Braille Monitor                                                                  December 1985


Issues and Trends in the Production and Use of Braille

A major topic at the 1985 convention of the National Federation of the Blind was: Issues and Trends in the Production and Use of Braille. Much of the session on Thursday morning, July 4, was taken up with this item. Originally four people (three producers and the President of the National Association to Promote the Use of Braille) were scheduled to speak on the panel. However, Frank Kurt Cylke, Director of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, and T. VV. Cranmer, Chairman of the Federation's Committee on Research and Development, (both of whom were to speak on other topics later Thursday morning) were asked to participate on the panel dealing with Braille. In the present article we print a major portion of the opening remarks of the four original panelists. President Jernigan began the discussion by saying: "What we are about to consider is a topic that is as important as anything we're likely to deal with, because it involves not only mechanical and physical skills but also a whole way of looking at blindness and blind people. I am not at all convinced that the notions people have about Braille are not involved with the notions they have about blindness. In fact, I am sure that they are. We must see that Braille gets emphasis--much more than it has had. And there must be action, not just talk--the kind of action that Federationists know how to take. Therefore, we are glad to feature prominently on our program the topic: Issues and Trends in the Production and Use of Braille.

To lead it off, we have W. Benjamin Holmes, Executive Director of the Associated Services for the Blind of Philadelphia. Mr. Holmes then spoke in part as follows:

The first issue that I would like to put before you is a very critical one--and that is the issue of what I call unused capacity. There are five major producers of press Braille in the United States. The American Printing House was first; Clovernook was second; National Braille Press was third; my group (The Associated Services for the Blind) was fourth; and Triformation is fifth. My office is right next to the room where the plates are embossed. All day long I hear those plates thumping off as they are embossed. Around five, six, seven o'clock at night (when I'm working at my desk) I hear that machine shut down. The first thing that happens is that my heart catches, and I say: "The dots are dropping, they've got to adjust it, they're going to take it off, and we'll be shut down for a bit."

Then the silence continues, and I recognize that we have closed down for the day. I walk out into the press room, and the presses are silent. The five national producers have such capacity to produce Braille that we are only producing one quarter to one third of what we could do every single day. When our presses shut down, information that is your right to have is not coming to you. And those presses shut down every day between five p.m. and eight o'clock the next morning. They could run all night. What I'm saying to you is that in the last five to ten years (but mostly in the last five years) through computerization our capacity to produce Braille has grown by leaps and bounds. Yet to this day we are only producing annually a third to a quarter of what we could be producing. It's a critical issue. It's a very critical issue.

The second critical issue I would put before you: I want to say thank God for the Library of Congress. I really believe this. Its distribution is critical. It's a very critical distribution system. So remember I said thank God for the Library of Congress.

Now, I want to say something else. When we produce a book in Braille, we only produce (listen to this) sixty to seventy copies of that book. And those copies are sent out to the libraries of the nation. This is a critical issue. For each of the five producers, our costs are up front: computerization, proofreading, zinc plates. When I get to printing (putting the paper into the printer) believe it or not, on a high speed printer I can produce five hundred to a thousand pages almost as quickly as fifty to sixty pages.

So additional copies of that book which you could buy are not run. My contract and the contract of all producers with the government says that we have to sell to you at the same price that we sell to the government. Well, our up-front costs are the computer. Our up-front costs are proofreading and zinc plates. When I get out in that production room, I could run one, two, three, five hundred more copies at relatively much smaller costs. That's the second issue that I would put before you.

The third one is that we must have an alternative form of distribution. The Library of Congress is one form. We can no longer depend upon government as the major form of distribution. As good a job as they've done, they've done a miserable job overall. I'm not criticizing in any way a speaker who will appear later this morning [He refers to Frank Kurt Cylke, head of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped] because he's done one of the best jobs in the nation. But the system is not working.

The fourth issue: The changes that have occurred in the last five to ten years are nothing compared to the changes that are going to occur in the next five to ten years. I believe that I will be the last chief executive officer of our Braille production unit who will hear embossing machines pounding out plates or will hear presses printing Braille. I believe I will be the last. Because I believe what's going to happen in three, five, seven, nine years (I don't know how long) is that our computers will print electronic tape. This electronic tape will be sent to the libraries and to others. That tape, as it goes into the library, will have an embossing device in the library, and you will have Braille on demand--and you have had a right to have Braille on demand. Braille on demand means that you can get what you want yourself when you want it--when you need it--and at a price that you are able to afford.

Now, let me close by drawing an analogy. What's going to happen in Braille production is already happening in the radio reading services. This morning, at five o'clock, a signal went out from New York City. That signal hit the satellite. That satellite deflected it to Philadelphia. That signal, which started in New York, automatically turned on our transmitter in our radio reading services and the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal were read over the air this morning in Philadelphia before any of my employees went to work--even the crew that works on the Fourth of July, because we cover holidays and weekends.

