Braille Printing Press

Let's discuss the role of braille printing press in enhancing braille accessibility.

June 6, 2019

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Audio Transcript


Embracing Braille – Braille Printing Press

Presented by Vileen Shah

June 6, 2019

Vileen Shah: Today's topic is the role of braille printing press and enhancing braille accessibility. I'll first clarify what I have in mind about this topic; then, I'll briefly touch the history of braille printing and then I'll touch the wide arena... wide spectrum of the braille printing houses are now covering. At the end, I'll take you... brief look into the horizons that braille printing has touched so far... as much as I know. All right? So these are a few areas that I'm going to cover in our discussion today.

To begin with, I may want to say that unfortunately, I did not find enough information about the history of braille press. So let's first understand the topic as I worded it and let's say the role of braille printing press. Now, the press is often misunderstood. Because we are talking about the freedom of press, which is great, and we also use the word press in all different meanings and connotations. But here, by press I mean the actual production house. Braille printing house. The braille printing facility. And how much these braille printing production houses have contributed to make braille books available to people. So, that means how much they have been contributing and how much they have contributed in enhancing braille accessibility.

So, with that, we are going to cover the role that the braille printing press, or the braille printing houses, have played in enhancing braille literacy as well as braille accessibility.

If you'll go back to the history, as I was talking a few minutes ago, that initially braille was produced by using a slate and stylus. That was the first and foremost tool that Mr. Louis Braille invented. But, if we still go back further in the history of literacy for the blind, then you would know that there were people around the world who were concerned about literacy for the blind. The history also gives us lots of examples in which the blind themselves, by their memory power, learned a lot. There was a math professor who was blind, who was teaching math in a college in Great Britain in the 18th century, much before even braille was invented. So there were people who did things on their own. There was a blind doctor, later on, of course.

So then, particularly in France and many other countries of Europe, people were running blind schools, schools for the blind and teaching blind how to read and write. But, they were raised dots; I mean, there was raised print letters. Now, the printing system is called a linear system, which means the way we write in print, we draw lines; we do not make dots. Therefore, it's called linear system. Many of you were cited and did use the... I'm pretty certain you knew how to write in print. But, those who have been blind since birth, or since early childhood like me, at age three, also must still learn how to sign your name or how to write in print. You realize what I'm talking is it's a linear system; you make letters by drawing lines and not dots. Like that, braille is based on dots, as you all know, six dot system. Why six? We will cover in our next session, June 13th. Why six dots.

But right now, moving on... in as early as 1858, after the recognition of braille as a system for reading and writing for the blind, there was a group of people who wanted to set up a library for blind in Kentucky, in United States. I may say that was really a commendable move, which means they were concerned about the literacy for the blind. To me, personally, you may disagree with me... and I like people who disagree, so don't worry... to me, literacy is a salvation. Literacy opens the doors of knowledge for you. If you are illiterate, you may have lots of knowledge... I'm not saying all illiterate people have no knowledge. There was a great pundit... pundit, I hope you know the word... great scholar, Sanskrit scholar, in India. He was so much respected by people because he knew so much about all the scriptures and about the language. But, he did not know braille or he did not know how to read and write. So, those are exceptions; we do not want to ignore those.

The fact is that if you know how to read and write, if you're literate, then you have your own ability to make your way through life. I believe that life is always full of challenges. Sometimes it's good. If there is no challenge and if you challenge yourself and go ahead and make your way through, that helps.

Moving onto this, later on... it became obvious that if we want to produce textbooks in braille or magazines in braille, then we want to have something faster. That's how, as we covered in one of our sessions, that the braille writer was invented or developed. But, later on, the braille press was developed. Initially... and that also I mentioned sometimes, I don't know how... initially, when there was no computer and no electricity... or probably there was electricity, I may be wrong... people were producing braille using the zinc plate, which means they would first prepare a braille page on a plate, metal plate. Since this plate is so strong, you can press it over the papers.

