I recently attended a fundraising gala in midtown Manhattan, one of those sparkly gatherings of beautiful people who are easily stereotyped and ridiculed. This one was for the Cooper-Hewitt, the Smithsonian's design museum, and its annual National Design Awards. Top execs from GE and Target were on hand; so were fashion designers like Cynthia Rowley and tech stars like YouTube cofounder Chad Hurley. The White House sent an emissary. TV's Paula Zahn acted as master of ceremonies.
When I sat down at my table, I was surprised to find sitting next to me a mother of two from Denton, Texas, who had paid her own way to fly up to New York for the event. Her name was Leslie Ligon, and she was a finalist for the People's Design Award for her Braille Alphabet bracelet. She told me about the visit to her son Ethan's doctor when he was 2 months old — the time she first heard that her baby was blind. She told me about taking Ethan to a nearby mall when he was in elementary school, so he could practice using a walking stick in public (and where she had to repeatedly deflect the stares and comments of unsympathetic shopkeepers).
Then she pulled out a card with the Braille alphabet, asserted she could teach me to understand it in 60 seconds, and proceeded to do just that. The hubbub around us disappeared as she introduced me to her world and what she calls her family's "unexpected journey on the planet of the blind."
As few as 10% of blind or visually impaired people know how to read Braille, Ligon explained, which implies a functional illiteracy level of 90% for a swath of the public that is needlessly marginalized. She explained that she began designing her jewelry line as a way to promote Braille literacy and that roughly 15% of her net sales is donated to literacy programs.
I'll confess that while she talked, I thought about the metaphorical blindness that can afflict us as businesspeople — the inability to recognize new ideas and new ways of operating. In the midst of the gala, in the presence of someone who was truly committed to educating us all, I found myself hoping that Fast Company was doing all it could to encourage open thinking from our readers.
This issue of the magazine isn't about blindness. As always, it is devoted to possibilities, from Ellen McGirt's cover story on Twitter (I Want My Twitter TV!) to Adam L. Penenberg's futuristic look at games (Everyone's A Player). Conscience is also part of our coverage — check out "The Gift of Giving" in our Wanted section, where we highlight 14 gifts that honor friends and family while supporting important causes, from a $3 donation for a schoolchild's workbook in Darfur to $39,000 for a health clinic in Sierra Leone. Whether at work or at home, there are plenty of ways to make a difference.
Leslie ended up winning that People's Design Award. She went up to the stage and, in her acceptance speech, explained the purpose of her work and her mission, which extends beyond her own family's needs. Her jewelry is not just well-meaning; it's also beautiful. (You can see the full range of Leslie's products at braillejewelry.blogspot.com.) Don't tell my wife, but I think I know what I'm getting her for the holidays.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2010/January 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.