A Volunteer’s Experience at the 2015 Gala

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to volunteer at our A Million Laughs for Literacy Gala? Inside NBP talked to one of our volunteers about her experience.

Last week, we held our annual A Million Laughs for Literacy Gala at the Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel. It was an exciting night, celebrating braille literacy and the blind community. The evening was a tremendous success, thanks in part to our dedicated volunteers. Amy Bui, a Northeastern University Undergraduate student, was one of those volunteers. She has been volunteering at National Braille Press for several years, this was her 3rd gala, and in her words, “the best yet!”

Gala blog Ximena

Charlotte Griffiths, Ximena Ojopi and Amy Bui

It was a night filled with inspiration. Starting with Connor McLeod’s acceptance speech for the Hands On! Award (Connor successfully campaigned the Australian government to include tactile features on banknotes). President’s Awardee Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, echoed Connor’s commitment to the blind community in his remarks stating that he will “increase accessibility across all neighborhoods” in Boston. Blind Adventurist, Erik Weihenmayer, continued the inspiration with his special presentation on his adventures kayaking the Colorado River and the concept of No Barriers.

Our volunteers are passionate about NBP’s mission; many of them have stayed with us throughout the years because they share our passion for braille literacy. “I’ve been a volunteer for 4 years now, I love working with the development team at NBP,” Amy Bui continued. “For this year’s gala, I’ve worked on everything from painting the blue man to graphic design for the silent auction.”

Amy Blue Man

Amy Bui painting the blue man for the Blue Man Group silent auction

“My favorite part of the night was Fund a Book. It was fun, fast paced and interactive, with all proceeds going towards braille literacy,” said Amy Bui. Fund a Book is a great way for the sponsor to see the value of their philanthropy.

Fund a Book

Hands On! Awardee Connor McLeod and David Brown

Amy’s overall experience at the gala was a great one, and as she says, “mind-opening.” If you are interested in NBP’s volunteer program please visit: http://www.nbp.org/ic/nbp/support/volunteer.html

Braille Menus Add to the Romance

I love food. Seriously—I’ll try most anything once, and checking out the hot, new place in town is one of my favorite ways to spend an evening. candle lit romantic table setting In this world of Twitter, Facebook and Yelp, I get the chance to do this—perhaps more often than I should.

As the server pours us water, he asks, “Can I start you off with some appetizers, or would you like some more time?” Here comes the moment of truth: “Do you have a braille menu?,” I ask, my fingers are crossed under the table… patron with guide dog talking with serverUm…No, I’m sorry, I don’t think we do, but let me double-check with the manager.”

I smile and thank him, but my date and I are pulling out our iPhones to try to Google the menu. Maybe we’ll get lucky and there’s a clean, screen-reader-friendly version available. Still, having our respective phones held up to our ears is not the fun, romantic date I was envisioning.

This time, we find an up-to-date menu on the website. I breathe a sigh of relief. This isn’t always the case, however. Sometimes, restaurants will post images of the menu, or their online menu is from last year. Of course, most servers are friendly and willing to read the menu aloud, but that’s not exactly efficient at restaurants with huge selections, or on a busy Saturday evening, or when there’s live music—all of which are the signs of a successful restaurant I definitely want to try.

Sitting at a restaurant and being offered a braille menu is exciting, and it doesn’t happen nearly enough. Sign that says Braille and Picture Menus AvailableI dream of a day when I can go to any eating establishment and browse the menu at my leisure, debating the merits of each individual item. Looking at a menu is part of the whole experience—an enjoyable precursor to the deliciousness to come.


Learn about custom braille services from National Braille Press, including restaurant menus, business cards, manuals, and textbooks.

Why I Love UEB: As a Braille Producer and Reader

By Steve Booth

For several decades, the discussion about changing the braille code to Unified English Braille (UEB) has sparked passionate feelings. This code, named for its inventor Louis Braille, has been around for over 200 years and has served the blindness community well. January 2016 is the date that the Braille Authority of North America (BANA) has determined, after much consideration, to be the adoption date of UEB in the United States and feelings continue to be mixed. Anticipation, trepidation, and many, many questions still surround UEB.

Recently, NBP Publisher, Diane Croft, spoke with Steve Booth, a former NBP employee and current Braille Specialist at the National Federation of the Blind. When he proclaimed to “love UEB” we knew we needed him to post his thoughts on our blog.