Let's say the first page of a textbook, or a magazine, particularly, that's where it was used much. If they prepare a page on the plate, and then they develop the technology, that they can press that plate on the paper, and they read braille on the paper. That way, you can produce hundreds and thousands of copies, of course, even that was a slow process, but much faster than writing things using a braille writer or slate and stylus. I did not get the exact information, as I said, from Google as well. Anyway, who can get, please email it to me, so that we can post it on the website for today's session. But I do know from here and there, as I read somewhere else and heard from different sources, they were producing and printing magazines and circulating.

One of the most known magazine among the braille magazines was Matilda Ziegler. A lady by the name of Electa Matilda Ziegler made a big contribution to set up the braille press and produce braille magazines that could be made available to people with vision loss. That's how Matilda Ziegler was being circulated with thousands of copies all over the world, and I'm saying being circulated because after its first century, after completing 100 years, the management decided to stop producing Matilda Ziegler in braille. I'm pretty certain many people were disappointed. But that was a good move around the beginning of the 19th century. Matilda Ziegler became a magazine that even Helen Keller was reading and she mentioned about it in one of her articles or books. Then, of course, many more magazines started being produced and published.

Later on, American Printing House for the Blind was established. As I said, in 1858, some attempt was made to establish a library for the blind. It was funded by the state of Kentucky, but later on, it became a federal project. The federal government took over, decided to fund this project. Today, the American Printing House for the Blind is not only producing the textbooks and magazines in braille, but also producing a different types of braille devices. One of them is called orbit, that is a braille display, and we will not cover all of that now, because our focus is how the braille press helps in enhancing braille accessibility.

Another such press is called National Braille Press. There were five major braille printing houses in the United States and I heard, I may be wrong, I heard that two of them have been closed down. So there's one more somewhere in Philadelphia... Associated Braille Press, I think. There is, of course, American Printing House in Kentucky, Louisville, and there is National Braille Press in Boston, Massachusetts. These, and many other braille production houses, such as Royal National Institute for the Blind in London, and Central Braille Press in India, and many other braille presses in different parts of the world, including certain countries of Africa, have been producing braille materials and thousands of pages.

If you would check the list of magazines available for you from National... NLS, National Library Service, for the physically handicapped people, NLS, you will see that they are making available a number of magazines of all various interests, such as parenting, such as Reader's Digest... now I probably think Reader's Digest is closed... and many others, which I don't remember. I used to subscribe many, but I don't because I don't have time, and I do not want to make my personal story part of this presentation. But yes, I don't have time... that's briefly what it is.

Those who have been subscribing magazines from NLS can know that's how much material is available. This should help you realize how much... to what great level, the accessibility has been made possible because of these braille printing houses, because of the technology that has been available for printing braille. I mentioned about the old technology using zinc prints, or plates... I always say print, I don't know why. Zinc plates or some other metal plates.

Later on, as you all know, that the computer has changed the whole world. When computers came in, the things change, and people started developing the software for producing braille. One of the known braille translator software is called Duxbury Braille Translator. Another one is MegaDot and there few more... Braille2000... this different kinds of software help you produce braille books, braille pamphlets, braille manuals, by having them in computer. That helps because those zinc plates were lost and destroyed down the road, but you can have your file saved in computer for years and years and produce the braille materials by using those braille files on your computer. So that way, the braille software has revolutionized the printing of braille and has made more and more braille materials accessible for the blind and visually impaired.

There is a lot in this discipline about the role of braille press, but let's see... I'm pretty sure many of you have more information to share and I always like that the people share, the participants contribute. So I will leave this floor open with just a little note that the computer world has revolutionized the accessibility for the blind and visually impaired to the braille materials, including the braille displays, which can be later.

Elyse: Okay. This is the area code in eight five zero. So-

Vileen Shah: All right, eight five zero. Tallahassee, Florida.

Elyse: Eight five zero.

Annely: Yes, it's Annely. How are you?

Vileen Shah: Hello, Annely. Welcome back! I'm fine, great. What's your question?

