Reconnecting the Dots
A Profile of the National Braille Association
by B. T. Kimbrough
Salem, Oregon

The signs and symbols that make up Grade Two Literary Braille have changed little during the six decades since the National Braille Association was formed in 1945. The group's mission also remains substantially unaltered: "to provide continuing education to those who prepare braille and to provide braille materials to persons who are visually impaired." But during the 63 turbulent years of its existence, so many other matters related to braille and its producers and consumers have altered so much, that NBA has had to continuously re-invent almost everything else about itself just to keep from losing ground.

Of course, the technology of literary braille production has evolved dramatically over that time with computer-driven embossers replacing those once state-of-the-art thermoform copiers, and their dreaded sticky plastic sheets. Where months of volunteer labor used to produce one precious stack of pages on a Perkins brailler, computers now help speed production times, and store copies of perfectly translated braille files in a microscopic space, then turn them into hard-copy books in a matter of hours. Where every character that went into a braille book once required a pair of human hands connected to a focused mind, many of those books are now largely created by scanners and recognition software, with little human intervention until the final stages. On the other hand, advances in tactile graphics production and ways of representing complex mathematical expressions or scientific symbols, have created amazing challenges for transcribers, which would have been considered unbrailleable 10 or 15 years ago.

According to NBA president Diane Spence, the greater challenges faced by her nearly 1,600-member organization start with the enlarged expectations of braille readers, which have been fueled by all this new applied technology and expertise.

"It used to be that braille readers were just supposed to be grateful for any braille that they got, because there weren't enough people to do it; the bar was kind of low in terms of what the quality and the timeliness of delivery should be. As braille readers have become more educated, and as the number of transcribers and the training that's available have increased, the bar has really been raised; I think braille readers today are expecting ''good ''braille ''fast, as opposed to 20 years ago they were just glad to get whatever they could get, whenever they could get it."

Traditionally, NBA has sought to meet some of the demand for hard copy braille, by running what amounted to a privately subsidized production facility--complete with transcribers, embossers, proofreaders, binding equipment and secure storage for electronic files. About a year ago, NBA's board decided to focus all of the group's financial and human resources on providing and promoting training in braille preparation, and that meant discontinuing the production activity which was called the Braille Bookbank.

"It was putting such a financial drain on us," explained Spence in a recent telephone interview, "we could not continue to do it at the cost that we were doing it. We decided to focus on what we thought we did best, and that was in staff development for and training for transcribers, proofreaders and teachers. We feel that's where we are going to have the greatest impact, helping parents, teachers and transcribers learn how to prepare the best braille that they can in the most expeditious manner. ...

"Because we're trying so hard to get well-formatted, high-quality braille with wonderful graphics so the students can learn and be the best that they can be, it takes awhile to get that material to them, so they're possibly sitting in the classroom without a book."

According to David Shaffer, NBA's executive director, callers and e-mail correspondents who want to order braille materials no longer directly available through NBA, are referred to one of the many independent braille producers listed in a database called Alternate Media Producers. AMP is maintained by American Printing House for the Blind, and Shaffer says he often logs onto the APH Web site to locate possible producers for callers who don't have access to the Internet. For assistance, call 585-427-8260.

Although the Internet is beginning to play a part, much of NBA's training is still delivered personally during intense spring and fall regional gatherings. With the country divided into four regions, the conference locations are arranged so that each region hosts one conference every two years. Conference workshop sessions are presented by NBA members skilled in such areas as tactile graphics, presentation of mathematical or scientific symbols and braille music. Workshop topics are selected in several ways: some are dictated by recent changes in one of the braille codes through official action by the Braille Authority of North America. Topics that would be timely are frequently revealed through surveys of stakeholders within the selected region. Occasionally, a training area not previously scheduled gets included because of a new NBA project called Ask An Expert. The nine brave and generous experts on this panel, respond in kind to electronically submitted questions covering everything from unusual braille formatting to the presentation of complex signs where no officially recognized braille symbols exist. When the same question arises repeatedly through Ask An Expert, it may very well become a workshop topic at the next NBA regional conference.

Electronic communications are also allowing some tutoring of student transcribers, although NBA does not offer a direct path to certification. Through its distance education committee, chaired by Linda Horton, NBA offers guidance and encouragement to trainees who are studying for certification as literary braille transcribers, and Spence spoke of her hope to expand the committee's work to trainees who are seeking certification in Nemeth Code and tactile graphics. Moreover, her view of NBA training yet to come, does, as she said earlier, involve plans for some groundbreaking work in elementary and secondary classrooms. "We also want to expand and put a lot of energy into working with teachers and paraprofessionals, and helping them learn more about braille."

What lies behind this harmless-sounding remark, is the delicate issue of what to do about braille access to electronic textbooks in the classroom. As described in the January-February 2008 DIALOGUE article, "The $32 Million Question" (, Bookshare has been promised significant federal funding to supply downloadable textbook files in the new NIMAS format for classroom use, but converting them into hard-copy or refreshable braille, for students who can read it, is not part of the free Bookshare service. Briefly removing her NBA presidential hat, and speaking as a concerned braille professional, Spence told me that notwithstanding the great promise of speedy access offered by the new format, many practical decisions still need to be made about how to adapt these files skillfully, without too much delay.

"They are trying to see what can we do to get braille to students faster? Well, the solution to that problem is, we're going to take these NIMAS electronic files and give students electronic displays so they can have instant access to braille.

"Maybe the information is not placed on the page in logical order, everything is left justified, and it's just line after line of braille. That is where NBA is going to have to work with transcribers to see what we are going to be able to do to those files to make them the best they can be for the braille reader."

While wrestling with that set of issues, NBA must also deal with the rapidly-changing nature of its own membership, as full-time paid braille workers increase in numbers, and volunteers, who used to predominate, seem to be diminishing, at least in terms of percentages. For instance, the organization's current president, while a volunteer so far as NBA is concerned, is employed full-time as director of Braille Services for the Region 4 Education Service Center in Houston, Texas.

Overall, NBA has shrunk somewhat from its peak size of more than 2,000 members during the 1960s; and this, too, could pose a challenge in finding the resources for its ambitious training agenda. Much of NBA's current funding comes from the $40 annual dues assessed to the members. The rest comes from member or other private donations and proceeds from the sales of technical manuals and other training materials.

One resource which is not lacking, however, is enthusiasm, at least, if NBA's president is a fair example. If you ask Spence, whose term as NBA president continues till 2011, what she finds most satisfying about her dual braille-related roles, she will tell you that it is the very changing nature of the field, the technology and the reader that keep her coming back for more.

"Braille is not for everybody; it's either for you, and you're hooked for life, or you'll know in just a very short time that it's not for you. ... You have to have the mindset of continuous improvement in order to be successful."

Spence has spent the past 25 years directing a regional center which is responsible for transcribing and embossing complex textbooks and tests, and she sounds as if she has thrived on the challenge. "Braille has changed so much in the last 25 years, and there's so many more possibilities ... and you can never get bored with it because what you did yesterday is never going to be the same thing as what you're going to do tomorrow."