American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Winter 2019      BRAILLE

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On How and Why I (Finally) Slayed the NLS Braille Certification

by Monique Coleman

Monique ColemanFrom the Editor: To become a Braille transcriber for the National Library Service (NLS) or any of the other major providers of Braille materials in the United States, a person must hold NLS Braille certification. Since December 2017 the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) has conducted the courses that lead to Library of Congress certification in Braille transcribing and proofreading. In this article Monique Coleman describes her long and bumpy road to NLS certification. Monique Coleman is a veteran TVI and president of VISTAS Education Partners, provider of learner-centered instruction and community-based enrichment to blind/visually-impaired youth of all abilities. A doctoral candidate at Rutgers University, Monique is interested in research around equity, inclusion, and expanded core access.

Last summer I had the midweek pick-me-up of my dreams. I received a package from the National Federation of the Blind, informing me that I had achieved my National Library Services for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) Literary Braille Certification! This personal milestone was of such huge proportions for me that my immediate response was to hop on YouTube and dance it out to Beyoncé's "Formation," a pump-up song with cultural relevance for me.

I could not help but pause to celebrate my long-awaited accomplishment. It meant that my thirty-five-page Braille manuscript had passed intensive scrutiny and was found to have only a few errors, earning a score of 90. The minimum score to obtain the coveted NLS certification is 80, so my solid pass was even more reason for my impromptu dance celebration. The NLS sets a high standard for Braille transcribing certification, with a technically exacting grading framework for the thirty-five-page Braille manuscript.

I became intimately familiar with the demands of the NLS certification process in a painful way. Over a period of more than seventeen years, I had failed on more than one attempt. I started to think that the ultimate prize would always elude me. I share this personal triumph because it means a lot to me. I hope that my experience as a TVI who pursued and ultimately obtained the NLS transcribing certification may be helpful for someone else who is considering or is already in pursuit of this worthy credential.

Taking on the Challenge

"The first key fails, the second fails—it is always the third that works." This expression rings true in my story. My quest for my NLS Braille transcribing certification began back in 2000. Sheila Amato, the amazing TVI and Braille instructor who taught in the blindness and visual impairment master's degree program at Columbia Teachers College, impressed upon me the importance of solidifying my new certified TVI status. She encouraged me to take my freshly minted professional degree to the next level. Perhaps Sheila rightly sensed that I had taken a special liking to Braille during my time in her courses. She figured that I would be willing to take the big and logical next step in developing my Braille skills and knowledge. More likely Sheila encouraged most of her students to consider the NLS Braille certification. She firmly believed that it would strengthen our effectiveness and our capacity to provide quality Braille instruction to students who depended on Braille as their primary or secondary learning medium.

Without hesitation I followed Sheila's call. She took me under her wing and helped me prepare for a rigorous qualification process that included the completion of the required thirty-five-page Braille manuscript. I set out to prepare my transcription by marking up the print copy of my book selection. This was the best part of the whole manuscript preparation process. I had fun finding and bracketing all of the Braille contractions and marking up special features that needed to be produced accurately. When it was time to create the manuscript, I pecked away on a manual Perkins Brailler until I had completed all thirty-five pages.

Manually Brailling a thirty-five-page manuscript was a drawn-out, labor-intensive process. I squeezed in Brailling time whenever I wasn't working or taking care of my very young son. Fortunately, those days have faded to an indistinct memory.

Despite Sheila's genuine zeal and best intentions, I didn't prepare myself well enough to meet the strict scoring guidelines. I cannot remember my score, but I know that I didn't even come close to passing. I was disappointed by doing so poorly and sad that I might have let my teacher down. Sheila reminded me of the technical precision that the manuscript demanded. She encouraged me to pick myself up and try again. I was convinced that she was right, and I decided I was not going to abandon my quest.

Strengthening Resolve

It did not take long, however, for the demands of work, family, and life to crowd out my capacity to pursue the NLS certification. After all, I did not need a Braille transcribing certification for my job as a TVI, and I was not looking to become a transcriber. With all the routine and unexpected demands that I dealt with daily as a wearer-of-many-hats itinerant TVI, the NLS certification felt like a luxury item for my professional toolkit. Yet, given my passion to help increase Braille literacy among blind students, the idea of pursuing my transcribing certification was not buried entirely.