Annely: Well, not a question. I wanted to add a couple of things with the... you're talking about braille press, but I also wanted to mention... I remember years ago, as an elementary school student, they talked about the volunteers who used to brailling for us. They had an IBM typewriter that-

Vileen Shah: Oh, yeah.

Annely: ...printed out in braille. If I remember correctly, some of the letters, if you use the shift key with the letter, it would be a contraction. I think I saw one of these when I was in college. I think they had one... but I also wanted to mention about thermoforming. That-

Vileen Shah: Oh, that's right.

Annely: That they used thermoforming as a means of mass... I guess mass producing braille. I remember having textbooks in high school that were done on thermoform paper, which is plastic, for those who aren't familiar with thermoform. They used the heat process to... they'd have a brailled sheet underneath, and put a sheet of plastic on top of that and then they, on a platform... and they'd slide it into the machine that was heated up, and then they would hold it in there for a few seconds and then pull it back out. The plastic sheet would have the shapes of the braille letters on it.

Vileen Shah: Thank you, Annely. Great, great contribution. I'll briefly comment on that. I had the fortune to receive the IBM braille writer, thank you so much for bringing that up. Yes, and you can even used some contractions. But, with the coming of computer, that became obsolete. Thermoform, yeah, thermoform printing in braille was very useful. I saw that at Hadley, they were doing it; but again, with further development technology, computer technology, that has also become almost obsolete.

Okay, four people have raised hands, that's what my computer is saying. So, let's move on.

Elyse: Okay, and I'll just add to Annely... we had a thermoform machine and we called it the braille toaster.

Vileen Shah: Yeah, that was- that was a popcorn thing, you know? Thermocorn machine. Popcorn. But, we had a good brailles with that, thank you, yeah. Next-

Elyse: Okay. The next person in line, the area code is nine zero three. Nine zero three, go ahead.

Michelle: Good morning, Dr. Shah. My question is, as I was preparing for this session, I was looking up braille printers, and I came across T-Base, T-B-A-S-E, and it referenced BANA. Are you familiar with that, and is it widely known of? It asks that I register and get a quote... I wanted to just kind of see if you knew about it, and if it was something that Hadley uses?

Vileen Shah: How do you spell that word, Michelle?

Michelle: T, and then B-A-S-E. T-Base.

Vileen Shah: Oh, really. Okay, no, no. One I'm not even aware, and two, if Hadley's using, probably, let's see if Linn knows. Then we can get the answer from her. So, let's hear Linn before we take the next question.

Linn: I don't think Hadley uses it. I've heard of it, but I don't know much about it.

Vileen Shah: Okay.

Linn: I used to... I had a chance to braille on that old IBM thing and it was very interesting to just type and have braille come out, but I have a thermoform machine down in my family room.

Vileen Shah: Do you?

Linn: Right now. Yes, I do! What it's helpful for are a couple of things. If you find a recipe book that's done in thermoform, you can wipe it off and the dots don't go away. Or if you're working with a youngster, perhaps, who has maybe a multiple disability and there might be a little drool or something... you just take a wet rag and you can clean it off. But I like it for drawings. You can't raise them up very much, but I remember once, somebody in a class of mine used lifesavers, and they put it in the braille toaster, so to speak, and they melted. So, you have to be really careful. But it does make really nice braille if you want something for recipes and things.

Vileen Shah: Okay, yes.

Annely: This is Annely. Yes, it does, and I was going to say that you can also put other things that aren't heat sensitive on there to make raised pictures for picture books for kids.

Vileen Shah: Wow! Great.

Annely: Yes. You can use string, coins, buttons... anything that's not real, real high.

Vileen Shah: Cool, okay. Next, we'll take the next comment or question, then.

Elyse: Darrin Cheney. I will unmute you.

Darrin Cheney: One of the things I wanted to throw out there is that when you're talking about printing books to be able to read in braille, and that it opened up the world so that... and then now, where we're at today, where we've got libraries full of books and materials that aren't even being read anymore. Then, they're talking about making everything electronic, so it's more accessible... I wonder that, at least in my experience, this is a multi-tiered process. It's like... first you have to learn braille, second you have to be able to use the braille, and to be able to read and have access to all of those materials. Then, you throw in the third part, where you actually add the technology, and there's kind of a disconnect.