Here is Steve’s take on UEB:

I admit I had my doubts about changing even one dot of a code that has worked so well since 1824.Steve Booth standing next to copy machine at his office

Today I’m ready to concede that those who took a leadership role back in 1991 toward what is now the Unified English Braille Code (UEB) were true visionaries.

They started with the premise that any system can be improved. It’s hubris to think otherwise. They then dove into the mechanics of what exactly should be improved and what could be left alone. They did this with several audiences in mind: the braille reader, the producer, the transcriber, and the braille teacher.

They were also looking at a code that, although it worked remarkably well with computer technology, still required human intervention to fix those parts that didn’t work. I know first-hand about those fixes! Formerly I worked as an assistant production manager at National Braille Press and now work in the Braille Certification Program of the Library of Congress, administered by the National Federation of the Blind. UEB has made my life far simpler . . . but I’m jumping ahead of myself.

The primary goal, according to the records of 1991, was to “make the acquisition of reading/writing/teaching braille easier and more efficient . . . [to] help reverse the trend of steadily eroding usage of braille itself.” Given the abysmal rate of 9.5% of blind school-age children who list braille as their primary reading mode, this makes good sense.

All told, UEB eliminates nine contractions that were found to be the most ambiguous: by, into, to, ble, com, dd, ation, ally, and the o’clock contraction. Each of these could represent something other than themselves, depending on their placement in a word.

UEB is also closer to its print equivalent, for example, braille will no longer join the contractions “of, and, for, the, with” in sequence without spaces. And the period. There is now only one dot formation for a period, instead of four different ways to represent it. Just as there are opening and closing parentheses in print, the same is true for braille. Word division is no longer recommended: “It is no longer preferable for words to be hyphenated.” When was the last time you used a dictionary to divide words between lines? I never did until I worked in the field. We have spent way too much time teaching word division to potential transcribers.

The list of improvements goes on, too many to elaborate on in a blog post. As a braille reader since the early 1960s, I have quickly adjusted to UEB. Anyone interested in acquiring some UEB skills while reading good material should subscribe to Syndicated Columnists Weekly, Syndicated Columnists Weekly covera short weekly from National Braille Press. I’ve been reading it for decades. NBP started producing it in UEB at the beginning of the year and I was able to adjust to new UEB symbols in the context of the material. NBP also offers a free UEB Briefs Symbols list if you ask for it (orders@nbp.org).

As a braille producer, my life is far easier. I no longer need to search for hyphens and dashes (to eliminate spaces around them) because braille now follows print rules. I can more accurately translate documents from braille to print with better results. Without word division, braille production is faster, plus the code offers more flexibility in handling the large variety of print styles now in use.

All in all, I’m completely in favor of these changes for a host of reasons that I would not have understood had I not been a braille producer, trainer, and reader. And did I mention, America has now joined six other English-speaking nations in its adoption of UEB, which means we all share the same code. I think Louis would have been pleased about that. His code was meant to be useful, above all.

Have Cane, Will Travel: Adventures of a Former Guide Dog User

In the past few weeks, after being a guide dog user for many years, I’ve learned some things about walking with a cane on a regular basis. White cane user with guide dog looking on in the backgroundOne of the most frustrating things I’ve learned is that, very often, one cannot walk five steps without some form of unsolicited advice from a stranger.
Things like, “There are some stairs coming up.” (Thanks, but I’m actually well acquainted with said stairs, as I walk this way every day.)

Some advice, along with being unnecessary, is not at all helpful. The ever popular “Watch out!” comes to mind. This one is just so nonspecific that I’m never sure whether I should let my cane find an upcoming pole or tree and go about my business as usual, Charging brown bearor wave my arms and yell as loudly as I can in order to hopefully frighten off the charging bear–you know, like Cheryl Strayed on the Pacific Crest Trail in the movie, Wild. Something like that. So either I ignore the well-intentioned “Watch out!” or it might just give me a heart attack.

Then there are the compliments. “You’re doing really well!” “You’ve got it, you’ve got it!” I’m never really sure how to take these comments. I’m tempted to say something like, “Thank you, I’ve been working on it for 32 years now, and I think I’m finally getting the hang of this walking thing.” But I don’t because I know most people are just trying to be helpful.

There are so many things to keep in mind when I’m out walking. I realize that much of what it means to be blind and to walk with a cane is so foreign to the experience of people who can see. Actually making contact with things like poles, trees, or trash cans BEFORE walking around them … that’s not something a sighted person will intuitively understand, so it’s probably a little disconcerting to see. Actually exploring an area, small detail by small detail, in order to get a good picture in your mind of how it all fits together is not a concept easily identified with by most people out on the street.