My point is that the people of Philadelphia this morning who wanted to hear the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal had to do one thing in their homes: turn on the switch. And the whole thing was automated from five o'clock until ten o'clock. When they wanted to stop hearing the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal they turned off the switch. That's going to happen in Braille, and it's about time.

President Jernigan said: "You've given us some things to think about, and we'll want to discuss them later. We have heard from Mr. Holmes. Now, we want to hear from Mr. William M. Raeder, Managing Director of the National Braille Press, Inc., of Boston, Massachusetts. Interesting things have been going on at the National Braille Press, as well as at the Philadelphia operation. Mr. Raeder, we are pleased to hear from you."

Mr. Raeder spoke in part as follows:

I want to direct my comments this morning to the subjects of Braille, consumerism, and technology; and I'd like to start by telling you a case study of a woman who works for a large organization in Washington. To carry out the functions of her job, she requires information--information which is specific to the organization for which she works, and specific to the job which she's supposed to be carrying out. Now, that information is generated in the computer of her organization. It is revised frequently, and she needs it in Braille.

So, about twice a month that organization sends to the National Braille Press a computer tape. It takes us twenty minutes to put that tape on our computer system and out the other end. Twenty minutes later comes about fifty pages of Braille ready for binding and shipping back to her. So we have developed what we call a "Jiffy Braille Service"--twenty-four hour turnaround in this particular case for highly important job related Braille materials.

So the key issue that I address this morning is bringing the computer technology to bear to meet the individual--the specific needs, the special needs, of blind people for job related materials in Braille. Now, we've already seen (as Mr. Holmes described) how technology has increased our Braille production capacity for books and magazines over the last five or ten years.

In the last ten years the National Braille Press has increased its transcription capacity by sevenfold for the production of books and magazines. And the industry as a whole has more than doubled--so much that whereas ten years ago the industry was unable to meet the demands placed upon it for books and magazines, now there is excess capacity for Braille transcription for general reading materials--books and magazines. This has happened to such an extent that there is increased competition for the work of producing books and magazines, as described in the Braille Monitor article a few months ago, where we read that a substantial amount of work was transferred from one agency to another. Now, does that competition provide us with an important issue? Well, yes it does; but it's not the interesting issue for us this morning when we're addressing consumerism. The interesting thing about that is that the Associated Services for the Blind, through technology, was able significantly to increase their capacity to take on an additional amount of work--and they were only able to do it by applying computer technology and the use of scanners. So the issue, again, that I want to face here is to bring that technology to meet the individual needs--the specific needs of blind people for job related information in Braille.

There are several side issues here. The first one, of course, is that Braille producers (such as the National Braille Press) should be able to receive information for transcription on these computer tapes or on floppy disks. That requires additional research and development work because of the many configurations available on disk format and the many different formats that a Braille producer would receive. So additional research and development effort and money must be expended. That's side issue (or sub-issue) number one.

Sub-issue number two is to produce the Braille for distribution on paperless Braille devices. We have seen the Internal Revenue Service provide leadership in this by hiring blind people and giving them jobs as taxpayer service representatives and in recent years giving them VersaBraille machines with fast electronic look-up capability so that they can search out the information that they need in a hurry--job related specific information important to their individual jobs.

Another issue is the ability of you people in your organization (such as your state affiliates) to set up your own Braille production units. It only costs seven to eight thousand dollars these days to buy, say, an IBM PC, a Duxbury Translator, a Personal Brailler from Triformation or from Visualtek-- and, by gosh, you're in business. You've got your small Braille production house right in your own shop. So, decentralization of Braille production to meet these individual needs is the next Sub-issue that I wish to address decentralization from the five major Braille production houses that Mr. Holmes mentioned.

The final burning issue is who's going to pay for it all? Let me give you another brief case study. There's a young man who works in a large corporation in the Boston area as a programmer, and he needed a substantial amount of computer manual material put into Braille. They sent us at the National Braille Press a computer tape with the required information in computer form. It took us a significant amount of time, but we finally produced about 750 pages of Braille material specific to that individual's job situation. Now, it cost us quite a bit of money, and we were unable to do it for the price that we would like to charge--ten cents a page. So the issue is: Who pays for it? Do we charge the blind person and place a burden upon the individual we're trying to serve? I don't think so. Do we charge the corporation? Many people say, "Well, the corporation is wealthy. They can afford this." Perhaps they can, but the issue is do we want to burden the corporation? Do we want to reward them for their having hired blind people with a bill to support that effort? Now, many corporations are willing to pay and will do so gladly--but many won't. The issue, then, is who's going to pay for it? There are two things that have to be paid for. One is the actual transcription into Braille, and the other is the continuing research and development to carry forward the application of this technology to meet the individual's specific needs. That's what consumerism is--and it's through that activity (the continuing development and the continuing efforts of you and of the Braille producers) to bring this forward such that in the years to come you folks will have the individualized Braille needs that you deserve and need and that are important to you as you develop more and more independent, responsible, productive positions in society.


