When 55-year-old educator William A. Hadley lost his sight due to a detached retina in 1915, the challenges he faced were enormous. One by one, Hadley met them, teaching himself braille in a landscape with few helps or tools, painstakingly learning to navigate his new world. But with each skill he acquired, Hadley found himself more determined to make the educational process easier for others facing vision loss. His eponymous “Braille by mail” distance-learning school, founded in Winnetka in 1920, would go on to become the world’s largest educator of blind people, now serving more than 60,000 people in all 50 states and 100 countries annually, at no charge to recipients. But Hadley is not stopping there. Poised on the brink of its 100th anniversary, the organization is in the middle of its biggest push yet: Hadley 2.0.
A comprehensive restructuring of both the school’s physical building, and its technical/online capabilities to reach and teach even more people, most aspects of Hadley’s massive undertaking will launch in January 2020. The first of those—an $8 million renovation of the organization’s physical space— was completed in March.
“The timing is crucial,” says Julie Tye, Hadley president. “More than 75 percent of those living with visual impairment today are over 65. With another 10,000 baby boomers turning 65 every day, the incidence of vision loss is expected to double by 2050. The number of professionals equipped to help is not nearly large enough, which makes the work we do as a virtual vision rehab organization, more pressing.”
To increase its reach and impact, Hadley is broadening its virtual platform and transforming traditional courses and seminars into bite-sized 10- to 20-minute experiences.
“We are rabid about market research,” says Tye. “Everything we do is driven by what our learners and potential learners tell us that they need. So we will continue to develop content based on that feedback.”
Taking a cue from language-learning apps such as Duolingo, modules will use a conversational tone of voice, multi-media approach, and interactive its technical/online capabilities to reach and teach even more people, most “gamified” format—allowing learners to go at their own pace, practice their knowledge, and learn through scenario-bases settings with real-life applications, says Joan Jaeger, Hadley’s chief marketing officer.
Learners will also be able to customize their online experiences, choosing font style and size, page color and contrast. And as they move through content, Hadley’s system will retain preferences, tailoring subsequent visits to match preferred user experience and interest.
“So in addition to being able to access customized learning material online, they’ll also be able to track their progress, rate workshops, contact experts, and receive recommendations,” Jaeger explains.
Individuals who prefer offline learning will still have access to printed materials, newly delivered in a series of short booklets and audio clips with on-demand production and shipping powered by an upgraded and integrated database.
In tandem with all of the website and content work, changes to Hadley’s physical space will further its efforts to meet the needs of visual impaired individuals, as well as their families and the health and wellness professionals who care for them.
The new building design by Danny Fitzergerald of Fitzgerald Architecture and Design, with general contracting by Clune Construction Company, has increased Hadley collaboration spaces and added dedicated areas for outreach and education. An expanded audio/visual studio will help with production of online seminars and tutorials. And especially impressive: a new virtual reality screening room has been added to immerse sighted individuals into a world of limited vision.
“This is very helpful for visiting health care professionals and families of the visually impaired.” says Tye. “For the first time, we can offer a true experience of what those living with different kinds of visual impairment face every day.”
Design elements including the deep shade of teal chosen for Hadley’s new logo—a color easily seen despite color deficiencies common among those with vision loss. “Wayfinding” cues such as varying wood and carpeted areas, textured wall-paper, and more natural-light pathways make the space more functional for the 25 percent of Had- ley’s staff that are visually impaired, as well as visitors.
Special touches also include a living wall of green foliage, a sensory garden, and the preservation of the building’s large front window panel, split into six panes representing the six portions of a Braille cell.
One big challenge for Hadley? Timing for the $8 million renovation had to happen before fundraising efforts, because the building had become unsound.
“Originating in the 1950s, this building was in desperate need of help. Mechanicals were not working, there was severe flooding, no elevator and pretty significant space constraints, so we had to move forward with this work,” Tye explains.
“With the structural efforts accomplished, we can now focus on all of the other exciting elements of Hadley 2.0. and begin our fundraising push.”
Beyond the website and educational restructuring, Tye says Hadley is doing more to provide community engagement for the visually impaired.
“It may seem counter-intuitive, but although we are a distance-learning organization where the teaching happens online or through mailed materials, one of the things our learners tell us is that they are desperate for community.”
Aiding with this, Haley is connecting visually impaired learners through discussion groups.
“We now have a half dozen groups who meet on a monthly basis with discussions on everything from Spanish to gardening,” says Jaeger. “The most popular one is on technology. The average attendance is 200, and that’s growing.”
Moving ahead, one of Hadley’s goals is to do more education with helping professionals: the primary care physicians, occupational therapists, and staff who work in senior care facilities.
“We are bringing them in to give them an idea of what their visually impaired patients are experiencing and the kind of tools they can provide to help them,” sums Tye.
For more information about how to support the Hadley 2.0 transition, visit hadley.edu.