Future Reflections Winter/Spring 2000, Vol. 19 No. 1


Why Does It Take So Long?

by Betsy Burnham

Reprinted from the NBA Bulletin, Winter, 1996/97, published by the National Braille Association (NBA).

Editor’s Note: The problem of Braille illiteracy is not only about getting Braille instruction for kids, it’s also about getting Braille materials accurately transcribed in a timely fashion. This requires advance planning, adequate funding, and the selection of conscientious, qualified transcribers and proofreaders. Betsy Burnham, the author of the article below, is one of those conscientious transcribers who cares deeply about the Braille product that goes out to the students she serves through the Maryland Instructional Resource Center. She hopes her article will help educate school personnel about the importance of ordering Braille textbooks and materials early. Here is what she says:


In September of this year I was talking with Gloria Buntrock, a past president of NBA, regarding her group’s proofreading policy. I do not remember the exact conversation or what precipitated Gloria saying (and I paraphrase), “When you are transcribing a book you should think of yourself as a publisher.” Those words hit home and triggered many other thoughts for days to come.

Two or three days after this conversation I was feeling particularly overwhelmed and frustrated over an accounting book our group had received two weeks before. The school was calling wondering where the book was, the student needed the book. I began to think, what are we doing wrong, are we really taking too much time to Braille this book? We have a scanner and MegaDots after all! (I say that facetiously.) Then Gloria’s words, as I recalled them, came back to me. “You are a publisher.”

Photo of Betsy Burnham

Betsy Burnham


The thought occurred to me, “I wonder how long it took the publishers of this accounting book to have it ready for print distribution?” As the print publisher designs the book, decisions must be made as to how this information will be visually displayed not only to get the information to the student but to enhance the student’s learning of that information. Graphic artists, education specialists, typesetters, and many other specialists are involved in these decisions, which result in bold, colored, and italicized print, graphics, size of font and placement of pictures and, oh yes, those wonderful marginal notes. It is indeed a very long tedious process for print publishers and this long process is accepted and expected by the consumer. For this article I phoned the publishing company of the particular accounting book I was working on and asked the approximate time the publication of an accounting book takes. The person with whom I was speaking said from receipt of a manuscript to the final proof they plan on an absolute minimum of two years prior to sending the book for printing.

The decision as to which textbook school systems choose for their students is based not only on the information contained in a book, but also if the information is presented in a manner that will ensure and enhance the learning of the subject.

I realized that as a transcriber I indeed am a publisher, and the way I format or display the print copy in Braille must also “enhance the learning” of that material for the Braille reader. There is clearly a difference between what will enhance learning for a print reader and what will enhance learning for the Braille reader. I must be very concerned about how and where I place this material on the Braille page. Where do I put those marginal notes so they don’t interrupt the flow of the text? Which diagrams should be put into tactile diagrams, which should be described, which should be omitted? Will it be necessary for me to distinguish between bold and italicized print? How will the table or chart be used? Will it be read across or up and down? My decisions can and do make the material either clear and understandable or more confusing than ever.

Luckily, I have the Code of Braille Textbook Formats and Techniques, 1977; my handouts from NBA workshops; and fellow transcribers to assist me in making those decisions. But it does and should take time.

I want the books I transcribe to enhance learning, not just give the information, or worse yet, make learning that text more difficult because I didn’t format the text correctly or think about the student for whom I was transcribing the book. Therefore, I will continue to read what I am transcribing, think about how that information will be used, and format it properly.

The next time someone asks me why does it take so long, I will take a deep breath, count to three, and ask myself how long do I think it took to produce the print version; then say very nicely, “I am doing the best that I can. And oh, by the way, I have a copy of an article from the NBA Bulletin I’d like you to read.”

Hopefully, when those requesting the books stop to think about how long it took to publish the print text, they will begin to understand the function and job of a transcriber and grant them the same understanding and courtesy that they give the print publisher.