Braille Monitor                                                   February 2010

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Providing the Fundamental Tools: Braille Books

by Brian A. MacDonald

Brian MacDonaldFrom the Editor: Brian MacDonald is president of the National Braille Press (NBP), headquartered in Boston, Massachusetts. Here is a slightly edited version of the speech he delivered at our convention on July 7, 2009, on the status of Braille in America and NBP’s role in promoting the code.

Hello, everyone. Thank you, Dr. Maurer. I started as president of the National Braille Press on May 1, 2008, so this is my second NFB convention. It’s an honor to address you today and to see so many members and colleagues who share a common goal of independence, lifelong learning, and achievement.

Much of it all starts with a basic component—a book. If you think about it, any material that will hold and transmit a text or a code can be considered a book. A book is simply the receptacle or container--the method one conserves, stores, and keeps information in so that it can be referenced and shared with others. Of course the physical form of that book has changed over time based on materials available and technologies to produce it.

Let’s turn back, for those who remember the Wayback machine, and take a quick journey back in time to the first book. It wasn’t very portable, since it weighed a few tons and was made of stone. And you thought a Braille book was cumbersome. These go back to the caves, cave paintings in southwestern France from approximately thirty-two thousand years ago. Fast forward to five thousand years ago when hieroglyphics were started in Mesopotamia. The kings of Assyria had libraries there in the city of Nineveh, which today would be across the Tigris River from Mosul in Iraq. We found over twenty-two thousand clay tablets there. These hieroglyphic symbols were carved in soft, moist clay and then baked to make the tablets. It’s interesting to note that the depth and the way these unique symbols were carved might have been readable like a Braille graphic today.

Many other materials were used in different parts of the world, such as wax, tree bark, bamboo, and silk. One could even argue that tribal tattoos could be considered a book. Over time there have been lots of languages and codes that have been used, but the common denominator has been that authors wanted to pass on information through their experiences, stories, and knowledge to document religion, wars, and history that could be shared with future generations.

The National Braille Press has been printing Braille information for eighty-two years. We print literally millions of pages of Braille every year and thousands of tactile graphics for textbooks, children’s books, and educational tests. Our focus is Braille literacy for children and providing access to published information through adulthood for lifelong learning.

We often run a parallel quest with the great work of the National Federation of the Blind, because both of our organizations know the importance of Braille. Our Read Books program has provided free bookbags to families in fifty states and parts of Canada to explain why Braille matters to a child’s education.

You have just heard Dr. Schroeder talk about the debate regarding statistics on the number of potential Braille readers’ ages and demographics; even the unemployment numbers are debated. I will not go into that. Don’t worry. But we can see the changes in our customer database with the big gap in Braille literacy today. However, no one and no other organization should dispute the fact that Braille is a critically fundamental skill that has a direct correlation to employment. It’s a pathway that supports independence, helps build self-confidence, and improves and expands one’s education. Braille is literacy. [applause]

In tribute to its architect, Louis Braille, Euclid Herie said it well in his address last summer to the World Blind Union. His speech was titled, “Six Dots that Changed the World.” He said, when he was referring to Braille, “It has transformed lives, lifted millions out of poverty, enabled countless numbers of intelligent, hard-working people to perform responsible and meaningful work and contribute to their communities, provided for their families, and allowed people to enjoy rich and fulfilled lives.” We know that Braille books are the key to a fuller education, especially for studying language, math, and science. And these come with many challenges since printed textbooks today have more visuals, graphics, and diagrams than ever before. Quality tactile graphics are often needed as an important supplement to a Braille book today.

We also realize that segments of the blindness community have physical conditions or challenges that limit or prevent their ability to read Braille. But it shouldn’t stop some of them from learning Braille to take notes in meetings or classrooms on a notetaker with speech output if they can afford it. However, in spite of our knowledge concerning the importance of Braille, many direct and indirect threats to Braille books and using Braille in the future still exist.

To the older adults in this audience, which includes me unfortunately, for me a book is a virtual vacation, a relaxing mental escape from daily routine. There is something special about sitting in a quiet, comfortable room, getting engulfed in a book, and just turning your ears off. It’s a sanctuary for me. Unfortunately, today’s youth have many distractions that compete with reading a traditional book, and the paths of education in reading about cultures, history, and values are being threatened. One of my daughters is a fourth grade teacher, and she had to explain to her class recently what camera film was. Not one student had any knowledge of what the word “filming” even meant. They only knew digital cameras. So welcome to the growing digisphere of accessible technology; the black hole of the Internet; cell phones; constant texting; blogs; and the social networks of Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, LinkedIn, and Plaxo.