President Jernigan next introduced Dr. Carson Y. Nolan, President of the American Printing House for the Blind. Dr. Nolan spoke as follows:


My remarks this morning are going to be complementary to those of Mr. Holmes and Mr. Raeder, deal with some trends that we've seen in the blind student population, talk about our efforts at the Printing House to improve Braille instruction, and a little bit about production.

First, student trends. As many of you know, each January we make a census of legally blind students enrolled in formal education programs below college level in this country. Among the data that we gather are the numbers of these students who read Braille, who read large type, or who are essentially nonreaders. Last January there were 44,313 such students in this country. However, in January of 1966 we only registered 19,291 such students--so the number is growing. But the point I want to make is the shifts that have occurred in the number of Braille readers. In 1966 (when we had 19,000 students) 8,821 (or 46%) of those students read Braille. In 1981 we registered over 36,000 students. However, the number of Braille readers had dropped to 5,588 (or 15%) of the total-down from 46% to 15%.

Since that time I am happy to say the absolute number of Braille readers registered among our student population has grown. In 1984 7,105 Braille readers were registered--an increase of 27% over the number registered in 1981. So this is a good sign for all of us who are interested in Braille and its future. We were concerned about the diminishing number of Braille readers in the fifties and sixties; and we felt that a way that we could preserve interest in Braille was to improve the variety and quality of materials available to teach this important subject in the schools.

We had indicated research on Braille reading as early as 1952 and have continuously carried out research on some aspects of Braille reading since that time. By 1970 we felt that, by taking what we had learned on our own and combining it with other research information, we were in a position to use these data to create meaningful instructional materials. Our efforts in this area are still under way and, when finished, will provide an array of Braille reading materials comparable to those available to sighted children. These products include a reading readiness program, a Braille reading curriculum for the primary grades, a library series to accompany this program, a Braille spelling and writing program, a Braille reading proficiency test, Braille code recognition materials, and a Braille reading program for adventitiously blinded adults.

Our readiness program is aimed at preschool and kindergarten students and includes materials developed for the sensory, motor, tactile, perceptual, and conceptual areas. These materials are currently being revised and reconstituted into eighty lessons that will make them much simpler for teachers to utilize. The primary Braille reading program called "Patterns" has been well received throughout the English-speaking world. It has been designed to deal specifically with problems encountered in learning to read Braille. It has six levels: readiness, preprimer, primer, first reader, second reader, and third reader. Each level consists of a teacher's edition, the text for pupils, work sheets, and a post test to measure pupils' proficiency. We have bolstered this with the "Pattern " library series, which was designed to give practice in reading as children study the curriculum. It's designed to reinforce the reading skills as they are taught in "Patterns." This series consists of twenty-three to twenty-seven books especially developed for each of the five levels, preprimer through third reader. The books are accompanied by notes for teachers. (Actually they can be used with any reading curriculum.) Our sequel to "Patterns" is a Braille language program, development of which started this January and will continue through 1990. It'll be used in parallel with "Patterns" and will stress the development of spelling skills and knowledge of English grammar and usage, including Braille writing instruction. It will consist of a readiness level and three additional levels corresponding to grades one through three. Each level will have teacher and student materials. Work is about half complete on a Braille instructional program to teach Braille reading to persons who have lost their vision after initially learning to read print. Called "Read Again," this program will consist of two parts. The first will teach tactile discrimination skills and introduce Braille Grade I. The second part will teach Grade II. We have Braille code recognition materials designed to increase the speed and accuracy with which people recognize the Braille cells and signs.

The final component of our Braille reading program is a brand new diagnostic test of Grade II Braille. This test will provide scores for numbers and types of reading areas and for reading rates. It's accompanied by an observational checklist for teachers to record Braille reading characteristics. It should be very useful in the design of remedial reading instruction.

We feel this comprehensive set of materials, developed by our Department of Educational Research, should contribute significantly to maintaining Braille as a popular reading medium. Next summer we're going to start something new in conjunction with the University of Louisville. We are going to hold workshops and seminars for college credit, and one of these will deal with teaching teachers how to use our materials to teach students to read Braille. Teacher trainers, as well, can receive this instruction. We hope not only to conduct these classes here but to conduct them in other schools as well.

