Photo of Steve Booth

Steve Booth

A Federationist at Work


From the Editor: Not often does a national newspaper profile the job of a blind person and manage to give an accurate notion of the sophistication of the work while resisting the temptation to throw around all those inspirational or pitying adjectives that drive competent blind people to distraction. But on December 29, 1998, Irene Sege, a reporter for the Boston Globe, managed this feat in fine style.

The subject of her story was Steve Booth, Treasurer of the National Federation of the Blind of Massachusetts and production coordinator for National Braille Press. The story gives the reader a clear glimpse into the various demands facing a production manager while simultaneously demonstrating the breadth of NBP's projects and the common-sense approach Steve takes to his job and his blindness. Here is the article:


Seeing to Braille Press's Growing Business


Steven Booth arrives in his office, his cubicle really, shortly before 9:00 a.m., and already he's been working on his laptop on the commuter train from Salem, checking the production schedule for the day. He puts his takeout coffee on one side of his computer and his laptop on the other and flips on his terminal. No papers clutter his desk, and he carefully makes sure his stapler is in its proper place. He has no pictures on his walls, no family photographs on his desk.

Booth is a blind man leading the blind--and the sighted--in his job as production coordinator for the National Braille Press, Inc. On this day he tracks some 100 jobs, from getting transcribers started on a Braille reprint of a user's guide to the Macintosh version of the Duxbury Braille Translator to making sure a mailing of 2,044 Braille copies of the latest issue of the religious magazine Discovery is ready for pickup.

For decades Braille literacy among the blind was on the decline, the result of the movement to educate blind children in public schools rather than special residential schools and of the notion that the rise of books-on-tape and talking computers made reading raised dots obsolete. In 1997 5,400 children and teens used Braille as their primary reading method, down from 9,000 in 1963, according to the American Printing House for the Blind. Now, after years of advocacy by the blind, thirty states, including Massachusetts, have enacted laws requiring that blind children be taught Braille, and last year Congress passed similar legislation. The Braille numbers in recent years have begun inching up again.

National Braille Press, founded in 1927 and tucked between Northeastern University and Symphony Hall, is one of five presses in the country authorized to produce books in Braille for the Library of Congress. Of thirty-three employees, thirteen are blind or legally blind. The press does $1.2 million in contract work a year and also publishes its own material, including cookbooks and computer guides and print-Braille children's books in which transparent plastic pages of Braille inserted between printed pages enable sighted parents and teachers to introduce blind youngsters to Braille as they read aloud.

Booth oversees all these operations. He's been blind since he was born prematurely forty-five years ago, and the oxygen used to aid his nascent lungs destroyed his vision. He was introduced to Braille at five when his parents enrolled him in the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown.

First order of business on this particular morning is to enter on his computer the new job for the Westford-based Duxbury Systems, Inc., aided by a device that converts what's on the screen to speech. Project due in twenty working days. Booth's fingers fly over a Braille calendar. He enters January 18 in his database.

The computer is an old DOS model because the graphics-heavy Windows system is tough to convert to speech. But DOS is obsolete, so Booth has a Windows computer at home and a talking screen reader he bought for $800. "I'm hoping by the time we convert here I'll know something about it," he says.

That Optacon scanner on Booth's office desk is obsolete too. He runs a scanning wand over a printed page and puts his other hand in a small device that looks like a nail dryer and converts the scanned words into Braille. It's how Booth tells whether a printed cover is in the proper spot on a page. The scanner is no longer made, so there will be no replacing it when it breaks.

"I'm not looking forward to that. It saves me a lot of sighted help I don't need," Booth says. "I'll have to learn to do it another way as I've done so many times."

Next stop is the transcription room upstairs. Booth has the job order in hand, detailed once in computer printout and once in a Braille note he punched with the Brailler on his desk. He puts the strap of his Braille Lite around his neck and reaches for his cane.

