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.

 

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.