Fast forward to 2016. After more than sixteen years as an educator in the field of blindness and visual impairment, I decided to resume my long-lost pursuit. I enrolled in the NFB's distance Braille transcribing course. The course requires students to complete nineteen lessons and achieve satisfactory results on comprehension exercises at the end of each one. I added this course to my full-time TVI workload and my part-time doctoral studies. I knew I would need determination and discipline to see this effort through, so I carved out a block of time each week for the coursework.

It took me eighteen months to complete the NFB's Braille course. I was driven by my resolve to overcome my initial manuscript failure, and I was sustained by the in-depth learning of Unified English Braille (UEB) that the course provided. The tedious corrections and re-submissions that I had to do on many of the end-of-lesson exercises solidified my UEB knowledge. Admittedly, there were many moments when I was annoyed by what I thought was the teacher's nitpicking. Sometimes I wanted to throw in the towel on the whole darn thing. But with every step forward I gained a sense of appreciation for the process, and I kept an eye on the ultimate prize.

Despite what I thought were my best efforts, however, my second thirty-five-page manuscript was returned with a failing score. In fact, so many points were deducted that my grader didn't even bother to include an overall score. Yet there was cause for hope. My score was hurt largely by a few technical errors that I should have avoided. For instance, I did not pay close attention to the page margins. The first line of Braille on each page was too close to the top, which violated the manuscript's margin guidelines. There was also the problem of rubbed-out Braille dots in the first cells of the first line or two of each page, which rendered a few symbols on each page illegible. This problem was caused by the large clip that I naively thought I could use to bind the pages without affecting the Braille. I had checked to make sure the metal latches of the clip did not fall directly on any Braille symbols, but clearly I had made a misjudgment. In addition to these blunders there were a few Brailling errors which, by themselves, might not have resulted in a failing score.

Over the Hurdle

As the reality of another failed Braille manuscript settled in, I felt dejected and turned off to the whole NLS certification process. A little voice in my head reminded me that I really didn't need certification. I was well established in my career as a TVI, so why should I expend time and energy on a seemingly unnecessary certification? Yet a counter voice called on me to appreciate how much the NLS certification could enhance my pedagogical practice as a TVI. Fortunately, the latter outlook prevailed, and my doldrums lasted for only a brief time. I figured that I would absorb my previous failures as growth opportunities. I would be extremely careful with my proofreading, and I would be more diligent in compliance with the NLS technical requirements. I just might get over the hurdle in a third manuscript attempt. I had come too far to turn back now.

As I pressed on, I put the utmost care into completing and proofreading my third manuscript. When I finished, I decided to package my work in the same way that I receive many of my students' Braille books. I sandwiched my manuscript between two pieces of cardboard, loosely held together by a large rubber band. At least I would not repeat the illegible dots problem! After several final once-overs, I nervously mailed off my manuscript to the Baltimore headquarters of the NFB.

After a few months, over the course of which I had many doubtful moments, I finally received confirmation that my third try indeed held the working key! I had produced a Braille manuscript worthy of the stringent NLS certification standards, and I had passed with a solid 90! Eighteen years after my initial attempt, I could tell Sheila Amato that I had finally gotten the job done. She could be proud of planting a seed that never died in me.

All these many years later, I firmly believe that Sheila did the right thing by her Braille students and new TVIs. I am convinced that more TVIs should strive for this level of UEB proficiency as part of a strong commitment to an in-depth understanding of the code that they are responsible for teaching. We TVIs wear many hats, but preserving and being the conduits of access to high quality Braille instruction is certainly a foundation of our work. Continuing education is essential in order for a TVI to be effective in the twenty-first century.

My Braille transcribing certification does not negate the need for me to keep the three-hundred-page UEB Rule Book nearby as a handy reference. Most people who read Braille professionally and/or personally cannot avoid the need to look up a symbol, type form, or rule here or there. Keeping my UEB knowledge up to par will also require me to make time to read Braille. This is not a chore for me, as I love Braille reading. What's more, I have a stack of Braille National Geographic magazines for that purpose!

While my professional learning is ongoing, the difficult journey to my NLS Braille certification warranted a pause from my daily routine. Through the last hot summer days, I was in celebration mode, and I danced it out to "Formation" whenever I pleased. "Okay, ladies, now let's get in formation, 'cause I slay."

[To find out more about Braille certification courses, visit]

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