I won't dwell on the technological aspects. Mr. Raeder and Mr. Holmes have mentioned them, and our activities here in the development of improved technology have paralleled theirs. I might mention to you that last year we developed the capability for mass production of VersaBraille tapes, and over the winter we have produced a large number of publications in this form under contract. We're going to explore the educational market for VersaBraille tapes. I don't know what it is, but we are working among the people who are our trustees in the states to try to develop this market and define it; and this fall, at our annual meeting, part of our program will deal with the application of VersaBraille tapes in education in the schools.

I might do a bit of predicting. My colleagues and I at the Printing House for the Blind are optimistic about the future of Braille. We believe the future will see increased use of it. The strong and growing advocacy of its use among consumer and parent groups cannot be denied. The broad range of specifically designed training materials for blind children and adults that I mentioned is going to increase instructional efficiency, and it's going to make learning easier. Users are going to attain higher levels of skill with the same amount of instruction. Training will be available to teachers (as I mentioned) to teach these things. We believe that Braille production costs will be contained and, hopefully, reduced. Technological advances will create a trend in this direction. Increased competition will play a big role. Utilization of microcomputers for Braille translation, using input by volunteer typists, is going to play a significant role. We believe the kinds and varieties of materials available to the Braille consumer will continue to increase. Increased output by volunteers, coupled with improved short run printing technology, will contribute significantly. Computerized access to the variety of print data available in electronic form is really going to blossom. And we think that this will be a big source of materials in the future. We think the future for Braille is bright.


The next to speak was Mrs. Betty Niceley--President of the National Federation of the Blind of Kentucky, newly-elected member of the Board of Directors of the National Federation of the Blind, and President of the National Association to Promote the Use of Braille. In introducing her, President Jernigan said:


"The establishment of the National Association to Promote the Use of Braille symbolizes our determination to increase the amount of Braille in this country and our determination that Braille will receive greater emphasis. It also symbolizes our determination to see that those who purport to teach Braille will know something about it and truly be able to teach it."

Betty Niceley then spoke in part as follows:

Truly, history repeats itself, and we're eternally reminded that necessity is the mother of invention. Louis Braille proved this long ago when the loss of vision dictated a need for communication. Dr. tenBroek proved it forty-five years ago when his foresight told him that if blind people wanted a job well done, nine times out of ten they'd have to do it themselves. And we the blind have proved it because where we once had one major producer of Braille, we now have five.

We are proving again here today because the largest organization of blind people in the world has on its agenda the directors of three of these producing agencies. How can anyone say that there is a lessening demand for Braille. This brings me to one of my favorite statements, and it comes from the Bible. It says: "This, too, shall pass." As the old man reading the Bible said, "Nothing came to stay," and we've got to prove that.

Here are some of the things that we believe must be changed. First of all, the demand for Braille is there, and must be met. Secondly: I, too, thank God for the Library of Congress; but I, like Mr. Holmes, recognize its shortcomings--and it is my own personal belief that the greatest shortcoming the Library of Congress has is in the fact that it does not clearly recognize this need and is not willing to put anything like the amount of money into meeting the need that it puts into recorded materials. I believe that the amount of money put into materials for the blind should be more equally divided so that Braille readers get a chance to come in as well as those reading recorded materials.

I believe that the means of keeping statistics must change. Our regional libraries, for example, when they give the facts and figures about how many people are reading recorded material and how many people are reading Braille material, have it divided up; and from what I can find out, it's like 5,000 readers are being served by our library, 300 of those readers prefer Braille. Well, what kind of record keeping is that? Of those 5,000 readers, probably about 4,000 read Braille. But nobody takes that into account. The only people who are counted are the ones who prefer Braille.

These are some of the things that we've got to work with on a state by state basis. Last year we registered a complaint with Mr. Cylke, and I again register that same complaint today. It is this: Our own regional library in the state of Kentucky (even though it distributes Braille) goes by the name of the Talking Book Library. When we raised this question last year, Mr. Cylke wasn't aware that anyone was doing that. We pointed out to him that the library was, and the material is, still being sent out with all headings being the Talking Book Library. Now, if you're going to send out this kind of propaganda, how is anyone going to demand Braille if he or she isn't aware that Braille is at the library?

Another thing must be changed. Our children must grow up with Braille. Any institution that is set up to educate the blind should make it a requirement in the curriculum that all students attending should learn Braille. If the visual problem is such that a child needs to go to a school for the blind, he or she should be taught Braille. There should be no question about it.

We must see that those people who teach in our school systems are properly prepared to teach our children Braille. We have to learn to stop referring to the lack of demand for Braille. We've got to consider the fact of how the need is going to be met. We've got to stop thinking of change as a threat.

It is a truism that without change there can be no progress. We must remind producers of Braille that when we suggest a change, it is because we feel it will meet a need--not because we intend to threaten them.