You wanted to start with reading braille and then jump into technology, but it's not quite the right path, I think, at least to be able to make things effective for you to learn how to read and write braille effectively. So, I guess my comment or question is that... is that a good strategy, is that something that Hadley's going to take a look at, to fill in the gaps between the learning braille and then braille through technology, or... where do you think the future's going to go, Dr. Shah?

Vileen Shah: Well, thank you, Darrin, for your insight. I believe it's a right strategy, although it varies from individual to individual. Each individual learning braille and then technology and then using both braille and technology combined... they can customize. But, overall, in general, yes. If I were you, I would go with that strategy and that certainly helps.

Speaking about Hadley... I'm not sure. I cannot really speak for Hadley, because there are people who make decisions. But, I may say that Hadley instructors, who are now called learning experts, would certainly help their learners with this process. Okay? All right.

Well, we can move to the next. I hope I-

Elyse: Okay. We have a few in the chat, I'll just mention. Karen had asked, "Has anyone had a custom map printed by the San Francisco Lighthouse?"

Vileen Shah: Great question. I have no answer. Anybody who has the answer, please raise your hand.

Darrin Cheney: This is Darrin. I've had one printed. In fact, at the ACB conference several years ago, they were offering to print a map of your town, or at least a general area that shows where your house was and where different other landmarks were in town. So, yes, I got one and yes, I use it.

Vileen Shah: Interesting. Thank you. Does that answer your question, Karen? You may type your answer. Okay, let's take the next-

Elyse: Okay. Next hand is George's iPhone. I will unmute you.

Vileen Shah: George?

George: Hi, good afternoon. I just have a quick question. Does anybody have any information or know of a place where the braille label is made out of the original material, like a metal braille labeler, than the new... what I'm finding now, these plastic ones that tends to fall apart a lot.

Vileen Shah: Are you asking about making labels on metal?

George: Correct. Well, not on metal, no. The actual braille labeler was made out of metal... some sort of steel, some sort of hard material. But now, when I looked up braille labelers, they're made out plastic and sometimes, when you squeeze them, the wheel pops off. It's a cheap way that they have manufactured them now. I was wondering are any places that exist that makes the braille labeler out of the good materials?

Vileen Shah: Okay, sure. Again, I have no idea if any metal labeler is available. There is one that operates electronically and that should be a metal one, but I am not sure on that. Linn knows more about that, so Linn, would you like to answer that question? Then, anybody else who can answer, we'll take their answers.

Linn: I have that... this is Linn, and I have the electronic one. It's horribly expensive. It's about $700. But, if you do lots of labeling, Vileen said last week, and it's a great... you can do any combination of dots with it, and it does... you don't have to push it hard. But, if you're just one person, what you might try to do, if you're in a big city area, is convince an agency to get it and then go use it whenever you want it. It is really, really excellent, but I haven't seen those metal labeler in a long time, and I know exactly what he's talking about. They were wonderful. But I haven't seen one, so maybe somebody else has.

Vileen Shah: I haven't either. We have been in braille world for long time, by that I mean Linn and I both. But, we haven't seen those. Okay, anybody else who has seen metal labelers? Or have information? Please share.

Elyse: Alan has his hand raised. I'll go unmute Alan.

Vileen Shah: Yes.

Elyse: Okay.

Alan: Two things. One, I also have the electronic braille label maker by LoganTech. It's a hard plastic and it's like a mini braille writer, so it has the six keys, the space bar, and the cut key and a forward and back space key. Works really well. I got mine for $499 at the time because it was being introduced. It works extremely well. It does have jamming problems if those little tabs, when you're cutting it, get stuck in there. Then you have to send it back. You can't take it apart; it voids the warranty. Now, I got a handheld label maker from MaxiAids and there was two types. There's a heavy duty one, and it's a heavier duty plastic and it works so much better than the one that Hadley gives, which was really great for getting started. So, I use my MaxiAids one mostly because of the quality that it does and the fact that it doesn't jam hardly at all. Over.

