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

 

Customers Are Like Family

After 18 years in customer service, Joanne Sullivan will be leaving NBP at the end of 2015. We asked her to recap her most memorable moments on the job.

Joanne Sullivan stands behind NBP tableWhen I say I work in customer service at National Braille Press, people envision a bank of phones with reps waiting to handle orders. Actually, there’s just me and Jamie. After answering more than 10,000 calls, I can honestly say our customers have become like family. “Hi, Joanne, it’s me.” No need for introductions, “Hi, Jeffrey, what’s up?” I know the voice and I probably remember the order.

But people don’t just call to place an order; people call NBP when they’re looking for anything in braille. In the early days, I had a five-drawer filing cabinet filled with braille resources to share, but now I rely on the Internet. The most challenging calls are from parents who have just discovered their child is visually impaired. Emotions are heavy. We navigate this loss together and then we move on to more practical things: What is Braille? What resources can they access? What about education, parent groups, agencies and blindness organizations? I pass along as much information as they can handle for now. I tell them about the blind people I know who work at NBP, practice law, teach, parent, live full lives. The dream is not lost, but it has changed and it will take a different path to get there.

I’ve sent out more technology books than I care to remember, dating back to the early ‘80s. I’ve personally distributed over 8,000 braille literacy bags through the ReadBooks! program, umpteen children’s books, bazillions of Harry Potter books, and so many other exciting adventures in the publications department—from kids’ cookbooks to print/braille Valentines. But my fondest memories are the many conventions of the blind where I exhibited and sold braille publications.

Joanne and friend at ACB

Joanne (right) and friend hold up a NBP t-shirt at the 2014 ACB Convention

I love meeting some of the people I’ve chatted with throughout the year, adding depth to my initial over-the-phone impressions.

I am not able to put into words the feelings I have about the people I have worked with at NBP through the years, and it would take a few more blog posts to acknowledge each and every one. I am grateful to have shared my work life with them and will cherish many lifelong friends. But, I would be remiss if I did not recognize the person who hired me, Diane Croft.

I interviewed with Diane, and former president Bill Raeder, all those years ago and knew from the start that NBP would change my life. Diane and I did not stay within the traditional question-and-answer format of an interview. We connected on so many levels and our discussion that day was all over the place. We had to continually remind ourselves to get back to the facts. How often does that happen at a job interview? Diane took me out to lunch on my first day on the job. We were talking non-stop as we walked to our lunch destination and somehow ended up in a liquor store. “Hmmmm,” I thought to myself, this is NOT the impression I had of Diane. “What kind of lunch is this?” She saw my perplexed expression and started laughing. There was a deli at the back of the store. Whew!

I’m near the end of this blog and I can’t say good-bye. It’s too hard. So I’m ending this post by saying, let’s stay in touch. My email is: reallylowtide@yahoo.com or you can write me at 12 Florida Street, Marshfield, MA 02050. I will miss you all more than you know.

Plaque given to Joanne Sullivan

NBP presents a print/braille photo plaque to Joanne.

Presented to Joanne Sullivan

December 18, 2015

 With love & gratitude from the tens of thousands of blind children and adults whose wishes you fulfilled with the gift of literacy, and from our employees to whom you gave your heart for 18 years at National Braille Press.