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A watchful eye: Braille literacy on decline, but translators still stress importance of reading

Micki McCabe, director of the Connecticut Braille Association, gets volunteer help translating books, most textbooks, into Braille, January 26, 2010, in Westport, Connecticut.
Micki McCabe, director of the Connecticut Braille Association, gets volunteer help translating books, most textbooks, into Braille, January 26, 2010, in Westport, Connecticut.
Michael Mcandrews, MCT

HARTFORD, Conn. — Most of the work at the Connecticut Braille Association in Westport, Conn., is transcribing textbooks: science, math, history.

There's also a huge demand for the "Harry Potter" and "Twilight" series. Most recently, they completed a request for "Stoneheart," a children's book about an alternate world of living statues. They had a first last year when they met a request for Braille music notation.

"We never know what we'll be getting until the phone rings," says Micki McCabe, workshop director for the Association.

The nonprofit organization has been producing Braille texts since 1959, operating mostly on the work of volunteers. McCabe is the only paid employee.

There's been a sharp drop in Braille literacy over the past few decades, due largely to new technologies. An article in the New York Times Magazine in December reported that fewer than 10 percent of blind people have the ability to read Braille. Audio technology — computer programs that write text from speech, as well as audio books — has allowed many blind people to function without reading Braille. But advocates say there is no substitute for literacy.

"The bottom line is, they have to learn the alphabet," McCabe says.

She says she has heard about the decline in Braille literacy, but wouldn't know it from her end of things. McCabe says her organization continues to get a steady stream of requests. Much of it comes from the state's Board of Education and Services for the Blind.

Nancy Mothersele, Braille coordinator for the state, is quick to sing the praises of the CBA. Mothersele notes that it's the only Braille association in Connecticut, so it's extremely valuable to her work. Most of the 1,200 blind students in the state system read large-print texts; about 100 read Braille.

On a recent Tuesday, volunteers Terry Searl and Gerry Donahue are preparing sheets of paper for the Braille printer. McCabe's black lab, Onyx, a retired guide dog, ambles about the office before napping near McCabe's desk.

McCabe doesn't write Braille, but with her computer program, she can write in standard English, which is automatically converted to Braille. She also can scan texts into the computer, and the program will transcribe it to Braille. A special printer produces the pages of raised Braille text.

Among the volunteers are sisters Jane Hurwitz of Bloomfield, Conn., and Lora Palmer of Wethersfield, Conn., have been transcribing Braille for more than 40 years. The organization has volunteers from around the country, people who can transcribe on systems they have at home and send it to McCabe on a disc. They outsource some of their work to prisons.

"Some of those prisoners do excellent work," marvels Peggy Catlin, another volunteer who is working on a transcription.

At 93, the Shelton, Conn., resident shows up at the office regularly. She has developed arthritis, an ailment that would have sidelined most Braillists just a few years ago, when the Perkins Brailler was the reigning technology. It works a lot like a manual typewriter, with keys that take some effort to press. So much of the transcribing is done by computer now that Catlin has continued her work unabated. She started with the Connecticut Braille Association in the 1960s. Now, transcribing Braille keeps her mind sharp, she says.

McCabe says that in the pre-computer days, they aimed to keep a pace of producing one book per month. It's hard to keep tabs on how much they produce because of the diversity of projects they work on. But McCabe says that, if necessary, and with some determination, they can get a book done in a day.

Who, and what, is Braille?

Louis Braille based his system on one known as "night writing," used by Napoleon's army. In Braille, each letter is represented by a six-dot figure or "cell"; different combinations represent letters and phrases. The system continues to evolve: New contractions and phrases continue to emerge to make Braille more efficient.

Converting standard text to Braille can require several pages of Braille for every one of printed text. Nancy Mothersele, Braille coordinator for the state's Services for the Blind, recalled that a biology textbook required 72 volumes (at 70 pages per volume) of Braille.

To get certification in writing Braille, you must take a course (go at your own pace; it usually takes six months to a year) and pass a test administered by the National Federation for the Blind. For details: www.nfb.org.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.