The Braille Lite is a $3,300 notebook-sized laptop with six keys--one for each position on the six-dot Braille cell--and a Braille display. This is how Booth reads the climatological report he downloads each morning before he leaves home because he's fascinated by weather. It's where he keeps the files that he works on while riding the train, where he has a copy of the book, Getting to Yes he's reading and the copy of Charlotte's Web on disk that he's testing. It is especially handy because Braille is bulky. Not only must it be printed on paper thick enough to hold raised dots on both sides, but a page of print often fills as much as two pages in Braille.

One look at the desk of chief transcriber Melissa Hirshson and you know she can see. Her purse lies on top of a haphazard stack of papers, and there's barely room for the unopened Nestle Crunch bar on her desk. Hirshson has been interested in Braille since she wrote a report in fifth grade on Helen Keller.

She tells Booth she's transcribing the book Don't Scream. She's cut the pages and run them through a scanner, and now she's proofreading the text on her screen because sometimes the scanner, top-of-the-line though it is, misses things. The ideal situation is when the printed material is already on disk. Next Hirshson will convert the text to Braille using Duxbury Translator software, and from that a metal plate will be embossed in Braille, all of which is much easier than the days when Braille transcription was done by key punch by hand.

In comes chief proofreader Christopher Devin, who reads paper proofs of the embossed Braille plates before the plates go to press. He works with headphones and fingers in an unlit room next to the transcribers, guided by taped text read by readers who mention every punctuation mark. Sometimes a dot on the embosser doesn't fire, and it's important to catch those mistakes before a book is printed. A Braille version of Webster's New World Dictionary fills seventy-two volumes and one wall of the proofreaders' room.

Each morning Devin, who is blind, tells Booth the status of various jobs. "Superfine Valentine" is ready. So is Syndicated Columnists Weekly. Melissa's working on Don't Scream. They haven't started Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. As Devin reads his Braille list, Booth types the information into his Braille Lite.

"Blindness can be reduced to an inconvenience. The production management I do here has nothing to do with my being blind," Booth says. "But I don't want to make it trivial. It's at once an inconvenience, and it's all-consuming. You can't spend your life meditating on it. You wouldn't get to the fun stuff."

Back in Booth's office, printer Khith Nhem, who operates ink and Braille presses, delivers his status report. Nhem is leaving for vacation, and Booth wants as many ink jobs as possible done by then because ink always precedes Braille. Otherwise a second run through a press would crush the raised dots.

Underfoot Booth can hear the rumble of the Braille presses downstairs. "We call it the heartbeat of the press," Booth says. "If you don't hear it, something is not going well."

Next stop is the bindery upstairs, where hardcover Braille books are bound, as many as 250 Braille pages per volume. The Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook fills eleven volumes. Piles of unbound pages of Inner Chimes, a book of children's poetry, line a long table, awaiting the insertion of clear Braille pages. Each month the press prints 500 to 600 of these print-Braille children's books, then offers them for the same price as book stores sell the print version. The other 75 percent of the cost to produce these books comes from fund-raising.

Booth has held this job since 1994, after working for six years in technical support for Xerox Imaging Systems, traveling the country training sales representatives. He's worked in customer service at a bank, screened callers for radio talk shows, and staffed a library's talking-book section. "Coming here, I have a career," he says, "Braille is still here. We're going strong, so likely this will be a good job for me."

Finally Booth checks the ground-floor pressroom, where John Daniels is running 3,500 copies of the Blazie Engineering catalog on a converted ink press with blotters to cushion the Braille plates. To print Braille legibly on two sides of a page, the plates must be misaligned by precisely 1/16 of an inch. Once the pages are printed, they await collating in stacks of fifty. Any more pages in a pile and the Braille would be crushed.

In the cavernous room beside the pressroom, Daniels's wife, Dorothy, supervises the collating operations. Everyone in this department has some kind of disability, and everyone, even the blind, rotates through all the jobs, including running the stitching machine, which is the only station where Daniels insists on a no-talking rule. Daniels herself, her eyes distorted behind thick glasses, has been legally blind since she was injured in an automobile accident at the age of ten. She's on schedule for getting Discovery magazine out the door, she tells Booth, but she could sure use another postal crib to store them.

"My work here," says Booth, "is sometimes exciting and sometimes boring. It's exhilarating if you produce a product that people like."