Even after being diagnosed with terminal cancer in her mid-80s, volunteer Carole Means continued transcribing books into Braille for Spokane’s blind community.
Her life’s mission for more than 30 years, the 84-year-old only stopped transcribing earlier this year. She died Oct. 14.
Invented 180 years ago, Braille’s tactile writing system of raised dots allows those who are vision impaired to read. But transcribing textbooks, novels and other printed material can be prohibitively expensive for blind children and young adults getting an education.
Since teaching herself Braille in the early 1990s, Means was one of the few sighted and certified transcriptionists in Eastern Washington. She began volunteering at Father Palmer Memorial Braille Services in 1992, which was founded in the 1930s by an Episcopal priest to provide free educational material to blind or visually impaired Spokane children.
A few years later, the number of volunteers at the service fell, and it was folded into the Lilac Services for the Blind, where Means continued her uncompensated transcription work for three more decades.
According to Lilac Services executive director Cheryl Martin, Means averaged 12,000 to 14,000 pages of transcribed braille each year. For many of those years, Means was the only transcriber for the service and for Spokane.
“She did it because it mattered,” Martin said. “She developed a relationship with the students that she brailled for – oftentimes one that lasted long into adulthood.”
Martin recalled one student who went on to become a teacher.
Means continued to transcribe teaching material and students’ work into Braille for the student teacher working to become an instructor.
“Carole would go and sit in the classroom with her portable Braille writer and Braille everything she would need to be a student teacher and finish her degree,” Martin said.
In a conversation with a hospice worker before her passing last month, Means recalled this incident.
“I sat in the corner and hand-Brailled the materials she needed for the day. At first, I was quite the curiosity for the students, but eventually I became a part of the woodwork, and they didn’t think anything of it,” she said, according to notes provided by the Means family. “Everything she needed to empower her to teach her first and second graders came through my hands.”
Prior to her life as a Braille transcriptionist, Means worked as a physical therapist and had four sons. After her divorce, Means moved to Jerusalem in the early 1980s and began caring for Palestinian children with physical disabilities through the Bethlehem Arab Society for Rehabilitation.
It was this volunteer work that first sparked her interest in serving the blind community, which she continued doing after returning to Spokane after several years.
“She was an amazing person. She came from very difficult circumstances, but overcame that to really do this work to help others – without being compensated for it,” said her son Chris Larson. “I admired her for that. She was always able to take what others might consider a bad hand into something really useful.”
Martin, who volunteered alongside Means for three decades, thinks of the woman as a mother.
“I loved Carole because we worked together so long and hard. Even though intellectually I knew it was not possible, you just think she’s going to keep coming. Keep coming through that door,” Martin said.
Even after being diagnosed with cancer, Means continued volunteering for the Lilac Services for the Blind, only stopping in January.
“Even after she was diagnosed with cancer, she still came in. If there was something that needed to be brailled, she came in even when she didn’t feel good,” Martin said.
In a 2007 Spokesman-Review article on the transcriptionist, Means said she would not retire from her work until she was 90.
“I consider it my blessing,” Means said at the time. “I believe in keeping busy and giving back to society. … It’s not what you get but what you give that will sustain you in the end.”