at the Xavier Society for the Blind, I have learned to read some Braille with my eyes and I have discovered I have very stupid fingers. I spent several weeks training at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, and had an introductory course in the many things that a blind person is able to do by him or herself. I have met blind golfers, photographers, surfers, mountain climbers, lawyers, travel agents and blind practitioners of practically every profession. I have ridden in a car driven by a blind driver, and I have come to appreciate—in ways I could never have imagined—the importance of the work that we are doing here.
One of the things you learn when you take a class in orientation and mobility (O&M, or cane travel) is to use your white cane to detect possible dangers on the sidewalk. Of even more importance is using your ears and your brain to pay attention to the larger environment around you. Finding the road is easy; you listen for the traffic, determine in which direction it is traveling, and you can use that as the basis for much of your own travel. Finding the road ahead for the Xavier Society of the Blind is more difficult. We do not have a white cane to help us find obstacles, and the traffic seems to be going in many different directions at once. But our mission remains the same as it was in 1900: to provide religious and spiritual materials to people who would not otherwise be able to get them. Where we do that and how we do that may change; our commitment and dedication to that mission is constant.
Fr. John R. Sheehan, S.J. is the chairman of the board for the Xavier Society for the Blind.