The Freedom of Independent Voting

I will always remember my first time voting; it was November 4, 2008, and I was finally old enough to vote! My best friend, Michelle, and I drove to our polling place. I had heard that there were machines that made it possible for a blind person to vote independently, so I asked the poll worker if I could use one. Her response was polite but disappointing: The machine was not working, and could my friend help me out?

Braille ballot from Rhode Island

Now that I’m older and somewhat wiser, I know that federal law requires that there be one working accessible voting machine at every polling place. I know that I could and should have asked for someone to try to get the machine to work. Failing that, I should have filed a complaint with my state’s board of elections. But I didn’t know any of this then, and luckily I trusted Michelle. We filled out our ballots, and off to class I went, proudly displaying my “I Voted” sticker for the world to see.

"I Voted" buttonMy first experience voting independently did not happen until 2014. In the intervening years, I could not go to my polling place, and had to fill out an absentee ballot. It is impossible to put into words exactly how free I felt when I voted independently for the first time. 2014 was a completely different experience. I didn’t even have to ask for the accessible voting machine! The machine was set up, and I was left to my own devices, just like anyone else. No one else touched my ballot, and no one else could even see what I was doing as it is possible to black out the screen of the accessible voting machine. Total privacy and independence, exactly what voting should be!

It boggles my mind that before the Help America Vote Act in 2002, not voting independently was the norm for disabled Americans. I’ve heard stories of blind people having to go into the voting booth with three different people: one from each party and a third person to fill out the ballot. While we’ve come a long way from then, there is still work to do.

While accessible voting machines are required at polling locations, most states don’t have provisions for absentee voting. Absentee voting also needs to be accessible, and everyone—poll workers and citizens with disabilities—need to be aware of the right for everyone to vote independently. As this monumental election year progresses, it is imperative that we get out there and vote. Voting is a right we sometimes take for granted, but it is one that many have fought for, and it is the best way we have to create change.

Nallym Bravo works at National Braille Press (NBP) as a braille proofreader. NBP has produced braille voting materials for several states and hopes that more states provide accessible voting materials in the future.

Twins In Poetry and In Braille

By Daniel Simpson
A little over a year ago, a box from my publisher, Poets Wear Prada, containing twenty complimentary copies of my new book of poems, School for the Blind, landed on my front porch. I tore it open; rushing toward a moment I had long anticipated—that moment when, for the first time, I would hold my own book. I caressed its smooth cover, traced its binding, sniffed the paper, and turned a few pages. “Mine,” I thought. “I wrote this. I have officially joined the ranks of authors with a book.” People wrote thoughtful, even glowing, reviews. People bought the book, either directly from me at readings and conferences, or online through Amazon. It was all quite thrilling.

Book Covers of School for the Blind and The Way Love Comes to MeAt about the same time, MutualMuse Press came out with my identical twin brother Dave’s poetry collection entitled The Way Love Comes to Me. When I received my copy, I went through a similar routine of touching and sniffing. I could even make out the general shape of his poems through the slightly embossed print. It, too, got a warm welcome into this world, garnering great reviews, generating a nice volume of sales, and spawning some memorable readings. (In fact, after Dave’s reading from The Way Love Comes to Me at New York University, poet Stephen Kuusisto wrote, “I believe he gave the finest reading I’ve ever heard.”)

Still, one thing separated our experience as authors from that of our sighted counterparts: We couldn’t actually read directly from our own books. I could only extrapolate what it must be like by reading from a loose-leaf binder of pages I had brailled myself, or by copying an electronic version of the final manuscript into my notetaker.

simpson-brothers

Dan Simpson with this twin brother, Dave, at the age of three.

Suddenly, that all changed. Diane Croft read our books and decided they ought to be in braille. To make all of this even sweeter, National Braille Press decided to bind our two books into one braille volume. Here we were, twins in braille, with my book coming just before Dave’s, in accordance with our birth order.

All of this took on even greater poignancy and significance with Dave’s death from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) on December 1, 2015. He never actually got to hold our books in braille, but he knew they were on the way, and it pleased him immensely.

It’s difficult to articulate just how happy having my own book in braille from National Braille Press makes me, but the biggest gift of all is having the essence of my brother’s heart and mind, enshrined in his work, available to me, nestled right next to my own book, bound together in one braille volume which I can pull from the shelf and read any time I like.

Note: The braille edition of Dan and David’s collections (School for the Blind and The Way Love Comes to Me) are available from National Braille Press for $10. Print editions can be purchased through Amazon.

How a Tactile Map is Created

Tactile maps are used to guide visually impaired and blind users in new surroundings like airports, museums, and even cities. Tactile maps use raised points, lines, and textures to represent objects, identify rooms, and denote accessible areas. Creating tactile maps at National Braille Press is a labor-intensive process that requires a keen eye for detail and a steady hand.

A print map and final tactile map design

A print map and final tactile map design

Step 1: Transcription

The design of a tactile map starts with a transcriber. Our tactile graphic artist and transcriber, Colleen Rosenberg, explains how the process works:

Whitney:  What are your first steps when making a tactile map?

Colleen:  When I get a floor plan, I say: What is this for? It’s helpful to know if it’s for orientation and mobility or a student using it in college. Is it for someone who is going to be working at a specific location? Everything needs to be exact. That’s really the most important part.

art supplies

Different art supplies are used to create the tactile map’s raised designs

Whitney:  Tell me more about the art of collage.

Colleen:  You can do a lot of things with collage. Collage is building things up with textures. I use sand paper, dots, string or other materials depending on the map. I then glue a specific texture on to create a raised drawing that can be built higher or lower to differentiate a specific area.
Photo caption: Different art supplies are used to create the tactile map’s raised designs.

