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Let Your Fingers Do the Looking: An Innovative Puerto Rican Book for the Blind Makes the Met

By Natalia de Cuba Romero

August 22, 2003
Copyright © 2003 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Although Necessity is often called the Mother of Invention, today we have a case of Invention being the Mother of Invention. And in this case, the necessity belonged to someone other than the inventor entirely.

Puerto Rico's own Ileana Sánchez, previously a graphic designer and corporate identity developer through her own Guaynabo company, Creative Creativo, Inc., is today the creator of a new sort of book -- one that brings together art, Braille and family union. "Art & the Alphabet, A Tactile Experience" co-written with Rebecca McGinnis of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, breaks through hitherto untested barriers to bring the blind fine art as they have never experienced it before.

It all begins with a new technology.

Lilia Molina is a sales representative for Creative Tactile Solutions, a local Puerto Rico company that was using exciting new techniques called TechnoPrint and TechnoBraille. Rather than punch through heavy paper to create the raised dots of the Braille alphabet for the blind, these techniques apply an epoxy to the page to create not only raised dots, but raised images with texture. The epoxy melds with the page, becoming part of it, so that you can't scrape it off with your fingernail. When Lilia introduced Ileana to this new technology, she got the wheels of Ileana's brain spinning.

Just a week or two later, Ileana was attending a museum management conference in Minneapolis to expand her knowledge of exhibit design, into which she had recently been venturing. She happened upon a lecture by Rebecca McGinnis, coordinator of Access Programs for the Blind at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

"She talked about bringing special needs communities into the world of art," says Ileana, herself the mother of a 14-year-old girl. "How the biggest challenge for the blind is a lack of information. There are not a lot of publications for them and most do not learn to read Braille at an early age. You might wonder why take a blind person to a museum, but museums should not be just about seeing, but about culturally enriching yourself."

The lecture inspired Ileana. Why not make art books in Braille with the new technology?

The problem, as it often is, was money. How to you get someone to pay for an art book for the blind?

Enter Sappi Fine Paper North America, manufacturers of fine, coated paper. Each year the parent company, Sappi Ltd., awards $1 million in $50,000 grants to designers who create materials for community organizations through a program called "Ideas That Matter". Ileana jumped all over the opportunity, made the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Access for the Blind program the recipient of her designs and applied for the grant. And in 2001, Ileana was awarded $50,000 to make her dream come true. The money covered the production costs, not Ileana's work.

This weekend you can see the results at Santurce's Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, where Ileana was to present her project to the Puerto Rican community on Thursday at an event sponsored by the Government Development Bank.

The book, in English, has a letter and a picture of something that starts with that letter, just like traditional alphabet books. But Art & The Alphabet's pictures are classic images from the Met's collection. "S" stands for shoes and the shoes are by Van Gogh. The images are in colour, not just to attract the sighted family who will read the book with blind siblings or children, but also for the blind themselves.

"Seventy-two percent of the legally blind population can perceive large print and differentiate colour tones," says Ileana.

And the images are raised so that a blind person can feel the artwork. In addition to 14-point written text, each letter and the accompanying information appears in TechnoBraille. It is a complete educational package.

And it's a complete Puerto Rican package too.

Not only is the creator a Santurce native, but Modern Offset Printing in Humacao did the 4-colour process printing. Then Creative Tactile Solutions, also in Humacao, applied the special Braille application. The final version, of which there are 1,000 copies in the first run, is a spiral-bound 11 " X 11 " English language book. Under the terms of the grant, it cannot be sold, but is being donated to museums around the country, including about 50 copies to local Puerto Rico cultural entities. The Met has already incorporated the book into their Access program.

Ileana Sánchez does not intend to let her project end at that. She hopes to find a sponsor for a second edition of the English book and for a subsequent book in Spanish, using classic works from Puerto Rico's museums.

"There is a huge market out there for this kind of book," says Ileana, a graduate of Pratt Institute in New York and winner of the GDB's Entrepreneurial Innovation Award in 2000. "Not only in Puerto Rico and the United States, but all over the Spanish-speaking world, there is a need. And there are plenty of books that can be done this way. There is more than enough material."

But even as Ileana Sánchez plans how to bring cultural enrichment to the blind worldwide, she says the experience of donating her design work to a disadvantaged group so far has been more than satisfying.

"Trust me, it has been worth a million times more than had I been paid to do it," she says.

Mele Cestero contributed to this story.

The data: To contact Ileana Sánchez email her at or call Creative Creativo, Inc. at 787-774-1770.

The Art & The Alphabet exhibition will run until Sunday, August 24 at The Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico at 299 de Diego Ave. The museum is open from Tuesday to Saturday from 10 am-5pm; Wednesdays until 8 pm and Sundays from 11 am to 6 pm. For more information visit or call 787-977-6277. Inside scoop on the best hours to visit: Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays around 3 pm are the quietest times with no school groups. Entrance fees are $5 adults, $3 children and $2.50 for students, seniors and disabled visitors. For guided tours call the Department of Education at 787-977-6277.

For information on the Metropolitan Museum of Art's programs for the blind visit or email or call 212-570-3764.

For information on Sappi's Ideas That Matter grant program, visit

Natalia de Cuba Romero is a freelance travel, food and arts writer. Her column, "Sights, Sounds & Tastes of Puerto Rico", appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald. She can be reached at

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