Vileen Shah: Thank you so much, Alan. I think George's concern is more about having a sturdy, strong labeler so that it doesn't fall apart. Even though, George, you ask about metal labeler, but you probably are looking for a strong one, and that's one of the things that MaxiAids supplies, as Alan said. I never used, but Alan is always... he always has the wealth of information to share. So thank you, Alan.

Okay. Next one. So, anybody who has any information about the metal labeler or something similar, as Alan said, please share.

Okay, wonderful. Let's take another question. Anybody... any raised hand now?

Elyse: I don't have any hands up right now.

Vileen Shah: Okay, wonderful. All right, my friends. So, it's almost ten more minutes left, and we talked quite a bit about the thermo... what is that called, that thermocore braille producing and labeler and other issues related to braille press. If anybody can find the history of braille press, please email it to me and I'll post it on the website, Hadley's website. My hours for that, with Google, was frustrating, but maybe I wasn't doing something right. Certainly, your contribution is most welcome.

Let's open this... Oh, Alan raised a hand.

Elyse: This... okay, Alan, and then I want to jump in. Alan-

Alan: Yes.

Elyse: Hi, Alan. Go ahead.

Alan: Yes. I forgot to mention that the heavy duty one is only plastic, and I don't think they have metal ones. But you can check with MaxiAids or Blind Mice Mart. They also, too... or the Braille Superstore. Those are the three places I would check to see if they have anything like that. Over.

Vileen Shah: Thank you. Good.

George: Blind Mice Mart does not have them.

Alan: Okay. It's probably... they don't make them anymore, because they're probably very expensive and not many people want those.

Vileen Shah: That's one of the issues, not many people want... particularly when they are expensive. It's hard for most of us to buy. So... yes. Okay. Any-

George: I would imagine that it probably does cost a lot, because I think in the '80s, they were as high as about $47, so we talk 30 plus years later that if someone does make one, I would expect it might be in the hundred dollar range.

Vileen Shah: I think, George, that's where blind consumer's groups should be active to make more products accessible, affordable for the blind and visually impaired people. Otherwise, the prices are exorbitant. I wouldn't spend six, seven hundred dollars just for the labeler. Maybe I don't make so many labels. Those who make so many could go for that, but it's still expensive and last time I talked about the braille printers, and each braille embosser or printer cost you anywhere between three to five thousand dollars for personal use and for other uses, it may cost you $15,000.

These are the exorbitant prices. Even JAWS... $1000 or more. That's a lot. I can buy my computer for $300, $400, $500 dollars. But, this accessory is $1000. That's so much. So that's where we really need some foundation, some organization, some... if not, these consumer's groups, like American Council of the Blind, National Federation of the Blind. They're the ones who may want to something in this area or set up some foundation, some funding agency who would make those products affordable. That is my personal view. But you may comment on that. Anybody who would like to say more on that?

Linn: It's Linn, Vileen... I agree. Being blind, unfortunately, is expensive, if you want the gadgets because there aren't enough of us. If some grants or people would take it on, it would really help. I have the expensive labeler mainly because I do a lot of labeling, but I have rheumatoid arthritis in my hands. Pushing hard is difficult for me now. I wanted to tell you... when I bought my braille writer, I wove little looper pot holders when I was a little girl and sold them for a nickel in a restaurant to get the money to get... because my parents had no money, really, they were farmers and they just didn't have much. The brailler I bought was about $90. Now, I think the same quality braille writer is almost $900.

Vileen Shah: Ten times more, yeah.

Linn: Isn't that something?

Vileen Shah: It is, it is. The prices are always so high for most of the products... or probably, I would say, all products for the blind. Nothing much has been done. I truly appreciate the effort made by, I think, people in New Zealand. I like to go all over the world, even though I live in the United States. I'm an American citizen as well, although I'm not born here.