I would love to be able to stop and explain to well-intentioned strangers what I’m doing at any given time, but sometimes I just want to get where I’m going like everyone else. It’s hard when I’m having a bad day, or when the person I’m trying so hard not to snap at has grabbed me or my cane. It’s challenging when said person is actually the fifth one to grab me that day in an effort to be helpful. And still, even with all that, I am loving this new journey. Some days, if nothing else, these well-intentioned strangers do give me a good laugh. Life is good indeed!

Intoxicated by Braille

I get my braille magazines from a deafblind friend who passes them on to me when she’s done reading them. Syndicated Columnists Weekly coverThen I read them while driving to work, eyes on the road, left hand on the wheel, right hand deep in Syndicated Columnists Weekly.
I’m sighted (you’re thinking: I hope so, if you drive a car!) and I think I may be the only person on the face of the planet who reads braille while driving 70 mph down the highway. Please don’t misunderstand me–I am not promoting distracted driving. I am simply stating a fact: I like to read braille while driving, which is no more dangerous than driving while listening to books on tape, or eating a pastrami sandwich on rye, or keeping time with my thumb on my knee to an old-fashioned song in my head, eyes on the road, EYES ON THE ROAD.

I’ve been intoxicated by braille ever since first learning to read it (visually) about 30 years ago when I worked as a transcriber at National Braille Press. Hands on brailleAround that same time, I took a sign language class across the street at Northeastern University, where I fell in love with the teacher, who was deaf, and whom I later married. I also thereby became rather fluent in sign language, and eventually left NBP to pursue a career as an interpreter. But I never lost touch with braille. And eventually I learned to read it tactilely. This is how I did it:

I was sitting in the proverbial traffic jam from hell one day, going absolutely nowhere on my way to work, when I reached over to the passenger seat where there happened to be a braille letter from a deafblind friend I’d met the previous summer at an AADB (American Association of the DeafBlind) convention. With nothing better to do, I tried reading it with my finger. I had no problem with “Dear Paul,” but it took me the rest of my commute (about an hour) to make out the first two sentences. Concentrating on that braille letter in my lap, shifting it to my stomach, my chest, trying to read it with my finger, my eyes never leaving the road, made the time go by. And it was something to DO. And so, on the drive home, I continued reading. And the next day and the next. And lo, my habit of reading braille in the car was born!

If you do anything for two hours a day (an hour in, and an hour out) five days a week, for several years, you will get better at it. Which is exactly what happened. I can now read braille quite proficiently with my right index finger. And I enjoy doing it! I like the physicality of reading tactilely. Am I using neurons and synapses that I wouldn’t otherwise be using? I don’t know, and I don’t really care about the science of it; what interests me more is, for lack of a better word, the poetry of braille. For example, a long time ago at NBP, my friend Gil Busch told me the word “ice” in braille always reminded him of a little hill: the upward climbing i, the crest of the c, the downward sloping e. I never forgot that, and I always think of it when I come across that word in my reading. And my friend John Lee Clark has said, Andy is a square; Sandy is a square with a ponytail. Such are the little reading pleasures that are peculiar to braille. All those words within words. And those lower-cell contractions (BY, TO, INTO) that, before UEB, would attach to the subsequent character, kind of like a barnacle, or a burr, or a baby sloth. And the tactile alliteration of a string of dot 5 contractions all in a row: “Lord knows, some young mothers work right here throughout the day.” Or encountering the occasional sentence or phrase made up entirely of whole-word contractions: “You can do as you like but it’s just that people like us will not go.” Call me weird, but I get a kick out of these sorts of things when I encounter them in my reading.

I enjoy reading braille in bed at night when my wife would rather go to sleep. No problem, honey, I’ll read with the lights out. I enjoy reading braille in a dark movie theater during those interminable previews, and even during the movie itself if it turns out the movie stinks. I read braille in line at the bank, in line at the grocery store, while waiting for the train, while riding on the train, and even while walking from the train (walking and reading is easy as walking and talking!). But most of all I enjoy (see above) reading braille while driving–driving while intoxicated by braille! I think I hear some of you object: But it must be illegal! Let me reassure you, our esteemed lawmakers and constabularies can’t even conceive of it. No one can imagine it–no one except you, that is. So it’s our little secret. Okay?