The Columbia Journalism Review recently published a study from the Associated Press on youth and technology. They noted at the time, which was two years ago, that there were already a hundred and fifty million Websites, seventy million blogs, and new Websites were expanding at the rate of ten thousand per hour. Terms like megabytes turned into terabytes. Now the latest is xabytes. The “x” prefix means one billion billion. The whole point of this is that the Associated Press study found that young adults suffered from news fatigue. I would take it one step further and say that young people have so many accessible social interactive options today that the concept of reading the basic novel outside of a mandatory classroom is being threatened. Thank goodness for blockbuster youth books like Harry Potter, which bring some revival to reading.

It’s easy to make the claim that technology is a double-edged sword since the advent of personal computers, speech recognition, and voice output devices. Today access to information has improved dramatically, and this is beneficial. The chairman of our board, my boss, Paul Paravano, is a Braille reader, and he uses computer software to read his email, since the volume he receives on a daily basis would take a long time to filter through. But he is the first one to emphatically state that he would not have the job that he has today in government relations at MIT without his ability to use Braille on a daily basis. [applause]

Last October National Braille Press founded the Center for Braille Innovation (CBI). We haven’t talked about it much. This is the first public announcement about it. The CBI's mission is to focus specifically on Braille technologies that can improve the Braille and tactile-graphic production process and to develop truly affordable Braille tools beyond our books for the blindness community. CBI is National Braille Press’s think tank, part virtual, part bricks and mortar, that wraps around our strategic plan and looks for these solutions.

We have put together a team of great engineers, inventors, entrepreneurs, and researchers that have made the commitment to bring affordable products to market, including refreshable Braille devices. Team CBI, as they have named themselves, includes people with backgrounds from IBM and Motorola. Members include the inventor of Bluetooth and the Razor phone, representatives from private engineering firms, and support from a list of distinguished universities in the United States and overseas. Yes, it’s like the crusades in the search for the holy Braille. I’ve heard that many times. For your reference some of these knights templars, staying with that theme, have names that may be familiar to some of you. One pioneer working with us is Deane Blazie. A positive side of this technology is that it’s changing more rapidly than ever before, and it’s these new technologies that provide the promise of new and affordable production methods and lower costs.

The National Braille Press is not a direct advocate for blindness, nor are we the voice of the nation’s blind. I think that’s covered pretty well in this room right here. No, we’re the toolmaker in the toolshed, tinkering away, and Braille books will always be that fundamental tool. [applause] Earlier I mentioned that the way one defines a book has changed over time due to material used and technologies developed. The Center for Braille Innovation is looking at every conceivable cutting-edge technology and resource to develop and create better, more affordable interactive tools for Braille literacy.

The world is in the early stages of another dramatic technological wave. The Kindle and Sony readers are getting traction, and major changes are around the corner. It’s hard to believe this. I’m dating myself again. Last Wednesday was the thirtieth anniversary of the great grandfather to the iPod, the Sony Walkman that used cassettes. [laughter] I personally loved eight-tracks myself. They sounded better. They died for cassettes. Computer media are changing from CDs to DVDs. Minis will soon replace laptops and notebooks. USB flash drives will be replaced with smaller, faster nano-somethings they haven’t even named yet. OLEDs (organic light emitting diode) and LEPs (light emitting palmers) will provide inexpensive light sources for homes. Bendable screens made of downloadable organic polymers will solve many problems.

The challenge to all of you Federationists out there in this room is to help us keep Braille alive. Yes, we support the need for NLS’s digital talking players and Victor Reader Streams and other speech technologies. They are useful and have an important market to serve, but it’s tempting to succumb to these types of technologies because they’re simple and easy to use. However, if one has the ability to read Braille, I urge you not always to settle for convenience. Every blind child and adult in this world has the right to read. [applause]

The other day I was in a lunchroom listening to three of our proofreaders, and they were talking about the importance of Braille. So I just sat down and listened, knowing I was going to speak to you today. One was saying that she liked Talking Books, but every time she would listen at night, she would fall asleep. Another proofreader responded saying she didn’t like Talking Books at all because, when she reads a Braille book, she likes to imagine the different sounds of the characters’ voices, and in her own mind she can create a better scene than by just listening to a narrator. The third person said he just doesn’t feel that he learns as much by listening versus actively reading Braille.

Braille will not become the next Latin. It is not and cannot become a dead language. But it must be integrated into future technologies and into mainstream devices. As National Braille Press and Team CBI collaborate with universities, companies, and organizations, a new generation of products will evolve. I’m confident that a future affordable book, an e-Book, will also evolve. However, as teachers, as friends, as mentors, and as parents of blind children, you must focus on the importance of that basic, fundamental tool—the Braille book. Whether it’s paper, electronic, or some future form that we cannot imagine today, it doesn’t matter. Within it lies the future of Braille itself and ultimately a more rewarding, knowledgeable, successful, joyful, and independent life. Enjoy the rest of the convention, and thank you for listening.

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