Anyway, going back to that. New Zealand has produced NVDA, a speech software, like JAWS. It's available free for everybody. That is what I want to see... one of these consumer's groups doing. That kind of thing, they should do... they should find somebody, some volunteers, some people who are willing to contribute. I'm pretty certain, out of those thousands and hundreds of thousands of software developers, there are a few, if not all of them, who would like to voluntarily contribute their hours to develop such software as JAWS. That could be made available free for all; similarly, those hardware pieces, as you mentioned... labelers or braille writers or braille embossers... those could be made certainly affordable, if not free. I'm not in favor of giving everything free of charge. But, at least affordable price.

On top of everything else that we talked, as far as I know, 70%, seven zero, 70% of the blind and visually impaired population in this country has no job. So, you don't have a job, you depend on your SSDI or SSI or your family support... and then you have to buy such expensive products that will ensure your independence. But the price itself is a negation of giving you any independence. So, unfortunately, that's what it is. Those who take pride in doing so much for the blind, those consumer's groups certainly have much more room to do things like that.

Elyse: I just wanted to add that you were talking about the American Printing House for the Blind out of Louisville, Kentucky. Part of their grounds and buildings... they have the libraries and the machinery, but they also have a museum. I was fortunate enough to go and it's a free entry to the museum, and they have Helen Keller's desk that is on display there, and you're able to touch it and just see it. They have this little handout that was part of it, and it's a photo from Helen Keller seated at her desk when she was in Connecticut with her... and all these sort of descriptions and things. This was taken in 1954. Also, her desk is a working desk and the bookshelves and all décor around.

One of the neat things, I didn't realize... Helen Keller had visited Japan on three different occasions, and she had many pieces of art and different sculptures of different influential people on her desk as well as the desk itself was 72 inches wide with a raised lip on the edge to keep things from sliding off. Gosh, I wish they made them like that now. She purchased the desk in 1947 after her house was... most of her house was destroyed in a fire, so this was her newer version. It is on display at the Museum of the American Printing House for the Blind, which is the 4th floor of one of their buildings on their property.

Vileen Shah: Great! I would love to-

Linn: Elyse, did you see the zinc plates? Did you see some of the zinc plates?

Elyse: Yes, I-

Linn: Me too. They're just heavy as all heck, guys.

Elyse: And there was incredible different types of braillers on display. Oh my gosh, I had never even known some of these were developed or prototyped. It was really intricate before the Perkins brailler was widely used.

Vileen Shah: Very interesting. See? There's one of the benefits by having such sessions and having participation and sharing. Thank you so much, Elyse, great. I would love to see that museum. I heard of that, but never had a chance.

Linn: Me too.

Vileen Shah: Okay.

Alan: Okay. I-

Vileen Shah: Sorry, Alan.

Alan: -raised my hand before you asked that question, but what I was going to mention about... you said JAWS is expensive, yes it is. I was a PC user for 19 years, had JAWS, and every time JAWS updated, you had to buy the next upgrade to keep in line with what was going on, along with any other software. But, my PC died... I went to an Apple. Apple has its own voiceover program in it, just like the iPhone, and anything else is free. Yes, you pay more upfront for the Apple computer, but you get everything and you get all the upgrades for free. So, those are two different options to deal with, if you don't want to spend all that money for the programs and software. Over.

Vileen Shah: Great point, Alan, and that's definitely commendable, what Apple's doing. One of the best things, the most fascinating things I've found is that the voiceover is usable even on your computer, or the phone, or iPod, or every device Apple produces. That's the way to go, at least better than what we have with JAWS.

Vileen Shah: Ladies and gentlemen, I think we had a nice session today, and I hope you learned something, I hope you found this session informative.

I would like to see you all next time and more people as well. It's about, again, if Louis Braille had not become blind. I know that, at least, we would not have braille script. So, we are all lucky, fortunate, to have braille, to make us literate, and we will talk about this next session.

So, with that, I declare that today's session is over. Thank you for joining, thank you for your participation, and see you all next week.