Braille Monitor                                                                                April 1986


The Braille Revolution

(The following remarks were delivered by Karl Smith, President of the National Federation of the Blind of Utah, at a press conference on September 6, 1985, announcing the opening of the NFB of Utah Computerized Braille Transcription Service.)

Five hundred years ago, some time around the year 1447, Johann Gutenberg, a young German goldsmith and printer living in Strasbourg, France, devised a new method of printing which, in a very short time, would revolutionize society and render obsolete all previous methods used to that time. It was a simple invention, a modification actually of the printing press to use moveable metal type rather than solid castings, which had to be melted down and recast every time a different item was to be printed.

Prior to the introduction of Gutenberg's invention, printed material was not readily available to the general public. In fact, books and other documents were almost unheard of among all but the upper class. After Gutenberg, however, the situation changed rapidly. With the newly acquired ease and economy of producing printing, many kinds of material became available. As more and more information sources opened to everyday people, the demand for items such as pamphlets, newspapers, books, and much more increased until today we are literally bombarded by thousands of printed words daily in the form of schedules, instructions, public information pamphlets, menus, and an endless number of other items.

One hundred fifty years ago, again in France, a teenaged blind student named Louis Braille developed a workable method of reading and writing for the blind, which used a system of dots embossed on paper which could be read with the fingers. Braille, as the system is referred to today, opened the world of the printed word to the blind. Today many items such as books and magazines are available in Braille to the blind through the Library of Congress Braille program. Shortages, however, do exist although not as a result of technical barriers as in Gutenberg's time but rather economic and educational ones. Clearly, more of these items should and will be produced in the future as we the blind put increasing perssure on the government and other private producers to do so.

This, however, is not the greatest problem we face today in what has been called the information age. Most, if not all, of this information which arrives in the form of the printed word is totally useless to the blind. What kinds of information do I mean? Everyday information. The kind most people do not even think about because it is such a normal part of their lives.

Items such as menus; class schedules; instructions for home appliances; insurance policies; and public information pamphlets produced by utility companies, tourist bureaus, and the like. I could go on and on. There are basically two reasons for this lack--economics and technical ability. As in the pre Gutenberg era, we have been able to produce Braille on presses. But these are large to operate. If it were not for the support of the federal government, the books and other items produced on these machines would be completely unaffordable to all but a very few blind persons. And as for the everyday materials I mentioned earlier, no attempt has been made by these large producers to provide them. The only way a blind person could get any other material in Braille was to have someone read it to him and for him to Braille it himself or to train sighted persons to read and write Braille and then have them transcribe such material by hand--a slow and tedious process.

With the advent of the microcomputer into Braille translation and production less than ten years ago, this situation began to change. In short, it was our moveable type. It is, in fact, no less important an innovation to the blind than Gutenberg's invention was to the sighted.

Four years ago we of the National Federation of the Blind of Utah, believing in the potential of the microcomputer in this work, set a goal to purchase and operate a computer system which would be used to provide quick access to high quality Braille transcription much as a typing service provides to the sighted. Today that dream becomes a reality. The equipment before you today represents some of the finest state-of-the-art computer equipment available for small scale Braille production.

The introduction of this new service, the first of its kind in the United States, represents the hard work and generous uspport of many, including the blind and thousands of sighted Utahns who have contributed to our fund raising efforts through their purchase of tickets for our childrens' movies which have been enjoyed by families all over the state. I would like to take this opportunity to thank those people who have made this day possible.

And not only individuals but many corporations and foundations have given generous support to bring this project to fruition. I would like to express our very special thanks to the following businesses and philanthropic groups who have made substantial contributions: the George S. and Dolores Dore Eccles Foundation, the Marinor S. Eccles Foundation, the Herbert I. and Elsa B. Michael Foundation, the Salt Lake City Lions Club, Mountain Bell, the Ruth Eleanor Bamburger and John Ernest Bamburger Memorial Fund, the Mattie Wattis Harris Foundation, the Rosenblatt Memorial Foundation, and Utah Power and Light Company.

The National Federation of the Blind of Utah Braille Transcription Service will be operated in the beginning four hours per day from Monday through Friday. It will be located in our new state office in the Westgate Business Center. When we are fully operational, blind persons, teachers of the blind, and others requiring Braille will be able to bring their print material to us and have it produced in Braille more rapidly and economically than was previously possible. Since this has never been tried before, it will take us some time to determine what restrictions will be placed on the material we will produce.

For example, what is the largest number of pages we will produce? What is the lowest possible cost we can charge to help cover some of our costs and still make the service economical enough to make people want to use it. These and other similar questions will only be answered through experience. To begin with, therefore, we are not charging for the service. It is my hope that sufficient funds can be raised in the future to provide a permanent operating fund for this project which will allow us to continue this practice.

In closing, let me speak briefly of the future. Before us today is one computer and one Braille printer capable of producing a reasonably large quantity of transcribed information. And yet, it is only the beginning. Today not only marks the achieving of a goal and the end of a lot of hard work, but it signifies a very important beginning. I hope some day to see ten or perhaps more computers and Braille printers twice as fast as this one all over the state producing thousands of pages of Braille per day to supply what will surely be the ever increasing demand for Braille materials. I pledge today that the National Federation of the Blind of Utah will continue our own fund raising efforts and also continue to seek even more support from the many outside sources available to make this dream come true; to bring the blind into full participation in this information age.