Step 2: Proofreading

Once the initial design for a tactile map is created, a blind proofreader ensures it is accessible. Nallym Bravo, who regularly proofreads tactile graphics, explains:

Whitney:  What is the most important part of the proofreading step?

Nallym:  It’s really important that it is accurate. A lot of tactile maps are crowded with all kinds of tactile sensations. It’s critical for the graphic to be accurate and delineated cleanly so the maps are efficient to use.

thermoform machine

A thermoform machine used to reproduce tactile graphics

Step 3: Reproduction

Once the tactile map is found to be accurate and easy to read, we prepare it for reproduction. Jorge Antunes, who works in our finishing department and operates the thermoform machine, explains how:

Photo caption: A thermoform machine used to reproduce tactile graphics.

Whitney:  How do you reprint the master collaged copy?

Jorge:  The tactile image is placed on a plate, which has a vacuum underneath. I place a thermoform sheet over the original collaged master copy. The machine is closed tightly to create a nice seal. Heat is applied from the top so the plastic will melt. Once this process happens, you have a reprint copy of the master. This creates the tactile graphic.

National Braille Press creates over 100,000 tactile graphics each year including graphics in textbooks, children’s picture books, and for organizations wishing to make their information more accessible to blind and visually impaired people. Recently, NBP created tactile maps for the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

The Total Restaurant Experience, Thanks to a Braille Menu

The weather is unseasonably warm for February as my coworker and I head to our destination; it’s a beautiful day and I’m happy for this short walk. We’re on our way to Life Alive Cafe, one of my favorite hipster restaurants. I’ve been there many times before to enjoy delicious meals and friendly service, but this time will be a little different.

As we open the door and ascend the few steps into the restaurant, we find just what I’d expected, a long line of hungry customers. You can’t call it the lunch rush; here at Life Alive, it’s the norm.

Winter reading braille menu with Life Alive employeesIf I was to describe this restaurant to you, I could tell you about the sounds (unintelligible conversations tangled up with one another over a background of music I can’t quite decipher, the whir of a smoothie machine) and the smells (delicious hints of ginger making my mouth water!). But I couldn’t tell you a thing about the look of the place. For that, I would have had to ask whoever was accompanying me.

The look of a restaurant isn’t the only thing I usually experience secondhand. The selection of food and drinks, the main reason I’m here, usually comes to me secondhand as well. Whether it’s a server standing at my table during a lull in business or a harried worker behind the counter trying to keep the line moving, I always feel pressure to hurry up and figure out what I want. I don’t usually let the menu reader get too far into it before saying, “Oh, that sounds delicious! I think I’ll have that.” There’s a desire on my part to get this over with quickly so as not to inconvenience anyone.

If I felt like having a salad for lunch, the exchange might go something like this:

Me: What sorts of salads do you have?

Server: Well, we have one called The Explorer … that has hummus, sesame

sticks, shredded beets and carrots, wasabi vinaigrette. That’s a popular

one. Let’s see … we also have …

Me: That one sounds good. I’ll have that.

Here is the description from the Life Alive menu:

The Explorer

An adventurous blend of our enticing high protein red lentil hummus with sesame stix, sun-dried tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet corn, a sprinkling of shredded beets & carrots, sun sprouts & spring greens. Our seductive Honey Wasabi Vinaigrette guides the way!

It’s easy to see the difference. While I may get the same basic information from both descriptions, the thought and creativity the restaurant put into the menu description is part of the overall experience they want you to have and that’s what I want, too. Now that Life Alive has a braille menu, I can!

 

How a Braille Software Company Was Born

By Anne Ronco

It was July 4, 1975, and I was doing what most kids do: eating hamburgers and swimming in a friend’s pool. In another room, Bob Gildea, Anne Simpson, and my father, Joe Sullivan were signing papers that would establish a new braille software company called Duxbury Systems.

My father had become infatuated with braille while working with Bob Gildea on a project at MITRE. He wanted to make braille easier to produce and he felt he could succeed.

Early news story photos of Duxbury Systems

Top: Reid Gerhart and Joe Sullivan examine a proof printout. Bottom: Vito Proscia, MIT, and Robert Gildea check the product of the Braille embosser

I think back to the enormous risk he took. With six children, he left a good-paying job to pursue an idea that had never been attempted. The start was rocky. Without a steady source of income, our family had to watch every penny. Even though a braille system cost tens of thousands of dollars back then, only one or two would be sold each year. I remember each customer had our home phone number, in case of problems. One Thanksgiving my father was on the phone for three hours with an overseas customer who was unaware that it was an American holiday. And dad traveled often, which left mom alone with six kids.

But my folks were resourceful. Right after the company was founded, we packed up a trailer and all of us headed off to the NFB and ACB conferences.

We camped in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama, and finally reached St. Tammany, Louisiana, outside of New Orleans where the first conference was held. 1970's camping pictureThe drinking water smelled of sulphur, it was 104 degrees and HUMID, tiny mosquitoes could fly right through the screen, and my brother, Peter, got a horrible case of poison sumac. Despite it all, we still remember those trips fondly.

As we got older, my siblings and I started to get interested in learning the business. I entered addresses into a database and learned how to generate a mass mailing. I think I was the only kid in high school who could use a word processor. Peter taught himself programming. Some of it was less useful. When we got our first talking terminal, Peter and I spent hours trying to trick it to say naughty words.

But the most important thing was that my father did succeed. Despite the odds, the company is thriving 40 years later. With the help of many others, the Duxbury Braille Translator now produces braille in more than 130 languages.

That isn’t the only success. My father has passed on his love of braille to us, his family, and to many thousands of others around the world. Nice going, Dad.

 

In loving memory of

Robert (Bob) Gildea

1924-2015